Industry pros, faculty
chart college's future

“What will it take to make the
Texas A&M College of Architecture
the best school of architecture
in the world?”...

...The question, extemporaneously posed at a Dean’s Advisory Council meeting by Texas A&M College of Architecture outstanding alumnus Jimmy Tittle, was the flashpoint for a series of workshops organized by the council and aimed at charting the college’s path into the 21st Century.

To answer the question, the 22-member council—composed of international leaders in the architecture, planning, landscape architecture and construction professions—joined an equal number of faculty and administrators from the College of Architecture for two daylong brainstorming sessions. David Sibbet, a process consultant with San Francisco-based The Grove Consultants International, facilitated the meetings in Houston and Dallas.

The process, which will continue at a third meeting slated for March 2004 in College Station, began with visualization and information gathering exercises that established the context and goals for the meetings. As participants interacted, Sibbet deftly sketched giant multicolored charts that eventually papered the conference room walls.

“Start with visualizing some of the ideas,” the facilitator told the crowd of about 40 gathered for the first session held July 1, 2003 at the Westin Galleria in Houston. “Develop a picture of ‘what it takes,’ then work it the way you would work a design. At some point in the future you will have a representation of where you want to go.”

Harold Adams, former chairman of RTKL Associates Inc. and sponsor of the first session, echoed Sibbet’s idea.

“I believe greatly in the process of what the avant-garde people used to call ‘raise on the future,’” Adams said. “It is the idea of going into the future and seeing what we would like to be like, then stepping back to now and seeing what steps need to happen to make that a go.”

Participants examined the very nature of “the best,” what it means to be the best, and what it might take to earn such a distinction.

Among the myriad comments: “The best schools conduct research with a value transcending what is expected;” “The best schools have an admired image or positive notoriety—a reputation for excellence;” “At the best schools, research finds its way back to the classroom;” “Their students are in demand;” “They have a strong, clear message;” “They are leaders with influence in the industries they represent;” “Their research is innovative, groundbreaking and revolutionary;” “They attract the best students;” “They boast a broad base and diverse talents;” “They attract top-notch, big-name designers who work intimately with students;” “They are solid, reliable and muscular;” “They have a special difference that makes a difference;” “At the best schools, education is not the filling of a bucket, it is the lighting of a fire;” and “‘Best’ depends on who’s judging you; it’s different things to different people.”

Then, from Beaux-Arts to Post-Modernism and beyond, the facilitator rapidly sketched across a 30-foot chart as the group reconstructed the almost 100-year history of the A&M architecture program, which, established in 1905, was the first of its kind in Texas.

Sibbet’s color markers kept squeaking as the council and faculty described the current climate in academia and the professional world.

The A&M College of Architecture was widely perceived as “a strong school in technology that is striving to become a strong school in design.” Further, the college’s programs were hailed among the best in the nation, but there was general agreement that what’s happening at the college “is one of Texas’ best kept secrets.”

“You guys are making a great and positive impact on the world, but nobody knows it,” said one participant who cited the school’s dire need for a marketing strategy and institutional branding campaign.

“Everyone should equate the ‘A’ in A&M with architecture, not agriculture,” said another.

Many of the practicing professionals on the council lamented the results of “150 years of specialization” and the lack of well-educated generalists—“an individual with business acumen, technical know-how and relationship skills”—who could function as a single point of contact for the their clients.

“Our clients want a building,” exclaimed Chuck Thomsen, chairman of 3D/International. “They hate to have to deal with you and me and all of these other folks,” he said, looking around the room at a cross-section of leaders representing all of the built environment professions.

From that discussion arose the idea to create an academic program aimed at training individuals to fill this void in the industry. For lack of a better term, they dubbed this person a “21st Century Master Builder.”

There was also general agreement that the college’s programs should reflect real-world practices where design-build projects with single-source contracts are the norm. Because the A&M College of Architecture is one of the few NAAB accredited schools that house all built environment professions, council members said, it was uniquely suited to create multi-disciplinary programs.

Much of the discussion at both sessions centered on a need to better define the college’s core philosophy, and out of that interaction emerged a host of ideas concerning what the college is now, where it’s going and where it could and should go.

Among the college’s strengths to build on, participants cited its global reach; its signature programs in sustainability, health facilities design and visualization; its ability to integrate all design-build disciplines into its curricula; its leadership in research and research-informed design; mastery of technology; its commitment to environmental stewardship; and the college’s track record of producing graduates with strong character and leadership skills.

In the follow-up session, staged Oct. 7, 2003 at the Melrose Hotel in Dallas, participants picked-up where they left off, identifying ideas that survived the first session, establishing goals and strategizing on bold steps towards their realization.

To facilitate action, Sibbet divided the council and participating faculty and staff into four working groups, each charged with developing a specific agenda: “Core Philosophy,” “New Models in Education,” “the 21st Century Master Builder Program” and “Strategic Marketing and Communications.”

By the end of the Oct. 7 meeting, the group had reached consensus on the major themes to be pursued for next session:
  • Develop revolutionary educational models integrating program curriculum across disciplinary lines—such as a 21st Century Master Builder Program (though the “master builder” title was generally disliked because it excludes then necessary designing and planning talent such a generalist would posess);

  • Embrace and enhance Texas A&M University’s land, sea and space grant mandate—teaching, research and service—with a special emphasis on programs serving Texas communities;

  • Partner with the built environment professions to create mutually beneficial strategic alliances; and

  • Develop specialized centers of excellence for research and teaching.

With these goals in mind, the four working groups have continued their efforts in preparation for the March workshop where the council will once again attempt an answer to Jimmy Tittle’s provocative question.

- The End -

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