The Campus Iconic

Education can occur anywhere, in an office building, in a warehouse, or on the internet, but students, their parents, and their employers often prefer higher education on a College or University campus. Faculty like campuses because they are conducive to research. There are other reasons for a traditional campus, among them the signaling model as suggested by Bryan Caplan. Another is that iconic campuses imprint memories, and memories create endowments. This was one of the justifications for building an on-campus stadium at the University of Minnesota, rather than cooperating with the Vikings.







A campus that has the the appurtenances of a classical college: medieval architecture, bricks or stones, a quad, and a bell-tower seems to be preferred. These are the icons of the modern university.

In the Greater Twin Cities, we have been dealt a large number of college campuses. Minneapolis is a college town in a way that most people don’t realize, much like Boston, where more than 10 percent of the population is undergraduates.

I of course work at the University of Minnesota, which is famous for its classical Cass Gilbert quad (apparently derived from Jefferson’s University of Virginia and McKim, Mead, and White’s Columbia University). There are a number of other old buildings, though recent administrations seem allergic to nice architecture, and instead build mediocrity.

St. Thomas University has several campuses, but has achieved a faux medieval branding with its architecture both in St. Paul and in downtown Minneapolis.

The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University are a bit farther out, stretching the definition of Greater Twin Cities, but both have a lovely campus, especially in autumn.

Metropolitan State University has a main campus east of downtown St. Paul, which is sufficiently iconic that it is the campus logo. Other buildings include some nondescript office buildings in Energy Park and a share of a building in downtown Minneapolis.

The best Twin Cities campus without a college on it is Bandana Square, a former railroad maintenance facility that was remodeled and transformed into several uses. The original transformation was to make it a festival marketplace. That did not succeed. Now it is an underutilized facility off of Energy Park Drive, housing the wonderful (but obviously low rent) Twin Cities Model Railroad Museum. This is a set of iconic structures, with room to expand over acres of empty parking spaces. Notably, it is near Metropolitan State, Hamline, Bethel, and Concordia.

There are other similar locations that are underutilized for what they are. The office complex at St. Anthony Main is another example that would make a great, distinct, iconic campus. There are also several vacant breweries around town, though the signaling might be difficult to say you went to school at the old Schmidt’s or Stroh’s Brewery. It would give a new meaning to the idea of imbibing knowledge.

If only there were a growing university that was seeking a new campus in the Twin Cities. There is at least one. It turns out Metropolitan State is seeking a West Metro campus, as it is losing its space in downtown Minneapolis due to internecine warfare with MCTC. It also is seeking to abandon its classroom space in Energy Park (near Bandana Square). Other universities, including other McSCU campuses have been sniffing around, as it is already university-ready and centrally located. MnSCU really needs to be strategic about its universities and colleges and their territories, in a way that it currently isn’t. Why are MSU-Mankato and St. Cloud State opening up Metro campuses? Why are they not one Minnesota State University with multiple campuses and departments?

As part of my CE5212 class last Fall, student groups were tasked with finding the location for alternative campuses of Metropolitan State. They were given the job of finding the location if there were (a) 1 campus, (b) 2 campuses, but one was fixed at the current St. Paul main location, and (c) 4 campuses, but one was fixed. Each group came up with different locations.

This is interesting for a variety of reasons. There was more convergence on the 3 additional sites than on the one “west metro” site. While an analytic /computational geography approach can help, the differences between various nearby sites are relatively small, and small differences in the optimization criteria can shift the location. In any event, modeling optimization for student travel times is never the deciding factor in something like this (or otherwise, almost everything would locate on a point). Prices, building availability, history, culture, etc. also play a role. A growth trajectory also matters (you want to locate your second campus in a place that makes sense if you also have a third and fourth).

Clearly there should be some semblance of image in locating a college campus. Do you want your university in an office building? If so, you can have it. It takes more work, some thought, and a lot of patience, to cultivate an iconic campus.

Single site West North, South, West Method
Group 1 Prospect Park Minneapolis CBD West Mounds View, Bloomington/Richfield, Minneapolis CBD West Location-Allocation
Group 2 Snelling Avenue Golden Valley Blaine: Central and Main NE, Bloomington: I35W/98th, Plymouth: 169/42nd 20 minute Accessibility Max
Group 3 Elliot Park Edina Mounds View, Edina, Minneapolis Location-Allocation

Images from Cass Gilbert society, and wikipedia, and author.

Where else should new college campuses think about locating in Minnesota? What colleges should locate there?