New working group formed to develop master plan for campus housing

A new university working group is in the process of gathering student feedback, assessing campus facilities and analyzing the overall residential experience at Tufts in preparation for the creation of a housing master plan by the end of the semester.

The working group, comprised of Campus Planning, Facilities Services, the Office of Residential Life and Learning (ResLife), Student Affairs and the Office of the Provost, aims to examine students’ opinions about housing and evaluate the current state of the university’s facilities. Based on that information, the group hopes to provide suggestions for potential changes and assess the impact of these possible revisions, according to Space Management Planner Heidi Sokol.

“We don’t know what [the master plan is] really going to say at this point,” Sokol said. “[But] this master plan is really going to help us make informed decisions moving forward.”

Sokol said that a draft of the master plan will most likely be completed by May and presented to a separate but related body, the Residential Strategies Working Group (RSWG). The group, led by Provost David Harris, was initiated in the spring of 2015. Harris explained that the RSWG will examine the financial impact of changes and make a set of recommendations to University President Anthony Monaco in May.

The RSWG reported some early findings to the Board of Trustees during a February meeting, according to a Feb. 16 report from University President Anthony Monaco. However, Harris said that the RSWG will not release any recommendations to the general public this semester.

“Identifying recommendations is challenging due to the large number of constituencies involved, our strong commitment to the student experience and the significant budgetary impacts that accompany many proposals,” Harris told the Daily in an email.

Gathering student feedback

This week, the working group plans on releasing an online survey to gauge student opinion on the current state of residential living. The group hopes that this survey will reach a wider range of students than previous efforts have, according to Sokol. In the survey, students will be able to identify on a map parts of campus that they like, areas they frequently visit, areas that present problems and other details about residential life at Tufts.

“The focus is housing, but we want to understand how people are using other [spaces],” Sokol said. “The survey will seek to find out “if there are any ancillary spaces that make sense to be part of … the residential hub.”

Earlier this semester, the working group began working with Sasaki Associates, a planning and architecture firm, to study the housing system and its users, according to SokolBryan Irwin, a principal at Sasaki, explained that Sasaki’s engineering team recently finished reviewing the university’s housing stock, and are currently gathering information from students about how the residential experience can be improved.

“The basis for the study in many ways was coming out of an understanding that the residential life experience at Tufts is a fundamental part of what makes Tufts, Tufts,” Irwin said.

Sasaki Associates held two meetings on campus — one in January and one in February — during which they heard a wide range of comments and suggestions from students, Irwin said. During the sessions, students discussed their desires for more informal study spaces and offered other small-scale suggestions, while speaking about the importance of the first-year experience.

Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon explained that Tufts has collected anecdotal feedback from students on many occasions, but that the formal survey will provide a structured way to inform the university’s decisions.

“The broader survey should give us the opportunity to review aggregate student input in a more systematic way,” McMahon said.

Housing capacity

Harris said that the prospect of expanding the housing system is a major issue that the RSWG is examining. Sokol explained that no decisions have been made yet about how capacity will be expanded, but the master plan will look at the effects of building a new dorm and expanding or retrofitting existing dorms.

In particular, the upcoming survey will ask off-campus students why they decided not to live on campus and what their living situation is currently like, as well as examining whether they would choose to live on-campus if given the opportunity, Sokol said.

Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate Vice President Gauri Seth, who is a member of the RSWG, concluded that many upperclassmen live off-campus because of a lack of apartment-style housing on-campus.

“Building more dorms is definitely something that is on every single student’s mind,” Seth, a junior, said.

Last semester, the housing system was functionally at full capacity last semester with only 12 vacant beds on campus, according to a Sept. 30, 2015 Daily article. As a result, ResLife vetoed plans to house transfer students together, opting to place them in temporary, non-traditional assignments such as culture houses, the article reported.

According to ResLife Director Yolanda King, there are far more on-campus housing vacancies this semester, which has allowed ResLife to reassign transfer students if requested. King explained that it is normal for the number of vacancies to increase dramatically in the spring semester as students go abroad or graduate early, but that last semester was unusually full.

Currently, ResLife lists 66 vacant beds, all of which are in double rooms. However, 17 of those vacancies are in suite-style or apartment buildings, which King said are more difficult to assign people to in the middle of the year. Nonetheless, King anticipates that the housing system will reach full capacity once again next year. She said that ResLife will again attempt to house transfer students in one area, but that it may not be possible.

According to Harris, the RSWG is considering the feasibility of expanding housing capacity for the next academic year, but those changes would have to be minor due to time constraints.

First-year residential experience

Irwin said that first-year students’ residential experiences are of particular interest to Sasaki’s research. Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon said that depending on the ongoing studies, the university may decide to increase the portion of first-year students that live in buildings reserved exclusively for first-years. Currently, there are 720 beds in first-year-only dormitories, according to King.

“My understanding of student feedback right now is first years who live in first-year only spaces are generally glad they do, while many who live in mixed-year housing might actually prefer to be in first-year only spaces,” McMahon wrote in an email to the Daily.

Additionally, King explained that ResLife is considering whether first-year dorms should be adjacent to each other. However, McMahon said that any changes to first-year housing would likely not affect students above the Class of 2021.

TCU President Brian Tesser, who is a member of the RSWG, explained that students want ResLife to use an intentional approach for first-year housing because the residential system is important to building a community.

“One of the things that we’ve been really trying to stress is that it makes sense for first-years to live together,” Tesser, a senior, said. “When you put a first-year … in a dorm with no other first-years, a sense of community and kind of shared experience that you get in college is gone.”

Short-term changes

In tandem with the master plan’s long-term planning process, Sokol said short-term issues will inevitably also be identified. McMahon explained that focus groups have already identified immediate changes that can be made, such as improvements in signage and building access.

TCU Senate organized an ad-hoc committee last semester where four of its senators, who are members of the RSWG, collected housing feedback from students, according to TesserSeth said that the committee observed several recurring themes, including challenges of finding off-campus housing, disparities in dorm quality and the importance of first-year housing.

As a result, Tesser explained that the committee has been focused on four short-term goals: creating a housing survey for rising sophomores, offering more support for off-campus housing, reassessing first-year housing and reexamining the first-year housing survey.

“The RSWG has got some pretty lofty long-term goals,” Tesser said. “In conjunction with that … the goals for this semester [for the ad-hoc committee] are to look at what some of those recommendations are, and then get student feedback on them.”

King said that she has worked with TCU Senate on several of these projects. In particular, she said that they are considering creating a new position within ResLife to support off-campus housing. Seth added that they have already created a housing survey for rising sophomores.

Sasaki’s study and the overall master plan will address certain changes that can be made right away, as well as policy considerations such as students’ thoughts on the housing lottery, according to Irwin. The focus, however, will primarily be on long-term goals.

Tufts has made it very clear that they also want a 10-to-15 year capital plan,” Irwin said. “This study is very much also about setting a long-range strategic vision for housing at Tufts and a road map for accomplishing this vision.”


COPYRIGHT 2018 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.