December 6, 2023

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They typically emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts Teachers and student body. But the physical spaces available to students also have a huge impact on how welcome they feel, according to Shannon Dowling, principal of the architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross.

Dowling was a 2020–2021 Fellow of the Society for College and University Planning and created textbooks for universities on how to create diverse and inclusive campus environments.

She spoke with Higher Ed Dive about the connection between DEI and classrooms, how small changes can lead to significant progress, and why compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is just the beginning of accessible design.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

HIGHER ED DIVE: What first introduced you to the relationship between physical spaces and diversity, equity and inclusion?

Headshot of brunette white woman in tweed dress and jacket

Shannon Dowling

Permission granted by Shannon Dowling

SHANNON DOWLING: I actually came up with the idea as a parent. My middle child is a dyslexic learner and when he was in 1st or 2nd grade I realized that he can learn better when he is moving. I gave him a rocking chair and when he used it he spelled words. Sitting in a typical chair, he couldn’t. So that’s where it made the connection for me between the physical space and the furniture and how the students learn.

I also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University for about 12 years and paid attention to my students and the different stories they brought to the classroom.

When I looked at the strategic plans of the top 50 institutions ranked by US News & World Report, I realized that every one of them said they wanted to improve diversity. But they all mentioned very specific pieces.

For example, they wanted to increase and retain ability of color, increase and retain students of color, do DEI training. All of these goals are incredibly useful, but no college has actually mentioned how the campus itself recruits and retains students.

You received input from over 200 students in creating your guide. How did you work with them and gather their feedback?

As an architect, I wanted to understand how students would design spaces themselves, and I’m a big proponent of meeting students where they are. You have to reach them in many different ways because the same way over and over again will give you the same voices and a truly homogenous conversation. Some students feel better filling out a questionnaire, some students want to talk to you in person. You want to cast a very wide net to include as many voices as you can.

If a college has the ability to design something from the ground up, where do you recommend they start?

That’s a big question! If I could design a brand new college building, it would be very inclusive and a space where everyone came to learn and engage, not a stuffy disciplinary facility.

However, I think universities often don’t build new buildings without working to make the spaces they already have equal and fair. What you’ll end up seeing is that fields with better resources – like engineering, business, and medicine – get bright, shiny new buildings.

Then you go to the humanities or social sciences and they are in the old spaces where they can be found.

These students pay the same price to participate. So what do you tell students when you say, “You’re in this old building with 40 old desks crammed into a room” while other students are learning in a cool modernized building? What one group studies seems to be less valuable than the other.

Most campuses have at least one legacy space, and all institutions have various means of implementing new DEI and campus policies. How does your manual recommend making updates while accounting for this range of resources?

Of course, different institutions have different student bodies. Everyone has different resources. It seemed to me that they needed to be able to start where they are and not compare themselves to other institutions.

The things I often talk about are small, simple changes. I want colleges to know that they can make these really small changes and that it will mean something to students because they told me. The biggest challenge is giving students choice and agency over their environment.

What is an example of such a change?

For example, a chair in a room. If every available chair is exactly the same size with arms, people with different body sizes may not be able to use it. Or if all the chairs are armless, it can put someone with physical mobility issues in a tough spot because they need the back of the chair to balance and stand up. By just providing something as simple as a choice of different chairs, it’s so that when someone walks into a room, they can find one that suits them without having to ask for accommodation.

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