Just after I took up my post as President of DCU, I invited an old friend to visit me there. I collected him from the airport one evening and drove him back to the university. We approached the campus along Collins Avenue (for those who know Dublin and DCU); it was 9 pm in the autumn, and it was dark. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘this looks like an oil refinery’. And maybe it did, a little. At the time we were building several new buildings along the road, and the scaffolding and cranes were lit up, and it did indeed look very industrial.
Some eight years later it is no longer like that. The buildings (or at least those under construction at the time) have long been completed, and the campus is, even if I say it myself, rather attractive – for a modern university. It has been carefully planned, and the clusters of buildings in DCU are laid out in such a way as to provide good interaction between the occupants, and also so as to leave some open spaces to avoid the campus seeming claustrophobic and so as to give some room to the human spirit. The campus is clean (mostly), and there are flower beds and other decorative features. I am very proud of DCU.
But as I visit universities both in Ireland and overseas, I am often struck by the rather poor quality of the visible infrastructure. Often I will find an old university with magnificent old buildings that have clearly been neglected, with new buildings pushed in next to them with little regard for the resulting aesthetics. New buildings are often badly maintained and show signs of ageing even before the snagging list has been attended to. And all too often I find a campus that seems to show no sense of the human dimension of what we do.
Why are we so bad at this? Some of the old universities worldwide often have inherited beautiful and grand buildings, occupying a campus that in modern times has clearly not been designed to be sympathetic to this heritage. Newer universities are often struggling with not-fit-for-purpose buildings constructed during the dark ages of design (from the middle of the 20th century until recently). And time and again I find myself looking round a campus that has clearly not benefited from a master plan of any value.
Of course there are also wonderful campuses, that have been well designed and planned and whose buildings and amenities clearly support the professional work being carried out there. And where this has succeeded it is not always just because there has been lots of money to spend – I have seen some universities which have clearly been able to make the most of modest resources.
Our physical environment is a crucial aspect in our ability to find fulfilment in our work. We need to be both comforted and stimulated by it – and certainly not depressed or overwhelmed. We need to get good not just at designing individual buildings, but also at ensuring that the campus as a whole reflected and supports our values. This should be one of the most important tasks for any university management team.