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Campus Conversation: Facilities Insights from Dan Costello

Founded in 1890, Washington State University (WSU) is a comprehensive public research institution with six campuses, four research and extension centers and extension offices in each of the state’s 39 counties. The university enrolls nearly 31,500 students and employs more than 7,000 full- and part-time faculty and staff statewide. A Sightlines member school, WSU is classified by the Carnegie Commission as a very high research activity institution, with research and development expenditures topping $356 million last year.

Overseeing WSU’s facilities since January of 2014 is Dan Costello. As the university’s Assistant Vice President of Facilities Services and Operations, Dan is responsible for maintaining campus facilities and planning improvements that will meet WSU’s goals. In this interview, he discusses their strategic plans, how they overcome challenges and expresses his perspective on facility trends in higher education.

What is the WSU campus like?

We have a wide range of buildings, from stately, brick-and-mortar facilities from the 1890s to brand new, very technical research facilities. WSU offers 96 academic majors for undergraduates, 80 master’s degree programs and 64 doctoral degree programs, as well as professional degree programs in medicine, nursing, veterinary medicine, and pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences.

What goals are you working toward?

My main goal is ensuring we are operating in a financially responsible manner. I pay attention to our organizational structure, working with our supervisors to right-size our skillset and make sure we have the right tools and training to do our jobs. I spend time analyzing the costs of our different spaces to figure out where we can make the best investments, to reduce operating costs and shrink our footprint. And I help the deans understand the cost of their spaces and provide options to improve the quality and efficiency of those spaces.

What challenges to those goals do you face at WSU and how do you overcome them?

The biggest challenge we have is aging buildings and infrastructure—that’s the underpinning of all of it. We have older buildings and building systems that should have been replaced or renewed. The systems are inefficient and unreliable. They breakdown more frequently and require more people to take care of them. You get into this reactive mode.

To overcome that, we’re working with university leadership to help them understand what deferred maintenance looks like. We show them how deferred maintenance manifests itself in the academic and research spaces and help develop integrated capital investment strategies that includes new construction, comprehensive renovation and demolition.

WSU is part of the Council of Presidents (COP). What is the COP and what does it do?

The COP is an association of all Washington’s six public baccalaureate degree granting colleges and universities.  The COP allows its member colleges and universities to be speak with a common voice and be a trusted resource for decision makers on issues affecting public higher education. We look for common challenges so we can deliver one message. To that end, all schools in the COP completed a benchmarking effort with Sightlines to assist in our understanding of deferred maintenance.

You’ve used Facilities Benchmarking & Analysis for WSU as well. How has it helped you in your role?

From an operating perspective, the first thing the analysis did was validate what my team had been telling me: Our staffing and funding levels were insufficient. The surprise was that we also had more gross square footage per student than our peer research institutions. This helped inform strategies to improve our space utilization and identify opportunities to reduce operating costs.

What advice do you have for your colleagues who need to make the most out of a shrinking staff?

As your staff gets smaller, there are opportunities for breaking down silos and integrating similar work groups.  That’s working for us here at WSU. A lot of universities separate their construction group from their maintenance group, but we’ve integrated those two work groups and they are now managed under a single supervisor. That gives us the flexibility, for example, to send a plumber to either a maintenance job or a construction job—they are not limited to only one type of work.

Integrating groups has helped us create a natural battle rhythm in that we can balance our seasonal workflow.  We do a lot of construction and renovations during the summer and winter breaks because that’s when the facilities are available to us. The rest of time we focus heavily on maintenance. We have found that to be helpful.

The Sightlines 2018 State of Facilities report indicated that space growth is outpacing enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities. Why do you think that is?

A couple things lend themselves to that. As universities focus on their research activities, sometimes that requires adding lab or research space that may not be reflected in student enrollment. In addition, the growth of organizations and programs to meet compliance requirements may be contributing to the need for additional support space.

It’s easier to build new than it is to empty a facility, find swing space, renovate the building and move people back in. That’s a much more complicated and disruptive process. If universities have the space, they choose to build new and expand into the space later. There’s no pressure to get out of old facilities. Old spaces are viewed as free. People don’t understand there’s annual cost associated with maintaining an old space.

space growth vs enrollment growth

What advice do you have for your colleagues who are new to capital strategy?

The real challenge with developing an effective capital strategy takes place well before you begin programming for projects. I encourage starting with a university development plan that integrates and prioritizes program requirements (space, personnel and funding) across the university portfolio. Then strategies can be developed to meet the program space requirements which can include new construction, renovation of existing space and use of existing space. This process should be informed by a strong space inventory with utilization rates to help identify opportunities for using existing space. The strategy should also address deferred maintenance through comprehensive renovations and demolition.

Why don’t more universities develop a university plan?

Most large institutions function like confederacies, a coalition of different schools.  They’re aligned together; they share some common goals and resources, but they’re focused on their individual programs. The schools develop unique and independent goals and objectives. Integrating the schools plans into a single university plan is hard to do because it requires telling people, “Not yet,” and that is a difficult conversation to have with people who are very passionate about what their schools do.

What trends do you see in higher ed facilities? 

Off-site learning is making education more accessible. However, it requires a different learning space with the ability to interact in real-time with off-site students. In addition, our classrooms are moving away from lecture halls to collaborative learning spaces.  This requires different classroom layouts and furnishings. Collaborative learning spaces need to be responsive to changes in technology and teaching paradigms. As a result, Facilities needs to engage both Information Technology and academic departments early to make sure we are delivering spaces with the correct capabilities.

What can American universities and colleges be doing better?

Now that I’ve got three kids in college, I’m not just a higher education administrator; I’m a consumer. One thing higher education could be doing better is delivering degrees and certificates that have a clear return on investment (ROI). If we’re going to ask an 18-year-old to take on debt, we have to make sure we’re giving them clear value. One way we could more effectively increase ROI is to include internships with strategic partners as part of every four-year degree. So, when that student graduates, he or she is more marketable. We could also work with industry to identify specific training/education needs that can be met thru two-year programs with certifications. We have to show value to students and communicate that for the amount of money you’re paying, you will have increased access to careers and jobs.