Main Navigation

Home U Rising Keith Diaz Moore: Imagining–and creating–a vibrant, 21st century campus


Keith Diaz Moore, who served as the dean of Architecture+Planning at the U for nearly a decade, has a new role as the associate provost for institutional design and strategy. His assignment: Help the U develop into a vibrant, 21st century campus with the buildings and amenities needed to serve the educational, research and social missions of a university that serves 40,000 students. On this episode of U Rising, host Chris Nelson talks with Keith about his background in human-centered design, how his grandmother’s experience in a nursing home shaped his architectural career, and how Keith envisions his new role. And find out how Keith started one of the U's best graduation traditions!

Subscribe to the U Rising podcast on your favorite streaming platform, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. You can also access episodes of U Rising on our news website, linked here.


Chris Nelson: Welcome to U Rising, where we share stories about research, innovations and key initiatives taking place at the University of Utah. I'm your host, Chris Nelson.

My guest today is Dr. Keith Diaz Moore, who is the associate provost for institutional design and strategy. This is a new position at the U and a new role for Keith, who was the dean of the College of Architecture+Planning for nearly 10 years.

We're going to learn today what this new role entails and how it intersects with the university's plans for growth. Welcome to U Rising, Keith.

Keith Diaz Moore: Wonderful to be here, Chris.

Chris Nelson: For our listeners who aren't familiar with your background, tell us a little bit about your academic field of study and just how you got to the University of Utah.

Keith Diaz Moore: Sure. I'm an architect by training and so after my schooling, I worked in New York and Chicago for a number of years doing things that architecture students dream of—you know, big buildings, things being published.

                            Keith Diaz Moore

But my specialty emerged from the fact that my grandmother developed Alzheimer's disease and when I went back and visited her in the early ‘90s, this was the phase where there were lockdown wings in nursing homes. And as soon as I visited her, I knew we could do better. And so that became my area of passion. How do you design for someone that's cognitively impaired? And I think one of the things that I take out of that that really was useful is as an architect, it's about processes. How do you engage in this? And what we often find when we're dealing with somebody, with another, somebody that we can't quite fully understand, is we often take a look at their losses.

And so dementia early on was focused on, ‘Oh gosh, they get agitated, they wander a lot.’ And what really became important out of that as someone trying to make their lives better is how do you  reframe that? And so rather than saying, Well, we need to minimize agitation, what if you say, They’re really energetic and how do we give them outlets for that energy? The fact that they wander? Well, they're explorers, they're curious. The short attention span? They're spontaneous. And so if you start thinking about designing for somebody that's spontaneous and an explorer and has energy, there are positive solutions that you can begin to come up with and you restore their humanity. And that's at the heart of human-centered design.

Chris Nelson: Interesting. Talk about your journey to the University of Utah. So, I'm always intrigued with you're a successful faculty member and a scholar and suddenly you get this administration bug and you want to be a dean. So, what was that like?

Keith Diaz Moore: So, my initial job in academia was at Washington State University and I was an assistant professor of architecture, landscape architecture, actually. And then I was able to go to the University of Kansas to be chair of their architecture program and then moved up to associate dean of graduate studies. And then I was really fortunate in 2014 that the University of Utah came calling and asked me to be the dean of the College of Architecture+Planning. And I guess what gave me the bug was really thinking about, as I was teaching students, it seemed as though our profession, and this is not terribly uncommon, but our profession was not advancing as quickly as the students clearly could see where it needed to go. So emergent issues were this notion of social justice, sustainability and we just weren't getting there as quickly as we could. So I felt some imperative to begin to have conversations in whatever place would have me about how do we further that? And it was very gratifying to see that resonate here in Utah, where our college exploded. It went from about 300 students to over 800 this fall. So almost tripling over 10 years.

Chris Nelson: So, continuing on your pathway, you've gone from the professor to administrator and now a new role as associate provost for, make sure I get it right, design and strategy. And so tell us about this new role. What are you going to be doing? And I think it's the inaugural role, so give us some context there.

Keith Diaz Moore: Yes. So this is a new position at the university and it's actually a new position in higher ed. We're really at the leading edge on this.

And what the nature of the position is, is it's really asking the question, you know, we're really good at academic planning, thinking about how our people align with the programs that we want to offer, the research programs we want to engage in. But sometimes where we slip is not recognizing that as supportive for that agenda is the physical setting in which we're operating. And I think to give an insight to our listeners, if you just think about the movement that's happened in terms of public health and thinking about the role that the environment plays, whether it's in terms of air quality, access to parks, things of that sort, the fact that we've had a recent director of the center of disease control say your zip code is more impactful than your genetic code on your longevity. We know the physical environment in which we operate has a tremendous impact on health. Well, why would that not also be true for other dimensions of quality of life, such as education?

Chris Nelson: Interesting, and you kind of touched on this, but maybe a deeper dive on, we talk about human-centered design practices that promote social, economic, environmental thriving. Maybe some practical examples, kind of like you just touched on, and even your grandmother's experience a little bit.

Keith Diaz Moore: Absolutely. So there's really kind of two components. I'm trying to simplify those phrases. So the human-centered design, what that's about is as a designer or when you're trying to respond to creating something for someone, and you're right, my grandmother's example highlights this, is one, you have to enter with a great sense of empathy, try to understand them as best as you possibly can.

But secondly, I think one of the aspects that we've talked about in our college is there has to be a sense of humility so that what we're bringing to the table isn't necessarily what to do, but how we're going to go about it and how we're collaboratively going to think about where we're moving forward. The great ideas rest out in the community. It's not just an individual person. And so what architects are really the masters of is the process. What are the questions we need to ask? How do we move along? How do we bring people together to come to that? So that's the human-centered design part of that.

Then the other part of that, in terms of the social, economic, environmental thriving, well, that's really systems thinking. That what we often will do is we'll think about we have a particular need, we will build a building, but that building has cascading effects. It will open certain opportunities and it will constrain other future possibilities downstream. And those are important considerations. And so what you need to think about is not just the place you're making at this time, but that that place operates within a context that's constantly changing in time. And so I think some of the things that this position is challenged to raise are issues of we're not just designing for 2023, our academic buildings last for decades, and so we're designing as much for 2075 as we are for 2023. And so to begin to think about sustainability, adaptability, flexibility in our buildings is really quite critical.

Chris Nelson: So let's bring it back to your job. So you're a former dean. I've got to think that campus planning is like urban planning, but on steroids. I had a boss who described colleges as nation states. And so, deans who are very entrepreneurial, who want certain things, what's your vision, how do you get them to unify around a vision?

Keith Diaz Moore: Sure. I think that's part of the heart of this role. So the way I've been trying to conceptualize it is that it's much more about being a concierge or navigator to what can be a very complex process. So the way projects move here at the university, there are multiple entry points. There are different financial schemes. To challenge a dean to try to figure that out when it's not in their expertise is really somewhat of a waste of energy. The idea would be they have great ideas, how can we begin to have conversations with other deans, others around campus, that might even make those ideas better, and then have someone that can just navigate this process, be the guide at the side in terms of how to move these projects forward and have such an impact on our students and our communities.

Chris Nelson: So, I grew up in Utah. I'm a graduate of the University of Utah, and what I love about our campus is you got Presidents Circle and you've got these beautiful historic, iconic buildings, and then you go half a mile up and you've got our new business school and our new College of Education. What's the evolution? And I assume most campuses across the country, you have institutions that are 150, almost 200 years old. And so I guess my question is are we in an era where this planning is getting better or is that eclectic approach kind of unique to higher ed and something we should embrace?

Keith Diaz Moore: Well, so what happens is, and really this is true for cities as well, is they evolve over time, right? And so they're making statements of their time and what the university, in this case, what the university wants to try to communicate.

And so the fact that that evolves over time, I would say is a very healthy indication of a university that's evolving with the community it's serving. So, I agree, I think Presidents Circle is one of our iconic places on campus, and if you stop and think about what that's really talking about is that's facing the community of Salt Lake in the valley, and it's this shape of an embrace. The two really need to coexist and integrate with one another. And it was a very powerful message that resonates to this day.

Then some of the other buildings that you're talking about, and I would extend it to some of the newer buildings, let's say Lassonde. Lassonde is a really interesting project in that it's this mix of student housing and maker space and innovation space. And what's interesting about that is that was a willingness of this university to say, look, we need to mix things up. We need to be willing to innovate and think about what combinations could really create a very interesting student life. And so that spirit of innovation, I think, is really what captures the university today.

      Lassonde Studios, a live and learn space in the center of campus.

Chris Nelson: Interesting. Yeah, I mean the buildings definitely reflect the eras. I love that. They also communicate identity, place, values. I think of a building like Orson Spencer Hall that's no longer on campus being replaced by Gardner Commons. I'm intrigued, though, that the buildings that are iconic, that stick together, we make a choice to preserve Presidents Circle and other buildings come down over time. Thoughts on, just from an architectural perspective, these choices we make about what we invest in and what we then choose to say, ‘Hey, that building's passed its prime.’

Keith Diaz Moore: Sure. Well, there's all sorts that go into that, obviously. So, I think in terms of Presidents Circle, there's for that 19th century architecture about higher ed, so not only Presidents Circle, but if you look elsewhere across the country, there was just a very strong sense of what the educational mission was and how that would reflect itself in classrooms. And if you go into those buildings, you'll actually see, they typically have very high ceilings. They're typically open floor plans, columns are widespread out, and what you have are just basic principles there that allow for flexibility over time.

And I think one of the best buildings on campus to reflect that is actually what's now the Crocker Science Center. So we're talking about a building that served as a library. It's served as the Natural History Museum of Utah. Now it's this wonderful Crocker Science Center. And that's because it just had really good design principles to it.

And I think that that's what really allows buildings to stay. And there's a phrase in architecture that's called about how buildings learn, how can buildings learn to do something else over time? And that's what you're really looking for. I think when you're making these kinds of investments, are buildings that have wonderful image to them, they say something about the university but are also adaptable to use.

            Architecture+Planning Building

So I think some of the other buildings that we have in that regard, I would actually put my architecture building in that regard. A lot of people don't necessarily like brutalist architecture, and I think we have buildings on campus that perhaps are not the strongest example of brutalist architecture, but I would say the architecture building is, in that it just has incredibly strong bones. It's very wide open in terms of its space, and that allows for the flexibility of the systems that have emerged over the 50 years it's existed. I mean, who would've thought about the wireless technology that we would need to embed? And yet this building is easy to embrace it because of the openness with which it was designed. And then it has this wonderful image as you're making this walk up to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. So, I think each building has a unique characteristic, but I think those are some of the characteristics of why something lasts a long time.

Chris Nelson: Alright, so I'm not an architecture scholar, but you brought up brutalist architecture, and I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the SBS tower. I'm not actually sure what we call that. It's probably whether we like, it's probably our most iconic, one of our most iconic buildings. And for those of you who have not been on campus, it's a gosh, what is it, a 10, 13-story kind of concrete tower, right?

The SBS Tower looms over the Social Work building.

Keith Diaz Moore: Right. Yeah. And it's pretty much in the center of campus and in that way it serves as a landmark. It certainly does. But I  think that's kind of the flip side of what I was just talking about. So, the SBS Tower, again, for 50 years, it's served us well, but it was a very tight fit kind of design. And so as we begin to take a look at what might be the lifespan of that building, I can tell you some of the things we wrestle with is that because it was so tightly fit, it's hard to retrofit. It kind of is what it is, and it's just going to be very expensive to try and address. And so that's a building that is not learning, that's a building that was designed to do a very specific function at a very specific time, and it just is not adaptable to change.

Chris Nelson: I think I know the answer, but do you have a favorite building on campus?

Keith Diaz Moore: Well, I'm actually going to surprise you, I think. Okay. I would say the Natural History Museum of Utah is actually my favorite. I think that building, it's tied to the landscape, it's tied to the place in terms of its material selection, it's a statement about bringing people together. And it's wonderful canyon that it has as you enter that, the way it serves the research function as well as the educational function, it's a tremendous building. And then on top of it, the effort that's made to be sustainable over time, is really quite tremendous. And the fact that they have ambitions to make it even more so in that regard, that is a landmark building.

Chris Nelson: We've never talked about this, but a question for you. What is the university's relationship to the surrounding community? So, from an architectural perspective. So you think of Salt Lake City, you think of the surrounding neighborhood like Yale Crest and Federal Heights. I know for some of our listeners, they're going to say the University of Utah is typically not a great neighbor. We're big, we've got 70,000 people who come every day, we're driving through their neighborhoods. But in other ways, we are kind of a city inside of a city. And I'm curious from your perspective, as we think about this, what should that relationship be to the surrounding community?

Keith Diaz Moore: Sure. So I think part of that rests in the fact that the identity of the university is changing. So I think it's fair to say for a number of decades it's been a commuter campus. And clearly where we're headed now is that we really want it to be much more of a residential campus. And there's all sorts of reasons for that. But with that, I think if you just begin to take a look at the numbers, you put your finger on it, it's a city within a city. So, if we take a look at a university that right now it's about 35,000 students and 20,000 employees. If they're all here, it's a top 20 city in Utah that is on this property. And I think we sometimes lose track of that. And so how we integrate with the community around us, it goes beyond just integrating buildings.

It has to do with infrastructure, movement patterns, I mean all sorts of things because we really are a city that's adjacent to our neighboring communities. But the idea will be how do we get the neighboring communities to realize that the idea of the university is changing, that it will begin to have more people and how can we embrace them in that idea that there's actually advancements that happen in communities as they grow. And what are the enrichment opportunities that the university presents? I mean, how unique to be so close in those neighborhoods to the cultural advantages, the athletic activities. I mean, there are reasons people want to live in those neighborhoods, and my gut tells me the university is probably a big reason why.

Chris Nelson: So, along those lines, you mentioned this, President Randall has a vision to grow our campus to 40,000 students. A lot more first years living on campus. We're looking at almost a $1 billion in annual research funding, which is significant research space. So, in your new role, you'll be working with our facilities teams, but the space implications. . .  I've heard our chief real estate officer talk about we need to stop, I think he describes it as suburban growth, and think more urban. We can't think out anymore. We've got to start thinking up. But what are the implications for your new job as we look at all this growth?

Keith Diaz Moore: Sure, absolutely. Well, it's one of the reasons I took the position. It's a very exciting proposition that's being placed here. It's rethinking what the university ought to be in this 21st century. And I think that notion that you were saying, that the chief real estate officer was saying, well, part of that is because we're landlocked. But a whole other part of that is that if we start thinking about a city, thinking of the university as a city, well, it's not just about providing 5,000 new student housing over the next few years, right, which is the desire, but now all of a sudden that means what are the other aspects of community life that need to be embedded here? So it's not just they're here not just for an educational mission, they're here for social life. They are here for what it takes to make it through your life, so grocery stores, pharmacy, all those kinds of support functions really begin to need to be part of that enlivening the community to become a 24/7 city. And yes, some of our students are up at three in the morning, so we need to be . . .

Chris Nelson: Some of our researchers are as well.

Keith Diaz Moore: Exactly, exactly. So we need to begin to design for that vitality that we really want and to begin to think about how that begins to change, what is really a wonderful university setting, keep its characteristic. Many people don't know it's actually a state arboretum. How do we keep its characteristic of that, but also integrate ideas of city life, I think, is exactly the challenge that faces us.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I spent much of my career working at University Hospital and it's such a magical place to me because it’s one of those 24/7 places like the airport. There's always something going on, that Starbucks is always open. And when I came to main campus, you've got that iconic Presidents Circle. It's a very geographically diverse campus. I mean in terms of the space that we need.

Keith Diaz Moore: Absolutely it is. And I think that's where I think an advantage we have. You talked about Presidents Circle and the fact that it has developed in different areas. So, for instance, over the last decade we've really been filling in what used to be a golf course and so forth. The advantage of that is we actually have the beginning of the idea of neighborhoods and it's neighborhoods that really create a sense of community.

So, yes, somebody may be part of Salt Lake City, but I bet they're also consider themselves part of Federal Heights or part of the Ballpark neighborhood, and that it has certain characteristics. And that's the advantage that I think we really have here at the University of Utah. Emphasize that idea of neighborhoods. What are they about? Is this an area about innovation? Is this an area about the arts? Is this an area about STEM and so forth? I think we have great opportunities to really create unique, iconic neighborhoods as we develop.

Chris Nelson: I love the idea. I think of the athletics corridor and the fine arts corridor and the health care corridor. Let's do a little bit of work here. So new position on campus. A lot of our listeners obviously are campus employees. What's your message when they get that phone call, email from you? What should they know about this role that you're coming to talk to them about?

Keith Diaz Moore: Well, I would go back that really, what the challenge of this position is to innovate where we want to go in terms of the built environment and recognizing that our physical setting has a great deal of impact, whether it's our teaching mission, our research mission or community impact. And so when I'm reaching out, there's probably an opportunity on the table in terms of what is possible and that my role is, as I said, that of a concierge or navigator that I want to help them along in terms of achieving the dreams and aspirations that the various deans and the university has to really creating what is a leading edge, 21st century campus.

Chris Nelson: Alright, Keith, last question. Let me take you back to your time as dean. I'm going to play a clip from the 2019 commencement. The first voice you'll hear is former President Ruth Watkins. I'll play that and then I'll ask you the background of this. So here we go.

Audio clip of Former President Ruth Watkins: I would like to invite my colleagues, the academic deans, to present the candidates from their respective colleges, Dean Diaz Moore.

Audio clip of Keith Diaz Moore: And now ladies and gentlemen, get ready to put your hands together for Utah's newest design thinkers, environmental caretakers and place makers, the candidates from the College of Architecture+Planning. Will you please rise and be recognized?

Chris Nelson: And the crowd went crazy! So, you were asked, I think you're the first dean who did that. Tell me about the evolution of that at graduation and the role of deans.

Keith Diaz Moore: Oh, absolutely. Well, first, I mean, commencement's just one of the glorious days and students have accomplished so much. And what they want to do is celebrate, and they certainly wanted to embrace that.

But where it came from was that was the first year Ruth asked the deans to announce the candidates and it didn't even dawn on me the fact that I was, as the College of Architecture+Planning starts with an “A,” that I would go first. So I'm sitting there and I'm realizing I'm going first and I also have President Taylor Randall, who's dean of the School of Business next to me, and I realize he's going to go next. So I'm thinking my tiny college versus his immense school, how am I going to get the crowd into this? It was interesting because that year they said, they gave us a very strict script. I was thinking, well, they told us what we had to say, but they didn't tell us how to say it. And so that's where that came from. I was like, let me try and generate some enthusiasm here. And then it just took off from there. And to the credit of my dean colleagues, they ran with it. They developed very personalized messages and it's just become somewhat of a tradition.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, it is one of my favorite things. Like you said, it helps celebrate and it brings some fun to what otherwise can sometimes be very long ceremony.

Keith Diaz Moore: That's right.

Chris Nelson: Keith, thank you again. Thanks for being our guest on U Rising.

Listeners, that's it for today's episode. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I hope you'll tune in next time. I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.