December 06, 2023

College of Distinguished Professors December Newsletter

The Post-Pandemic University: A DPACSA Session in Vancouver

Thomas Fisher
Secretary, DPACSA

The College of Distinguished Professors will host a session at the ACSA’s 112th Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC, from March 14-16, 2024. The session, entitled the Post-Pandemic University, will explore the short- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on architectural education, and higher education more broadly. Consisting of a conversation among our current and former leadership – Mahesh Daas, Marleen Davis, Marilys Nepomechie, and me – the session will look at how our discipline might help colleges and universities re-imagine themselves in a future in which hybrid courses, distance learning, and remote work may become the norm. It will also examine what the future of architecture might look like in an era in which almost every good and service can get delivered to one’s door or device.

Higher education has felt the impact of pandemics before. The cholera pandemic of the mid-19th century propelled the establishment of the state land-grant universities in order to train people in the “mechanical arts” like architecture and civil engineering, capable of providing clean water and sanitation in buildings and cities. And the flu pandemic in 1918 had a direct impact on the establishment of the American Association of Junior Colleges in 1920, whose member institutions offered a form of distance learning to students, who could study close to home and avoid living in dormitories where the virus had spread.

As that history shows, previous pandemics have accelerated trends already underway. The idea of the land-grant universities predated the cholera pandemic, as did the establishment of the first junior colleges prior to the flu pandemic. Those earlier pandemics also forced higher education to become more affordable and accessible, whether through the establishment of public universities or community colleges. At the upcoming ACSA annual meeting, we will consider how that history may play out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recent pandemic seems to have accelerated pre-pandemic trends, making once marginal activities now more the norm. Many colleges and universities, for instance, have begun to explore more affordable and accessible options for students for whom in-person or full-time attendance isn’t possible. And students and their families have begun to question the cost of higher education as institutions need to cover the costs of facilities that remain underused after the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted the very basis upon which North American architectural education emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the rise in demand for specialized building types. For the first time in human history, anyone with the digital means now has a choice about whether to interact with others in-person or remotely, and a choice about whether to physically seek out goods and services or have them delivered to one’s door or device.

This represents a profound challenge to those of us responsible for the built environment. Why go to a store or office or classroom when many people can shop, work, or learn from afar? How much space and what kind of space do we need now that over half of small businesses and, by some estimates, as much as 2/3rds of economic activity in North America now occurs, at least part of every week, in people’s homes? And who are our students and our faculty when people can log into lectures or participate in reviews from almost anywhere in the world? This session will explore such questions, and we hope you can join us in the conversation.