Ted Weidner is president of Facility Asset Consulting, Amherst, Massachusetts, and can be reached at
tweidner@ charter.net. He is a member of APPA’s Center for Facilities Research Advisory Council.
APPA represents chief facilities officers, and their associates, primarily in areas that support practitioners. Those practitioners are responsible to provide a clean, comfortable learning environment for the leaders, learners, teachers, and researchers of tomorrow. APPA’s vision statement is “Becoming a Global Partner in Learning.” So one might ask, Why does APPA need to get involved in facilities research; isn’t that an academic issue? Don’t we just provide the place for academic research on facilities to occur? Who will use any APPA-related research if it is done?
These are valid comments but ones that do not fully grasp the meaning and importance of research into facilities. Research is the “investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws”, according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Everyday APPA members must face new realities that are rarely solved by the repetition of a fixed set of actions. There are always new challenges, new opportunities, and varying conditions which keep the job interesting and challenging.
On a regular basis, APPA members get together either at a national, regional, or state meeting, at APPA-sponsored Institutes and continuing education presentations, and even on the Internet through the APPAinfo e-mail discussion list. They share problems and solutions and explore new ideas to meet the challenges that face us every day. But there are some issues that require more in depth study or analysis; investigation or experimentation, new or revised theories, interpretation of facts, discovery! That’s where the Center for Facilities Research (CFaR), APPA’s new research arm, should help.
There’s no doubt that I am biased. I have an internal desire to learn more and believe that everyone has the opportunity to learn something new every day. We learn from our own mistakes and from the mistakes of others; we’re constantly learning. So CFaR is a natural. But others may not agree. That’s okay, but let’s look at some of the things that have happened previously that have only scratched the surface of what I believe APPA members need.
In 1984, ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers, published a proceeding titled “Research Needs Related to the Nation’s Infrastructure.” It focused on roads, bridges, utilities, and briefly addressed buildings; it recognized the nation’s infrastructure was worth $2 trillion to $3 trillion at the time and that “the problems facing the nation’s infrastructure are real and will continue … for many years to come.” There were some infrastructure improvements in the 1980s including early development of the Internet. Experience, sometimes
unpleasant, taught engineers about the challenges of maintaining and inspecting the road infrastructure. Remember the bridge failures at Mianus River (I-95), Schoharie River (I-90), Sunshine (St. Petersburg), and, more recently, Oklahoma (I-40)? They made good press for civil engineers and much was learned, but we still haven’t identified all the weaknesses in road infrastructure.
APPA got into the act in 1989, and, with NACUBO, published The Decaying American Campus: A Ticking Time Bomb. It came at a time when public funds were getting stretched but some states were able to identify funds for public institutions specifically focused on reducing deferred maintenance problems. This was followed by APPA’s publication of A Foundation to Uphold in 1996. Again, there were some successes noted at some institutions, but Foundation demonstrated that the first message had not been heard well. In 1999, Rod Rose wrote Charting a New Course for Campus Renewal, which documented discussions at a deferred maintenance symposium sponsored by the University of New Mexico. Recommendations for short- and long-range strategies, policies, and collaborative efforts emerged.
Acting again to bring the nation’s attention to general infrastructure concerns, ASCE created its “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” in 1998 and assigned a grade of ‘D’ to schools, primarily public K-12, and reevaluated grades in 2001 with ‘D–’; this was the only grade that ASCE assigned that got worse in the intervening years; grades for roads, bridges, transit, water, and energy all improved if only slightly. In general, ASCE has documented public infrastructure as is scoring between a C– and a D; not the kind of grades anyone would be proud of. But as facility officers for education facilities we should be particularly embarrassed by the ever worsening condition of our campuses.
With due respect to the authors/creators of the previous references, they haven’t had long-lasting success at convincing either trustees, legislatures, or other financial leaders that educational facilities (or other public infrastructures) are in poor shape. The issues are cyclic; we seem to go from crisis to crisis. One thing is certain, when we ignore the foundation of what made our nation and economy great “we eat our seed corn;” and things don’t bode well for the future.
So what do we do? Do we give up and just let things happen? No, that’s a mistake. Do we find ways to deal with the financial reality and find ways to do with less? Maybe, but I haven’t seen many taxpayers indicate that their children should be receiving less education or support services at school. Do we develop more and better documentation on the physical conditions of educational facilities and the effect on the resultant effectiveness of learning? Yes, most emphatically.
No issue is completely addressed by a single argument. Multiple approaches are necessary in order to convince a broad enough group of people. There may be successes; individual colleges and universities may undertake the elimination of poor physical conditions. Individual states, North Carolina is one example, may commit to a significant investment in the higher education physical infrastructure.
But with over 3,500 institutions nationwide, there’s a lot to do. APPA wants to be part of the solution by providing its members with the tools to make winning arguments. I believe APPA’s members want to have additional tools to convey the message about facilities, both good and bad.
CFaR can provide members, and others, with the added benefit of useful, in-depth studies inspired by practitioners for researchers and graduate students to study the important areas; to identify the potential linkages that will assist in making the winning argument. CFaR can provide researchers with another outlet for their scholarly endeavors. CFaR is a method for APPA members to help themselves and their colleagues to find solutions and a convincing rationale. In its higher levels, CFaR can provide facility officers with real, documented evidence that the cost of maintenance is cheaper than the cost of neglect.
CFaR will give APPA members of all levels and backgrounds the opportunity to study and publish useful information that will help the industry and society in the long run. I believe that we must focus on the long run if we are to convince others that long-term investment in the educational infrastructure, and other public infrastructure, is not just worth keeping but worth preserving and maintaining. If it doesn’t, then we’ll get a new approach to facilities stewardship and learn how to do our jobs better, and differently. But isn’t that what APPA is all about anyway? So I urge everyone, APPA member or not, to take advantage of CFaR as a contributor, supporter, or consumer, and help us become a global partner in learning.