To protect students’ futures, prioritize campus preservation

Historical campuses like my own offer a throughline for generations of students and stability through changes in society and evolutions in knowledge.
John Delaney
John Delaney
John Delaney is the president of Flagler College.

By design and necessity, colleges and universities are forward-thinking: They advance important research, produce knowledge to make an impact and educate students to launch them into fruitful, rewarding careers. But even as we invest resources in meeting the needs of the future, we shouldn’t neglect the role college and university campuses play as stewards of the past.

College campuses have hosted some of the most consequential moments in U.S. history. Consider the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University in 1960, or the 1969 transmittal of the first message on ARPAnet, the precursor to what we now know as the internet, at the University of California Los Angeles. This history is wholly in keeping with campuses’ traditional roles as conveners of conversation and as environments for intellectual collaboration. These opportunities are also made possible by careful caretaking of physical campuses; as evidence of this importance, consider the hundreds of campuses and college buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This caretaking must continue. In a world that feels increasingly precarious, college and university campuses stay steady in mission and presence. Historical campuses offer a throughline for generations of students and stability through changes in society and evolutions in knowledge. Few other institutions can claim this legacy.

We must preserve this history, and we must protect our campuses from the ravages of time. Just as we invest time and resources into preparing students for the future, we have a duty to make similar commitments to safeguarding the longevity of our campuses. We owe it to our students, who choose to become part of a school’s legacy when they enroll and entrust an institution with their time, money and future. We owe it to society, too, to uphold our campuses as witnesses to history and as places of pride for communities.

This is not to say it’s not difficult. Securing resources to maintain facilities to fulfill a university’s mission is hard enough even without ensuring that any building renovations protect the historic integrity of the original design. Efforts to reconcile historic features with the important need to update buildings to current accessibility standards also need to be handled delicately.

But the outcomes of this work are important, and not just to the individuals who work and learn on the campus. Colleges and universities benefit tremendously from the communities around them, and communities similarly draw inspiration and joy from these institutions. Their partnerships are critical to preserving the legacies that help shape them both, and their successes are inextricably intertwined.

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I have seen the importance of this symbiotic relationship at my own institution, Flagler College, located in the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine. We are in the midst of an ambitious renovation and restoration of the Ponce De Leon Hotel, the centerpiece of our campus. The industrialist Henry Flagler constructed the building in 1888 as the first of several luxury resorts he created along Florida’s east coast. The hotel was the first poured-in-place concrete building and one of the first electrified buildings in the country. This National Historic Landmark now serves as a beloved residence for our students, and it is similarly treasured by tourists, who often pass through the building’s dining hall to admire the architecture as our students are gathered around tables lunching with friends.

It has taken remarkable preparation, consideration and resources to preserve the building throughout its history, balancing a need to bring it up to modern standards with an appreciation and stewarding of its history and architectural idiosyncrasies. With support from generous friends and the state of Florida, Flagler is not only ensuring the building is equipped to promote learning for students in this century but is also restoring a gem of Spanish Renaissance architecture. The Flagler community, as well as residents of and tourists visiting St. Augustine, all can appreciate and learn from the unique, original features of the structure that have been uncovered during a years-long renovation project that began in 2022.

Even as more institutions recognize the importance of space design and historic preservation as part of the learning environment, challenges remain, including inflation-charged gaps between need and actual spending in this area. When colleges and universities need to carefully examine budgets and allocate dollars, it can be hard to make the case for prioritizing facilities renovations, repairs and preservation; admittedly, updates to HVAC systems are not always the most ear-grabbing topics to discuss.

But we must continue to thoughtfully preserve our campuses for current and future students and understand that preservation is about more than just ensuring the roof is in good repair.

The history of a campus is as much a part of what makes an institution special as the programs it offers. College campuses offer stability and a sense of connection and belonging among an entire college community and the location it calls home. Preserving our history is critical to safeguarding our future.


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