Understanding Campus "DNA"

 Opening plenary speaker, Sanford “Sandy” Shugart, president of Valencia College, kicked off the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) 47th annual conference with a history lesson. The culture of each American educational institution is formed by one or more of the several educational models that developed for various reasons over the course of the last several hundred years. Whether you consider your institution’s culture a benefit or just so much baggage, it cannot be ignored if the institution is to effectively negotiate the current environment of rapid change.

Institutions, like people, cannot be separated from their context, or from the realities of their past. Our charge (once we understand the historical context of our individual institution) is to identify the essential culture, what Dr. Shugart called “the DNA” of the institution. Only when our planning embraces this DNA can we affect positive change in an institution.

For many (perhaps most) educational institutions, the cultural DNA is visible in its physical being, its campus. Though it can’t be seen in every building, it’s there hiding just behind the walls. If we are willing to make the effort to tease it out, to look beyond the buildings and trees to understand what really makes a place a campus, then (and perhaps only then) should we feel confident as architects that we can change that campus for the better.