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Business Officer Magazine

Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Cathy R. Wood

Master Plan Requirement Becomes Historic Opportunity

Spread over 180 acres of rolling hills and adorned with Victorian-scale stone buildings, the Catholic University of America (CUA) is the largest university in Washington, D.C. However, along with beautifully conceived buildings, there are some unattractive or unfortunately situated structures on the campus. Much of this is ripe for improvement.

The D.C. government requires all universities in its jurisdiction to submit master plans—spelling out such long-range improvements of campus infrastructure and grounds—for evaluation and approval. Usually the plans are approved for a 10-year period. We had submitted our previous one in April 2002.

In thinking about our new master plan, we resolved to treat it not simply as a government requirement that we needed to fulfill, but as an historic opportunity to set forth a comprehensive road map that would serve us for 20 or 30 years. We began our master planning process in February 2011, with a goal of having final plans approved by the D.C. Zoning Commission by spring 2012. That we met our goal with flying colors can be attributed to several key elements.

An Experienced Planning Firm

We began by looking at 14 firms and interviewing 3. We chose Baltimore-based Ayers Saint Gross (ASG) for its vision and experience in transforming universities such as Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University Maryland, both in Baltimore, into cohesive, pedestrian-friendly campuses.

Syncing the President's Vision and Strategic Plan

Master planning for our facilities and layout was initiated only weeks after the inauguration of John Garvey, the Catholic University's 15th president, and only a few months before we began crafting a new 10-year strategic plan for academic priorities, to take effect in January 2012. This was a serendipitous opportunity to capture the new president's vision, while capitalizing on the planning process's creativity.

The Catholic University of America's master plan is intended to transform the institution into a cohesive, pedestrian-friendly campus.

Identifying Constituents, Communicating Often

Many constituents have a stake in the university's future development: 6,700 students, longtime residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, 1,900 faculty and staff, and many nearby religious institutions.

We involved representatives from all these groups early in the master planning process to inform them of the planning framework, provide updates, and solicit input. ASG led a number of communication efforts, including:

  • Holding focus groups of key campus stakeholders identified by university function.
  • Dividing the campus into "precincts," and from mid-May through mid-July 2011 holding meetings and walking tours with faculty and staff who teach and work in those areas.
  • Along with university representatives, meeting with the 2 closest of the 12 D.C. advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs), which have an important say in local matters, including master plans of neighboring universities.
  • Reaching out to civic associations and holding workshops for local community members.

Involving Government Officials

In July 2011, master planning was well under way, and the university met with a representative of the D.C. Office of Planning for its feedback. The relationship would yield dividends; prior to our December 2011 application submission to the Zoning Commission of our 300-page plan, the Office of Planning suggested that we change the plan's timeline to 15 years, rather than the original 10. When the Zoning Commission met in March 2012 for a public hearing, widespread support of our plan led to the commission's unanimous approval in April.

One of the greatest compliments paid to our master plan was the invitation to extend its timeline by five years. I think the guarantors of that success were (1) the commitment we made even before the process began to formulate a comprehensive plan, and (2) the tenacity with which we saw it through to fruition, by holding hundreds of meetings, large and small, with multiple constituencies.

I'm proud of all the work so many at the Catholic University of America contributed to this collective effort. But, I'm glad that we won't need to do it again until 2027.

CATHY R. WOOD is vice president, finance, and treasurer, at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

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