The sound of silence: Universities need to facilitate places to focus

The university campus matters, which was demonstrated best – ironically – when the campus was closed during the coronavirus crisis. University communities missed both the silence and buzz that are important for academic activities and social needs. Alexandra den Heijer from Delft University of Technology looks at why combining the physical and virtual campus is a challenge for many universities.

Silence is the new scarcity, also on campus. In the past five years university libraries have been fuller than ever, with students and staff escaping the buzz of multiple academic obligations and private matters. During the coronavirus crisis, whole campuses went silent and were missed more than ever.

The campus workplace qualities that matter most are silence for focus, community for social needs, shared spaces for peer interaction and meaningful places for a sense of belonging. At home, we struggle to stick to the nine-to-five working day, with negative consequences for a healthy work-life balance. And during the coronavirus crisis only the happy few could find the much-needed silence at home, while most of us struggled with the simultaneous agendas, including video meetings, of those who share our limited private space.

So, what will a return to campus look like? As Covid-19 cases in Europe are decreasing and some universities are (planning to) reopen their campuses, questions are arising about solutions that both accommodate the “essential activities” and have relatively low health risks. What have we learnt from the 100% virtual university during the crisis? How do universities safely facilitate both silence and buzz on campus?

Long before the pandemic, many universities were already experimenting with different forms of hybrid environments, blended learning and on/off-campus activities - not only to achieve education and research goals, but also to be more resource efficient. Sustainable goals and budget cuts challenged the (often vacant) traditional, individual workplaces. Shared spaces became more popular to encourage interaction but compromised the need for silence and a lack of distractions. The off-campus workplace was often referred to as an alternative, which is certainly (more) resource efficient for the university. The coronavirus crisis augmented the advantages and disadvantages of working at home. With this new information, universities can make better decisions about the right mix of “solid” (traditional), “liquid” (shared) and “gas” (virtual, off-campus) spaces. This metaphor of physical matter turned out to be useful in speeches and discussions with campus managers of universities, hospitals and other public real estate.

Apart from the task to smartly combine the physical and virtual campus, managing the campus is an on-going challenge for all universities. University campuses often accommodate village-size communities, generate innovation, serve as living labs and have a substantial impact on the regional economy and demography. Universities are large property users and owners – often in iconic locations – and need to set an example for society. They have a responsibility to implement policies with effective and efficient use of financial resources and energy, resulting in meaningful, functional, affordable and sustainably built environments. Covid-19 has added even more uncertainty to this challenge, but also brings opportunities for (radical) change, like any crisis.

The campus is never on top of the university’s agenda, except when education and research, and the performance of students and staff, are negatively affected by the campus - or by a closed campus in times of crisis. Comparing campus strategies has always been interesting – but it is more interesting than ever before. How has the lack of physical contact influenced the productivity and wellbeing of students and staff? And what can universities do to support them even better? At TU Delft, we keep track of innovative solutions, the use of smart campus tools and the evaluations of campus users. Many universities across Europe are also making major efforts and strides in this area.

Universities that succeed in facilitating both silence and buzz and both digital and analogue activities, and do so while achieving their education, research, finance and sustainability goals, could serve as examples for many others. “Silence is golden”, but certainly not when it comes to sharing campus knowledge. This is an opportunity to learn from each other in our pursuit of an optimal balance.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Alexandra den Heijer

Alexandra den Heijer is full professor (chair Public Real Estate) at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). With her Campus Research Team, she has developed models, databases and theories that help universities to design and implement their campus strategies. Alexandra is the author of the forthcoming book “The campus of the future – managing a matter of solid, liquid and gas” (2020).


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