TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Should The Law School Of The Future Eliminate Faculty Offices — And Even Assigned Desks?

Faculty OfficeChronicle of Higher Education, Does the Faculty Office Have a Future?:

You can picture the traditional faculty office easily enough: A wall of shelves cluttered with books, journals, and mementos. A filing cabinet or two. A desk in front of a tall window. Maybe a rug or an armchair brought from home.

But is the faculty member actually in the office you’re picturing? Increasingly, no. Perhaps she’s team-teaching several buildings away with a colleague from another discipline, or in a committee meeting on the downtown campus. Or she’s grading essays and answering student messages at home, or Skyping in the library with an overseas research collaborator, or reading a journal article on her iPad at a Starbucks near her 11-year-old’s soccer practice. In fact, she may not be back in her office till Tuesday at 2:30, for office hours.

On many campuses, offices of all kinds take up 25 to 35 percent of nonresidential space. Faculty offices are typically occupied less than those for administrators — often less than half of the workweek. They are expensive to build (think $350 per gross square foot, one architect says) and costly to maintain, heat, air-condition, and clean. But whether professors could manage without offices of their own is a question most college leaders avoid asking in public.

"A lot of institutions are struggling with this," says Graham Wyatt, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, which does a lot of work in higher education. "There is clearly pressure to economize on facility costs and to make sure that institutions are getting highest value for the dollar. We hear repeatedly that in the private sector the private office is going away — shouldn’t we be doing that in academia?"

But college administrators "continue to think of it as the third rail," he says. Indeed, they joke that faculty members care about only two things more than tenure: "One is a private parking space and the other is a private office."

So far, comparatively few colleges have changed their approach to private faculty offices, other than to make new ones more compact. But a handful of institutions are experimenting with other options — open-plan workspaces with small conference and "focus" rooms nearby, for instance, or offices shared by two or more faculty members. It’s not clear whether the next generation of professors will need, want, or get offices like those of their predecessors.

"The traditional things that people cited as a reason to have private offices are evaporating," says Gregory R. Mottola, a principal at the architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. "Mobile computing is a huge benefit — you can work anywhere." And conference rooms can offer privacy for confidential conversations with students. "The other thing people would always say was, ‘I have to have all these journals and books.’ Now all this stuff is digital." The remaining issues, he says, are status, recruiting, and retention. "You have a lot of faculty who really push back and say, I assess my value and worth to the university based on the size office I get, and on whether or not it’s got a good view."

Wall Street Journal, Don’t Get Too Used to Your Own Desk:

Many have mourned the loss of private offices since employers started tearing down office walls years ago.

Now companies are planning a new surprise: They’re taking away your desk, too.

Employers are replacing traditional one-desk-per-employee setups with a smaller number of first-come, first-served desks, plus additional workspaces with names like huddle rooms and touchdown spaces. Some 25% of employers are placing at least some employees in unassigned seating, and 52% of the rest plan to do so within three years, according to a recent survey of 138 employers by the real estate services firm CBRE and CoreNet Global, a real estate professional group.

While some employees embrace the flexibility and casual ambience of unassigned seating, losing a desk is a wrenching change for others. Getting used to it requires time, some give-and-take by employers and often a little etiquette training.

Legal Education | Permalink


Just a question of supply and demand. Based on the numbers in the article, I estimate that the average new faculty office costs roughly $5,000 a year to build and maintain. Would the average faculty member rather have a $5,000/year office tax-free or no space whatever plus $5,000 of taxable compensation? Administrators may fantasize about getting rid of offices without making any adjustments to salary, but that's not how labor markets work. My guess is that providing an office tax-free is a relatively cheap way of compensating full-time faculty.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | May 22, 2018 1:36:18 PM

"Administrators may fantasize about getting rid of offices without making any adjustments to salary, but that's not how labor markets work."

And per Prawfs, there were like 65 new law prof hires over the last year. Nationwide. It ain't exactly a booming labor market for you folks, what with downsizing enrollments and deaccredited law schools. What bargaining power does the average 1-2 years' legal experience law prof really have against something like this? Law firms aren't taking you back. Some state government role? Maybe - if you are in one of the states actually hiring workers these days. And it's a buyer's market in legal academia; just look at the percentage of new hires who have PhDs in addition to the JDs now. Credential bloat is a classic sign of employer power in labor markets.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 22, 2018 11:05:00 PM

Why not keep the offices and get rid of the faculty?

Posted by: mike livingston | May 23, 2018 4:27:37 AM


Or of perhaps more relevance, the fact that there are only 70 lateral hires this year per Leiter's blog. Given the (literally) thousands of profs that are stuck in low ranked schools, undesirable locations, etc., that are highly motivated to move, I believe it's safe to say that less than 1% of profs would have the option to lateral to another school on better terms. If a prof threatens to quit over employment terms in this environment, I think they risk the Dean jumping at the offer.

Posted by: JM | May 23, 2018 9:14:10 AM

The office-less law school is a trend in Australia -- and everyone hates it. Meeting with students about confidential or sensitive matters is next to impossible. No place for quiet contemplation, either. Also, the classroom looks more like a bar -- round tables, high chairs, and no podium. Glass all around. Dreadful. Let's not go there.

Posted by: Roberta Mann | May 23, 2018 1:47:16 PM

Campuses are vastly overbuilt in re classroom space. Fretting over office space seems misplaced.

Posted by: Art Deco | May 24, 2018 12:23:50 PM