Saving Spaces, Serving Students

How Brian Yolitz maintains, preserves, and renovates Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ 54 campuses with confidence

As the associate vice chancellor for facilities at Minnesota’s largest single provider of higher education, Brian Yolitz readily characterizes the 2010s as a time of transition. He is responsible for the maintenance, preservation, and renovation of the system’s 54 state college and university campuses; and while he faces a variety of economic and environmental challenges, he has the leadership experience and versatile approach to meet the mission with confidence.

“Gone are the days when the instructor sat in front of the class and went through a bunch of slides [and] then we all went back to our dorm rooms and did homework,” he laughs. “We’re making sure that our classrooms are reflective of new approaches to teaching through teamwork and collaborative learning, while making our space as efficient and flexible as possible.”

Yolitz strongly believes that the system should ensure that its graduates will be workforce-ready. And if they aren’t, it won’t be due to the learning environment. With local and global economies undergoing unprecedented changes, it’s as important as ever to make sure that the students are learning in an up-to-date professional environment. He cites the renovated automotive technician and manufacturing technology lab spaces at Anoka Technical College as an example of how facilities can serve both students and employers.

“When they go out to the workplace, they’re experienced,” he says. “‘I worked on this before,’ as opposed to some archaic thing.”

Navigating change is nothing new for Yolitz. Through 27 years in the US Air Force, he commanded two civil engineer squadrons and served as an aide to the chief of staff before his final tour of duty as the director for installations for US Air Forces Central Command. His work ranged from operations and maintenance to strategic planning for air force facilities across the Middle East.

He credits the US Air Force with providing the tools and experience to lead and support people through times of transition. “The military does a really good job of providing leadership opportunities early on in your career,” he says. His time in the air force was itself “a time of major change,” so he grew familiar with how people respond—and how best to lead through those challenges.

“The population here is contracting a little bit. Our high school graduation rate has slowed a bit, and there just [aren’t] as many students coming,” Yolitz says. “So how do we best serve these students in a cost-effective way?” With tuition rates frozen and state appropriations “a bit tight,” he has to navigate delicately to provide efficient, modern spaces for faculty, staff, and students. Some campuses might have more space than can be effectively used, requiring reduction; or, administrators might conceive of a new role for an underutilized structure.

For instance, four hours north of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Memorial Hall occupies a prestigious spot at Bemidji State University. Yolitz describes it as a “front door to the campus,” but this 1940s-era field house was hardly used to its potential. Meanwhile, administrators recognized a need to consolidate programs on the main part of campus. Yolitz’s task, then, was to make this tired gymnasium the glittering new home of the College of Business.

Now, Memorial Hall is a space that reflects the modern business environment, featuring the collaborative spaces and information technology that students will encounter in the workplace.

LHB, a Minnesota architectural and engineering firm, and Kraus-Anderson, general contractor, have preserved the building’s history as well. A ticket booth in the entrance hall reminds visitors that student-athletes once played basketball at the facility. Further evidence of the building’s past includes exposed flooring reclaimed from the court itself and a number of the court’s bleachers repurposed as wall covering.

“It’s just really nuanced. There [are] a lot of neat architectural elements that have this link back to the history of the building and the activity that took place,” Yolitz says.

Since the campus facilities departments do not have a large in-house workforce of design professionals, Yolitz and his team rely on organizations such as LHB and Kraus-Anderson to deliver quality solutions.

“We’re blessed with some very good architects and engineers here in the state, as well as some great general contractors. . . . [It’s] very important what they do for us and for the State of Minnesota,” he says.

Also at Bemidji State University, the team is actively seeking state funding for a new academic learning center to replace the long-standing Hagg-Sauer Hall. While the original plan was to replace its 83,000 square feet one-for-one (“Maybe even build a bigger one,” Yolitz poses) further review suggested that they could find a more efficient way forward.

Through an iterative, collaborative process guided by CFO Bill Maki and then-president Dick Hanson, the team eventually settled on a 29,000-square-foot recommendation. The facility will meet every need of Bemidji State’s academic programs, but with a reduced carbon footprint and a host of energy-efficient lighting and air-conditioning solutions. Yolitz calls it a win-win: “Full complement of services, reduced operating expenses, and the flexible classrooms that allow us to teach in multiple pedagogies.”

Those public-facing renovations are exciting, but the facilities also require a great deal of less-glamorous maintenance. The Minnesota State system’s 28,000,000 square feet of space comprise one-third of the state government’s buildings. A well-maintained facility uses less energy and defies future restoration expenses, so Yolitz and his team work hard to demonstrate the importance of that investment. Still, after his time in the air force, Yolitz knows how to make his case to a legislature, earn the funding, and act as a good steward of the taxpayer’s dollar.

“What’s neat is that there are a lot of people like me in the higher education facilities business,” he says, listing other institutions that now employ his fellow service members. “We served together in the military. Now we’re serving in different capacities, linked together in our desire to provide good facilities.”

THE STATE OF AFFAIRS

Anoka Technical College

• A new automotive lab and machining program support the needs of the northwest Twin Cities

Bemidji State University

• Once an aging, underutilized field house, Memorial Hall now serves as home to the College of Business

• Hagg-Sauer Hall will eventually be replaced with a leaner, more efficient academic center for the education program

Hibbing Community College

• A redesigned student services area will guide prospective students more effectively through the admissions process, eliminating any confusing or intimidating factors