Managing Growth

Michael Coakley has the responsibility for the third largest university housing program in the United States, at the four campuses of Arizona State University in metropolitan Phoenix. SHB recently spoke to Coakley about his experience, goals and challenges.
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Michael Coakley

Michael Coakley has the responsibility for the third largest university housing program in the United States, at the four campuses of Arizona State University in metropolitan Phoenix. Coakley’s experience spans three decades in the industry and in that time, he’s done everything from contracts to renovations to public-private partnerships. As associate vice president and executive director of housing at ASU, Coakley also has responsibility for dining and learning support services at the university, which has ambitious goals to grow its enrollment over the next 10 years. SHB recently spoke to Coakley about his experience, goals and challenges.

SHB: How did you get into the student housing business?
Coakley: In my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I got involved in a leadership position at my freshman residence hall, ultimately becoming the president of the residence hall association. I worked for the housing department during my last two years of college. Because of some of the mentors and supervisors I had, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in college student personnel administration. I did my master’s work at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. After I finished my graduate degree, I went back to the University of Illinois as a residence hall director. I then went to Western Michigan University as an area coordinator. While I was there, I had the opportunity to move up to the assistant director for residential life. I then went to Wright State University as the director of housing. I was there for 11 years, and then went to Northern Illinois University as executive director of housing, and later was promoted to assistant vice president. I left there three years ago to come here, to Arizona State University. I was first hired as the executive director of residential life for the Tempe campus, and later I was promoted to associate vice president with responsibility for housing operations on all four of our campuses, as well as dining, the union, and learning support services.

SHB: What lessons have you picked up along the way that you’ve applied to different schools?
Coakley: I learned different things at each college. At Western Michigan University, I learned how to be an effective supervisor and how to collaborate with colleagues and other areas of the university to achieve mutual goals. When I was at Wright State, I learned budgeting. I didn’t have a lot of experience before that. I had managed small operating budgets, but at Wright State, I had to put my own budgets together that went to the board of trustees for approval. It was also there that I had the opportunity to be one of the first schools in the country to work with a private developer in building student housing. I was involved with the design of the facilities as well as the business plan for the facilities. We built nine residence halls and seven apartment complexes, all in a public-private partnerships. I also had the opportunity to be the contract administrator for the residential dining program. It was a different partnership. We were with Marriott there. That was good exposure for me to the auxiliary services world. When I went to Northern Illinois University, I had the opportunity to renovate four high-rise residence halls. Renovation is completely different animal than new construction. I was also responsible for a self-operating dining program there. It taught me how intertwined housing and dining is to the student experience. Students don’t separate the two things, so neither should institutions. If you have a well run housing program, but the dining program is underperfoming, it is going to reflect on the housing program and vice-versa.

SHB: Is that what caught ASU’s eye?
Coakley: ASU has the largest dining program in the country and the third largest housing program in the country. To accomplish that, we have multiple partners. We work with Campus Living Villages, Capstone, American Campus Communities and we have several non-profit LLCs that were formed to issue bonds for the buildings. It is a unique blend of relationships that need to be managed. I had experience with overseeing multiple dining operations and housing development projects. Because of the unique multiple partnerships ASU has to provide housing and dining, they needed someone with this type of experience.

SHB: ASU has been lauded for its student housing. There is such a mix of offerings and ways that the university has gone about creating it. Why did the university choose to create housing that was different?
Coakley: The institution chose to go that route because the way the state provides funding for university facilities. The institution has to issue its own bonds for academic and research facilities. ASU does not want to tie up our bond capacity with student housing. The growth trajectory we are on is incredible. We are looking to have 100,000 students by 2020. We want to be able to house 25 percent of the student population. That’s where we have a critical mass that creates a vibrant campus life. We have a little more than 13,000 beds right now. The way we get to that end goal is working with partners to help us achieve that goal.

SHB: How have you helped change the landscape of student housing at ASU in the last three years?
Coakley: The deal with American Campus Communities at the Tempe campus had already been crafted when I arrived. Of the first two components, one was designed by the time I got here. The first project they built was Vista del Sol, which was for upperclassmen. I worked closely with them to market that to our current campus population to get them to migrate there, so we could free up space in our existing halls for the incoming freshman class. I was involved for the most part in crafting some of the agreements for their second component, which was Barrett Honors College. That has 1,700 bed spaces, also 11 classrooms, faculty offices, the administrative dean’s office for the honors college, as well as a remarkable dining hall. The honors program realized that the dining program would be the heart and soul of the community. It is where faculty, staff and students come together for intellectual discourse as well as food. We had to work with ACC as well as Aramark, who is our dining partner, to create a shared vision of what that space could and should be. We’re in negotiations for ACC’s third component with us, which is on the north part of the Tempe campus. Now, we are also looking to expand the housing at our Polytechnic campus and the West campus. In 2009, we put out an RFP to find a developer to work with us on both campuses. Inland America was awarded the RFP for the Polytechnic campus while ACC was awarded the one for the West campus. We are going to fast-track those developments so we can open at least 300 beds on each campus by fall 2011.

SHB: What does ASU look for in a private partner?
Coakley: We look for partners who understand student housing and what it can and should be from an institutional perspective. Our partners need to understand that university housing projects are not the same as off-campus properties or multifamily housing projects. The partnership has to be much more in tune with the unique needs of each campus environment and designing and building a project with student academic success in mind. We want to hear a developer be able to articulate that, as well has ensure that they have the capital that’s needed to help achieve the goal.

SHB: What are some of the challenges that ASU’s student housing is facing today?
Coakley: ASU has experienced tremendous growth and that is projected to continue, student housing needs to grow with that. Beyond just beds and residential facilities, we need to create supportive living communities. We do that through our First Year Residential Experience (FYRE) and residential colleges, where students can live and learn with other students in their academic major. We also face a similar challenge to most institutions — existing infrastructure needs and a commitment to sustainability in our operations.

SHB: How have you done things differently there?
Coakley: A lot of it has to do with the creativity of the architects that we’ve worked with. Taylor Place, which we developed with Capstone, is one of the projects that’s constantly pointed out as being different. It was part of a larger vision to revitalize downtown Phoenix. The design fits perfectly with what’s going on around it. It is very vertical and contemporary. Having architects like the Smith Group ­— who were local and who worked on other projects in downtown Phoenix — really brought that design to reflect the larger aesthetic of downtown. That kind of facility probably wouldn’t have fit well on the Tempe campus. We have to look at the vibe on each of the campuses. At the Polytechnic campus, as we look at how we are going to grow there, the big focus is engineering, technology and innovation. A couple of the new academic buildings have set an aesthetic for that campus that will be incorporated into the design for housing. It is going to be low-rise and have a lot of metal and local materials. It will probably be solar powered as much as possible. Our West campus has the vibe of a liberal arts college. The halls there are going to reflect the stately and traditional values you’d find at a small liberal arts college. Each of the four campuses is very different in how we approach it.

SHB: In your years in the industry, how has student housing changed?
Coakley: Early on in my career, student housing wasn’t seen as having the impact on academic success that it does today. Now, it’s seen much more as a recruitment tool. Once a student realizes that an institution they are interested in has the academic program that they want, and they’ve made that decision point, the next deciding factor is what their living experience is going to be like. Data has shown that students who live on campus their first year have a much higher retention rate than students who commute or live off-campus. Now, more than ever, institutions realize that university housing programs have the ability to help recruit and retain students. Our FYRE program and residential colleges are key to that goal.
SHB: Do you think the private partners in public-private partnerships help promote that?
Coakley: Yes. When new product comes online, it reflects on the whole system. I can use Vista del Sol as a marketing tool to new students, even though you can’t live there as a first-year student. If you live on-campus your first year, you have first priority to move there in your second year.

SHB: What are some of the goals for ASU’s student housing over the next few years?
Coakley: At ASU, we measure our success by those we include, not by those we exclude. To that end, we will continue on the trajectory to house 25 percent of our student population at each campus. We want to continue to provide programs, services and opportunities to help students successfully move toward graduation. We have to rethink higher education and what we are trying to accomplish. We have to help students be successful. We believe that we can do that through providing a welcoming and inclusive living and learning environment that supports students through their academic careers.