For more innovation at colleges, push faculty to live near campus

Like coral reefs, universities function at their highest capacity when there are many organisms milling about and exchanging information in close proximity. Colleges should build incentives for professors to live on or close to the campus reef.

Research shows that innovation and high productivity are most likely when thinkers interact in close physical spaces, swap information, and collaborate. This is why, even in our age of mobile screens, organizations spend billions of dollars each year promoting physical conferences in London, Phoenix, or elsewhere. It is why even digitally pioneering companies such as Apple and Google have literal “campuses,” on which employees coexist in innovation ecosystems. It is why, in an age in which online education is increasing, old-school, in-person classes are not only relevant but ideal.

I’ve wondered, then, if it would be a financially sound move for universities to pay professors a bonus for living close to campus, or even on campus where possible. Faculty members who live near campus are likely to spend more time in their offices and elsewhere on site, and to have spontaneous conversations with colleagues and students. They contribute more to the learning community. Colleges and universities encourage, and some even force, students to live on campus during freshman and sophomore years or beyond for this same reason. Many universities also provide housing for their presidents or chancellors on school grounds or nearby.

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At the University of Maine, where I teach, many faculty members seem to spend less time on campus than at some other universities. This is probably due in part to the state’s glorious surplus of outdoor activities as well as the fact that the university’s town, Orono, hosts more expensive property yet fewer people and cultural activities than the city of Bangor, which is around 10 miles away. Partly due to these attractions, The Princeton Review ranks the University of Maine 15th in “Least Accessible Professors.”

The University of Maine is by no means the only university with difficult-to-snag professors. Academics in general use much of their professional freedom to work away from the office. Every university I’ve ever visited on a Friday is like many a dentist’s office; no one’s around and the doc ain’t in.

What if an institution in the University of Maine’s position paid a housing allowance of, say, $100 a month to faculty who choose to live within three miles of the campus? Would this investment be worth it? If it led faculty members to work a few hours more a month on campus and have several more spontaneous conversations with students and colleagues, the policy may be worth the cost.

Additionally, professionals who live a mile or two from work are more likely to walk or bike to campus, burning calories, possibly lowering numbers of sick days, and reducing carbon emissions. (Disclosure: I live less than a mile from the University of Maine, so I stand to benefit from a policy that rewards proximity to campus, but I’ll go on the record that I would donate my first year’s stipend to the university’s general scholarship fund.)

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Better yet, more US campuses could build on-site housing units, marginally subsidize utility costs, and rent them to professors, just as they do to keep students close by. Pepperdine University provides on-campus housing for professors, and its website argues that “[t]he mission of the university is enhanced when a significant number of its students, faculty, and staff are able to live in proximity to one another.”

Like cities and coral reefs, universities function at their highest capacity when there are many organisms milling about and exchanging information in close proximity. Steven Johnson wrote in the book “Where Good Ideas Come From” that, “you can create comparable environments [to coral reefs] on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simple.” Universities function most like generative ecosystems when students and faculty are attracted to the reef.

I taught for two years at The American University in Cairo, which has a magnificent campus in a growing area known as New Cairo. But the facility is a good hour from the heart of the city. Most faculty members and students live at least 45 minutes away. Professors’ hours are truncated, most students come to campus only on days they have class, and the institution is an intellectual ecosystem only in fits and starts.

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“Ideas rise in crowds…. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas – whether those environments are in schools or corporations or governments or our own personal lives – we need to keep that history in mind.”

The fact that living near one’s work is a good thing is not revelatory, of course. It’s just common sense. The question is whether universities can identify incentives that keep professors closer to the campus coral and that generate a compelling return. Eduardo Porter wrote in his book “The Price of Everything” that “[m]oving people requires a price.” So does innovation.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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