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Opinion

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.

By Justin D. Martin / October 25, 2011



Orono, Maine

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.

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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.

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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