A Reframed College Experience: Q&A with Andrew Christ
As an engineer and NJIT alum himself, Andrew Christ understands what it takes to “walk the talk” as a modern polytechnic university. Here, Andrew shares some lessons learned from the pandemic and his perspective on what’s next for higher education campus development.
What is the vibe on campus this year?
While we had students on campus in Fall 2021, the start of this semester just has a different feel. Students seem to be everywhere. We have a record freshman class and overall campus population, continuing our enrollment growth trend. NJIT is celebrating several key points of recognition this fall, including being ranked the #1 public university in New Jersey by Forbes. All of this is attributable to the incredible work of our faculty and students.
As it was happening, how did the pandemic affect the building projects underway on campus?
Our projects continued throughout the pandemic since work at colleges and universities was deemed essential. However, we certainly dealt with material delays and labor shortages, resulting in late completion. We ensured the health and safety of the construction teams were handled by our various partners, like Structure Tone, and our experience with COVID cases was limited. After much thought, we proceeded with the procurement and construction of a new residential building, which just opened in August. Now that we are able to look back, we are glad we continued, but it was a risk that we felt we needed to take to continue our upward momentum.
What were some of the biggest challenges through that period?
I think the biggest challenge was the unknown. Once we had a better understanding of how effective changes to our HVAC systems could be, we could then use these mitigation measures. Fundamentally, as it normally does, it came down to personal use of the space and effective PPE.
How did your plans change in the immediate aftermath?
The pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already occurring in higher education. As far back as 2013, NJIT planned for converged learning, the ability for students to be together wherever they were, physically on our campus or sitting in a café in India. In the 2020–21 academic year, we saw that some students wanted to be physically present on our campus—and needed to be due to our heavy experiential learning curriculum. However, we also recognized that students preferred to take many of their lectures from the comfort of their own residence hall, even though they were one building away.
This acceleration has us rethinking our future physical growth in both the traditional academic classroom and for all of the operational groups that do not necessarily directly interact with students.
How do you see this experience affecting campus development in the long term?
As campus planners evaluate future development, they must consider how this accelerated transition to remote teaching and learning will impact their physical space. At NJIT, we have always had a global reach, and by using the lessons learned from the pandemic, we can leverage technology to make degrees, stackable credentials, and upskilling available to anyone, wherever they might be. In the STEM fields, it is difficult to replicate the experiential learning that occurs in a chemistry, biology, or physics laboratory through remote learning. For the construction audience, mixing your own concrete and breaking that cylinder is challenging to experience via Zoom. So while we still believe the physical campus will exist, we may be able to repurpose some spaces that are traditional classrooms to facilitate this hybrid learning experience.
What types of projects is NJIT building or planning now?
Despite the pandemic, we believe that the physical campus will be around for many years to come. Students will still want that college experience, but it may be framed a bit differently. To that end, we continued the procurement and development of a public-private partnership residence hall during the pandemic. This 548-bed facility was just completed and provided a less dense, apartment-style living space with the ability to have more single bedrooms. In the near term, NJIT will look to accommodate much of our teaching needs through the renovation of existing spaces, such as transitioning administrative office space to a hoteling concept. However, our research in fields like the life sciences, sustainability, machine learning, and virtual reality will require more physical space. We plan to add this space with a development partner to also allow mature companies that may want to co-locate with NJIT an opportunity to work alongside our best minds, creating industry partnerships to help solve today’s problems together.
What is a top trend you see for higher education facilities in the coming years?
In my opinion, we will spend the next 5 to 10 years rightsizing our facilities to accommodate the demand for a hybrid learning environment. Physical facilities will remain relevant, but the days of “build it and they will come” are likely over. As higher education institutions contemplate facilities master
plans moving forward, we will need to take into consideration several factors, including the decline of college-age students in the United States and the globalization of higher education. Institutions that remain nimble and are able to pivot to meet the needs of the global economy will continue to thrive. We must embrace technology in every aspect of what we do as teaching and learning evolve into the digital realm. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we can do it. Now we just need to integrate the lessons we learned into our strategic thinking.