Dealing with a decade of growth

That last 10 years for Wilfrid Laurier University has been monumental in terms of growth and expansion; the institution went from a total number of 8,400 students in 2000 to around 18,000 in 2010. As first-year enrolment continues to grow, Laurier — in particular the Waterloo campus — has been creating initiatives and changing practices to accommodate the influx of students coming in, while trying to maintain a positive student experience.

Recently, the Council of Ontario Universities announced that a record of more than 90,000 first-year students will be attending universities in Ontario this year. For Laurier, 4,634 first-year students — while not too much larger from the figure last year — will be joining either the Waterloo or Brantford campus this September.

While the situation is not unique to Laurier, questions have arisen about the school’s approach to this continual growth, especially within the small geographical area of the Waterloo campus.

“You could really feel the density. Like when you walk through the Concourse, you know there are more students on campus,” said David McMurray, Laurier’s vice president: student affairs.

Along with Ontario universities growing as a whole, McMurray also stated that the school needs to take in more students as the provincial government retracts some of its funding. “You had to grow to pay the bills. Until the last two years the government wasn’t providing full funding for every student.”

“Growth has been an economic necessity for us and we’ve also been very attractive to students,” said Max Blouw, president of WLU. “Our rate of inflation on wages, salaries and benefits is on the order of five, six, seven per cent per year. We don’t have that funded by government so we’re growing our student numbers to balance the books.”

Since the Waterloo campus is considerably smaller than many other university campuses, especially when compared to schools such as the University of Waterloo, it has experienced a higher density of students in a smaller space.

When asked if the Waterloo campus was reaching its capacity, Blouw replied, “No, it hasn’t reached its capacity, if you look at the master campus plan we don’t need to expand in area very much, but the intensity can be increased while also increasing green space.”

While the construction of buildings such as the Global Innovation Exchange (GIE) Building will help manage Laurier’s growth and allow for more room to grow, the university, in the mean time, still has to come up with ways to keep students content and productive.

Managing the growth

To help manage its expansion, especially for the incoming first-years, the university continues to lease out space in privately-owned buildings as student residences until newer buildings, as dictated in the campus master plan, are constructed.

In terms of academics, however, many professors in recent years have addressed concerns about class sizes. In the collective agreement with full time faculty, the school must maintain a ratio of 25 students to one instructor.

“It’s very expensive to maintain because you’ve got to hire, got to add more classes, more sections, more professors, more teachers and instructors to meet the ratio, it’s a commitment,” said McMurray.

“[But] you can’t keep adding staff, you got to do things for creatively and innovatively sometimes.”

Deborah MacLatchy, vice president: academic and provost, mentioned that new teaching practices are emerging to deal with larger classes, such as utilizing technology more effectively and the addition of interactive videos in lecture halls, especially in science classrooms.

“We have some exceptional examples and growing examples of being able to use pedagogy for classrooms that is very effective,” she said.
For many years, WLU has been considered a small to medium sized university, but even though it is more of a medium sized school, many are trying to keep the mentality of a small-knit community.

“The word ‘small’ you don’t hear as often because we’re not 6,000 students anymore,” explained McMurray. “The interesting thing to me is that we’re trying to keep the big, small. The approaches that we’re taking to personalize and enhance the community and provide different levels of student support.”

“By numbers we’d be considered a medium sized university but by mentality we still behave like a small institution,” explained Deborah Bergen, acting associate registrar, admissions. “The students certainly exemplify this in so many ways.”
McMurray also noted that, even though Laurier is growing a lot, it’s still smaller than its neighouring schools, “I think students come here thinking it’s a small place because it is comparatively to the other campuses that they’re applying to.”

Implementing the changes

Some changes have already occurred across campus to help manage this growth. One of the more noticeable changes has been the improvements in and the increase of study space. Along with the newly renovated Two-Four Lounge and Concourse, students will also have access to more electrical outlets in some areas around campus such as the dining hall.

“You need the dining hall to be a dining hall for certain parts of the day, but maybe at other parts of the day you need it to be a study hall,” continued MacLatchy. “So it’s about how you make that space flexible and to use it for all needs.”

Study space has been a concern at Laurier for the last couple of years and will continue to be an issue on campus, but once new buildings are built, space will be available.

“It may not help the student who is graduating this year, but over the next few years we’re going to see a really big change here as far as what the footprint is going to allow us to do,” added MacLatchy.

A multi-campus identity

Laurier is currently split up between two different campuses and there are still talks about the possibility of a Milton campus. As Brantford becomes increasingly popular — and if Laurier acquires a Milton campus — then the school will have to adopt more of a multi-campus identity.

“Laurier’s model of staying small but getting large by being multi-campus, is a strong approach so we’re not just building in one location, we’re building in multiple locations,” explained MacLatchy.

But the decision for a Milton campus lies heavily in the hands of the provincial government, as they are accepting proposals from multiple universities in the area. They will then choose which university will receive the space and funding.

“We’re waiting to see how that process shapes up, and when we understand that better we’ll be prepared to move forward,” said Blouw.

Overall, both McMurray and Blouw feel that the university has been managing the growth well, mainly because they haven’t had to make substantial budget cuts in the last few years. “All in all I think the growth has been managed very well, I’m pleased with the student satisfaction,” concluded Blouw.

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