Like coral reefs, universities function at their highest capacity
when there are many organisms milling about and exchanging
information in close proximity. Colleges should build incentives for
professors to live on or close to the campus reef.
Research shows that innovation and high productivity are most
likely when thinkers interact in close physical spaces, swap
information, and collaborate. This is why, even in our age of mobile
screens, organizations spend billions of dollars each year promoting
physical conferences in London, Phoenix, or elsewhere. It is why
even digitally pioneering companies such as Apple and Google have
literal "campuses," on which employees coexist in innovation
ecosystems. It is why, in an age in which online education is
increasing, old-school, in-person classes are not only relevant but
I've wondered, then, if it would be a financially sound move for
universities to pay professors a bonus for living close to campus,
or even on campus where possible. Faculty members who live near
campus are likely to spend more time in their offices and elsewhere
on site, and to have spontaneous conversations with colleagues and
students. They contribute more to the learning community. Colleges
and universities encourage, and some even force, students to live on
campus during freshman and sophomore years or beyond for this same
reason. Many universities also provide housing for their presidents
or chancellors on school grounds or nearby.
At the University of Maine, where I teach, many faculty members
seem to spend less time on campus than at some other universities.
This is probably due in part to the state's glorious surplus of
outdoor activities as well as the fact that the university's town,
Orono, hosts more expensive property yet fewer people and cultural
activities than the city of Bangor, which is around 10 miles away.
Partly due to these attractions, The Princeton Review ranks the
University of Maine 15th in "Least Accessible Professors."
The University of Maine is by no means the only university with
difficult-to-snag professors. Academics in general use much of their
professional freedom to work away from the office. Every university
I've ever visited on a Friday is like many a dentist's office; no
one's around and the doc ain't in.
What if an institution in the University of Maine's position paid
a housing allowance of, say, $100 a month to faculty who choose to
live within three miles of the campus? Would this investment be
worth it? If it led faculty members to work a few hours more a month
on campus and have several more spontaneous conversations with
students and colleagues, the policy may be worth the cost.
Additionally, professionals who live a mile or two from work are
more likely to walk or bike to campus, burning calories, possibly
lowering numbers of sick days, and reducing carbon emissions. …