ASU’s Michael Coakley is a busy man. In addition to 12 construction projects at ASU, he is also consulting with other universities on their housing needs.
Student Housing Business recently interviewed Michael Coakley, associate vice president and executive director of housing for Arizona State University. When SHB last spoke with Coakley in 2010, he was busy planning for additions to several of ASU’s campuses to achieve the university’s goal of 100,000 students by 2020. Today, that planning has turned into multiple construction projects that Coakley is overseeing.
SHB: SHB last spoke with you in the winter of 2010. A lot has changed with you in those two years.
Coakley: My role at [Arizona State University] has changed. Due to our continued growth pattern, we have a lot of projects all going on at the same time. Currently, I have 12 construction projects: four housing projects, four recreation facilities, two dining facilities, a student union, and a preparatory academy. I was asked to focus my attention on getting those projects from design all the way through construction.
SHB: What are some of the goals of those projects?
Coakley: The growth is not only at our Tempe campus, but also at our Polytechnic, West and Downtown campuses. In housing, we’ve always been on the trajectory to house 25 percent of our student population. Both the West and the Polytechnic campus housing want to add stock quickly to achieve that desired goal. We’ve entered into an agreement with American Campus Communities on our west campus for up to 1,200 beds of housing and with Inland American Communities on the Polytechnic Campus for up to 1,200 beds. The first building of those phases are both under construction right now and will be opening this fall — approximately 316 beds on the Polytechnic campus and approximately 360 beds on the West campus. They are suite style residence halls. The project at our Polytechnic campus is affiliated with our College of Technology and Innovation and will be their residential college. On the West campus it will be a mixed underclassman facility of first year and second year students, but not tied to one particular academic major.
SHB: Are there any particular features on the design/build side, or are you doing anything different that you haven’t done in the past with student housing?
Coakley: Since we’re working on both projects with developers, we want them to be LEED certifiable at the silver level. We are not having them go through the certification process. We just have to provide the report cards that show them as certifiable. At the same time that those buildings are going up, we’re also using Inland American and American Campus Communities to act as the developer for us for new dining facilities on both of the campuses. Both projects will have a residential dining facility component. At the Polytechnic campus, there will also be a coffee shop in the dining facility. Each will also have a large social area called the “Devil’s Den” as a gathering spot for students, whether they’re residents or not.
SHB: This is adding to your student life element, right?
Coakley: The goal is to bring the same level of experience to all of the campuses. At Arizona State University, one of our guiding principles is ‘one university, many places.’ We want the student experience — whether students are at Tempe, Poly, West or Downtown — to be similar to the kind of opportunities and experiences they have as a student. That’s why we’re also doing recreational facilities at West, Downtown and Poly at the same time that housing and dining is going up. They’re going to be transformational facilities that will change the quality of the student life experience on those campuses. We’re really excited about it.
SHB: In addition to your role at ASU, you’ve also done some consulting at other universities. Can you discuss that?
Coakley: The consulting I’ve done in the past has been with institutions to do housing master planning, program review, facility review, and similar activities. We look at items they can do to enhance their occupancy, change the student experience — issues that allow housing to become more embedded in the academic fabric of the institution. I’ve also worked with several developers across the country on projects they were interested either in pursuing, or projects they currently had in the works. They bring me in when dealing with institutions that are mid- to small size that don’t have a deep housing staff to work on those kinds of projects. Developers have their own language and institutions of higher education have their own language, and sometimes it’s difficult for a developer and a college/university to find their common ground in a language that’s shared. My involvement on both sides is to help be a translator between the two groups to achieve that common ground.
SHB: How does a university embed student life into housing? How do universities make housing more reflective of the experience offered on-campus?
Coakley: In the last 10 years there’s been an expectation that having a housing experience linked to the academic programs that are available on a particular campus strengthens both the academic experience and the student life experience. Students go to class, but when you go to college, relationships develop with fellow students, faculty and staff, that all add to that collegiate experience. When you’re taking the initial facility and giving it a focus — whether it’s journalism, nursing, or business — it’s students working on shared projects together. You create spaces within the facility that reflect that academic major. One of ASU’s facilities is for students who are in our fine arts program. We put a studio in there where they can practice dancing and other types of movement. We also put in a painting studio where students can actually do painting, portraits, whatever they want to do without having to go to an academic building to have those experiences. We try to bring those academic experiences into the hall. One of the new buildings that we’re working on — a new residence hall on our polytechnic campus — is affiliated with our college of technology and innovation. We built into the design what we’re calling a solution space. It’s a room that is completely covered in white board space with movable furniture. As students are working on various projects in their technology courses, they can use the whole room — the walls, ceilings, everything — to work collaboratively on a project. I have not seen that in any other building. There are study lounges and spaces where students can have quiet time. But, to create a space where students can come together and write on the walls and do what they need to do, it’s something different. There’s a way to do those things without any kind of academic program. Each academic program — the way students work on their projects, work with their fellow students — is different and how you build that into the residence hall environment.
SHB: The Barrett Honors College at ASU was built in this model and it’s been admired by a lot of campuses across the country. Are other universities looking at that model?
Coakley: We’ve had a lot of institutions come and visit. ACC is in dialogue with several institutions — not doing the exact Barrett model, but creating that type of environment for their campuses. That is one of the directions that most institutions desire and are going to be looking at. It’s blurring the lines between the out of classroom and the in classroom experience. Where that makes the most sense is in student housing or in the union or in a recreational facility where people gather for those things to take place.
SHB: Do you think that kind of model has a place on every campus with housing?
Coakley: In many institutions it makes sense. There’s a lot of institutions with very minimal housing or they use their housing differently. At Notre Dame, their whole housing model is different. Students live in the same residence hall the whole four or five years they are there. They develop different kinds of relationships. At ASU and other institutions, we don’t have the ability to house all our students and we’re lucky to have them for a year or two. Time spent with academic programs makes sense, so students make those connections; when they move out, they still have those connections with the students and faculty they lived and interacted with. It is different for a campus, depending on what their housing strategy is.
SHB: What do the universities you are consulting for want? What are the prime things they are asking you about? What are some of the reasons they seek you out?
Coakley: In the 1980s, when I was at Wright State, a university in Ohio, I worked with developers to expand housing on that campus. I’ve been involved with using third parties to achieve housing goals longer than most people have been in the student housing profession. I’ve done a lot of consulting on developing strategies to achieve desired occupancy levels. When I work with a school that wants to have 80 percent occupancy, I work with them on developing ways to increase occupancy either by taking a look at facilities and examining what needs to be changed, what are students complaining about, what are there issues with. Other times we look at how the housing is arranged. Maybe you could take your triple rooms and turn them into doubles. You will increase your overall occupancy by having a more satisfactory experience, tied to revenue. Facilities may be in great shape, but programmatically they really don’t have a particular goal in mind. Whatever social activity happens, happens. Instead, having a more planned approach can affect student life for the better. Experiencing cultural events and educational sessions is part of college life. I’ve also done training for residence staff on a variety of issues — leadership, sexuality, alcohol/drug education. I do a gamut of things. But, really going into a school and first taking a critical look and doing an assessment of the program is my expertise. I ask: how are their facilities? How are they financially? How are they doing staffing wise? What is their resident return rate? There are a lot of factors that develop a strategy to move that institution toward its end goal.
SHB: What do you think the biggest operational and facility issues facing most universities are today?
Coakley: I think there are a lot of institutions right now that are struggling with demands. There’s one group of institutions that is seeing an increase in enrollment. The children of the boomers are showing up now. How do they house them when they have facilities that they need to take offline because they no longer function? A lot of schools are grappling with how we build housing: do we hit capacity, do we go third party? There’s that whole group of institutions trying to deal with that. Then there are institutions who can’t even fill the beds they have. There are also schools that need to expand and are having trouble figuring out ways to do that. There are universities that have enough capacity that aren’t able to use it to its fullest potential.
SHB: Fiscally, some are healthy, some not so healthy. Often with the physical plants they have problems too.
Coakley: At ASU’s Tempe campus, we have Manzanita Hall. It is a building along one of the university’s main arteries, built in the 1960s, which was the first high rise. Ever since I have been here, it has had infrastructure issues. It is a 50-year-old building, but it’s an iconic building to the campus. You talk to alums of the Tempe campus and they love it, so we can’t replace it. We had to figure out a way to renovate it. We’re working with American Campus Communities right now where we’re taking a building that originally was designed to house about 1,000 students. After renovation, it will end up housing about 840 students. We are addressing many of the issues students had with the building. There were these dark corner rooms that we’re getting rid of and we are expanding the lounges. Essentially, what we’re doing is saving the façade of the building and really tearing the inside completely apart, except the structural walls. We’re rebuilding all the student rooms in this new building. There are a lot of institutions that are grappling with how to do that. They have the staff to do that, but it is the infrastructure they don’t know how to deal with. One of the ways ASU is now dealing with it is partnering with a [third-party] developer to make that happen. The same thing has happened to some schools in the Northeast, where developers have renovated historic buildings. Universities have a lot of buildings that were built with cheap money back in the 1960s from the federal government, but how do we keep them when they’re falling apart?
SHB: What do you see for campuses over the next 10 years with regard to student housing?
Coakley: The renovation of older housing stock is a big one. The other challenge is making the transition of student housing’s role from a department that acts like a silo to one that’s more integrated into the academic fabric of the institution. Another issue that has come to the forefront and that all institutions deal with, especially if they have older buildings, is the hesitation incoming students and their parents have in terms of what the true living experience is like. Sometimes they are surprised that many residence halls still contain traditional double-loaded corridors with bathrooms down the hall. Other times they are pleasantly surprised by suites and apartment style units. There is little consistency at most schools. There are some institutions that are looking at converting those older projects to newer living styles. Ohio State is taking what used to be gang bathrooms and creating private bathrooms within that space. What used to be a gang bathroom may end up being six private bathrooms that people can use on the floor. Another challenge in these types of projects is that in the 1960s, if you built the furniture in to a project using federal money, the expense to do so became part of the HUD loan. So, a lot of schools have buildings with built-in furniture, or wood, or built-in desks, and students now expect much more flexibility with their space. Universities, who may still view it as functional furniture, are faced with the question of whether to rip it out or modify it. Also, housing has become a much bigger consideration for students when choosing a school. After a student has identified whether an academic program is available at a particular institution and feel comfortable with that, the two things that make their final decision — if they’re considering different institutions — are the housing and the recreational facilities. That’s why a lot of institutions put investment into recreation facilities. A lot of schools over the last couple of years have put in elaborate recreational facilities because they know that’s going to impact their enrollment targets.
SHB: You’ve mentioned older buildings several times. When universities had all this federal money, it seems they didn’t really think about the long-term use of the campus when building at the time. Now, it seems like there’s more thought put into the long-term use and long-term viability of campus buildings. Would you say that’s true?
Coakley: Yes. We are trying to look to the future and one of the ways to do that is by having a structure be as flexible as possible so you have the ability to change the interior space. We don’t build in a way so that a room has to be that room forever until that building comes down. We look at ways to design so the façade can be a 100-year façade, but the interior can change with the times. As the desires of incoming students and their families change, the building has the ability to change with it. What might be a suite style residence hall now may be able to easily be more apartment style years from now as things change. Students are really used to having their own bathrooms now and not sharing a bedroom. On the ASU Tempe campus, ACC built apartments where every student had their own bedroom and their own bathroom. That reflected what students want. They were willing to live in the residence hall their first year, because it’s part of the collegiate experience. But the way to keep them on campus is to provide ever-modified facilities that they can transition through as they move toward graduation.
SHB: What do you think about the deal between the University of Kentucky and EdR and its impact on the future? Do you think you’ll see other schools go that way?
Coakley: I still don’t know all the details of it. But I’m sure there are going to be other institutions that will go down that road because that is one pathway to getting existing facilities renovated and new facilities that they need for enrollment expansion. I think there will be a lot more partnerships moving forward. I think residential life will always probably remain closer to the institution instead of the developer.
— Randall Shearin