Mission Support

August 20th, 2015

I took this photo of the chemistry building at SLU yesterday at 8:15 am. Note that the curb marked “fire lane” and “no parking” is completely full of parked cars.

I tweeted the pic and threw some shade on our Office of Parking and Card Services, because last year, they insisted it would be impossible to allow people in our department to use the curb for short-term loading because of the fire hazard presented by parked cars. True to their word, they have ticketed students and staff in our department who have attempted to run quickly into the building to attend to experiments. Given that none of the cars this morning had parking citations, I can only conclude that vehicles belonging to facilities crews and contractors are special and do not pose the same fire hazard as our cars. Or, perhaps, this is administrative hypocrisy at its finest worst.

At Caltech, parking is treated as a resource meant to support its students and staff. Despite having a campus in densely-populated Los Angeles County, the institute didn’t even charge for parking until around a decade ago, when space started to become limited. My favorite aspect of parking at Caltech was that students and staff could park on yellow-curbed loading zones after 5 p.m. You could drive right up to the door of the lab building! It was wonderfully convenient, and a boon to safety since the walk to your car at night was short.

Given the many benefits of the Caltech system, I thought our department should raise the issue of instituting similar parking policy at SLU. I drafted this letter and sent it up the chain. Unfortunately, little came of it. Our department was granted a few passes that allowed holders to park in a slightly-less-distant parking lot (perhaps, 100 yards away instead of 200) if they need to run inside the building.

The different approaches to parking policy mark a stark contrast in culture between Caltech and SLU. At Caltech, resources are milked to improve the efficiency of students and staff. At SLU, students and staff are milked of financial resources. Perhaps no parking rule illustrates this difference more than how cars are treated at night. Whereas all parking at Caltech is free at night—whether you have a day pass or not—parking at SLU can cost $10, regardless of whether you have a daytime permit. If I attempt to park at the garage closest to the chemistry department on the night of a sports game, SLU will charge me $10. My parking permit is no good. What a wonderful way to treat your researchers!

This picture, from Caltech’s Instagram stream yesterday, illustrates another nice thing that Caltech does:


Must be lunchtime. Caltech ❤️s Ernie’s. #caltech #campus #caltechalumni #summergram #nomnom A photo posted by Caltech (@caltechedu) on


Ernie is a guy who runs a food truck at Caltech. He is an institution within the institution—a legend—serving great food at cheap prices. Caltech could easily boot him off campus and drive students and departments to use campus eateries. But instead, Caltech provides places for Ernie to park his truck, giving students an inexpensive, convenient option to eat. During my official intake meeting with HR at Caltech, the HR representative even took out a photocopied map and highlighted the spots on Ernie’s route. It was awesome.

I would strongly encourage any organization to emulate this behavior and think how it could allocate under-used resources to improve the efficiency and/or morale of its community. Why not let researchers park in loading zones at night? Why not let students use the department’s nice conference room after hours? Or the big-screen of the lecture hall to watch movies?

Why not foster a friendlier, welcoming environment, where your university’s resources are used to support students and staff rather than wring every last penny out of them?

10 Responses to “Mission Support”

  1. 4th year grad student Says:

    Same problem at Duke. Parking services increase fees only to decrease support.

  2. Caltech promotional services Says:

    Thank you ChemBark. Expect payment shortly 😬

  3. Paul Bracher Says:

    It’s a special place in many respects, though I wonder whether the Institute is becoming more mainstream over time.

  4. Jeremiah Says:

    Funding for parking services depends on the institution. Some places receive no budget from the university and raise all their funds through tickets and parking fees. I suspect SLU does this. These fees pay for lot resurfacing, staff, and security. While the financial bruised can be shifted, the scholastic system doesn’t operate that way, in general. Even if it did, what department would get funding cut so students that live off campus (boo) can park their cars close to their building?

    Though I love that you’re still raging against the machine. I was worried you were getting complacent in your old age.

  5. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Jeremiah: I am all for Parking Services raising money to cover the cost of their operation. The change that I proposed was revenue-neutral, except for the tickets issued on that stretch of curb.

    Basically, let our graduate students park there after 6 p.m. They’d still have to buy a parking permit for the day and park in the garage. There are major benefits to efficiency and safety, at essentially zero cost to the university.

  6. FRICKin' Princeton Says:

    Same thing here, but taken up to 11 by one ALMOST retired prof who takes pictures of the license plates of any students who try to park in the visitor lot and sends them to Transportation and Parking Services…

  7. wolfie Says:


  8. BCChemist Says:

    A few years back I shamed Boston College about parking in front of the chemistry building. They allowed TV trucks and generators to park freely in the fire lane directly in front of the building Fridays and Saturdays of football games. Not to mention that the exhaust killed a tree. At least then an email to the president of BC took care of the problem. All it will take is one incident where the fire dept will need to be called. Hope it doesn’t come to that.

  9. Anon Says:

    No dig at CalTech, but I think students need to be accurately prepared for the workforce as well, in the (unlikely) event that academic position is not available for them. So why not ingrain artificial scarcity concepts in their brains from day 1: you need to pay for this, you need to pay for that, this is off-limits, that is off-limits, this you can only have when you’re xyz. That is the mindset that business cares about these days, and that it wants it future employees to have down to an art.

  10. Phil Says:

    Anon: I’m sorry this is the perception you get of “business” but the way smart companies treat their employees is much more like “Caltech” than “SLU.” You want to minimize as much BS hassle as possible to maximize productivity. If artificial scarcity is part of your employer’s culture, you should probably look elsewhere.

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