The Perverse Economics of College Construction

I’m having a little trouble typing, because the temperature in my office at the moment is around 55 F, and my hands are getting really cold. This is because of “deferred maintenance,” which means “we’re saving money by not maintaining the air-handling systems in our academic buildings (among other things).” The budget has been tight every year since I got here, and this building is fairly old, so things don’t work as well as they might.

The background noise while I’m typing is the sound of construction on the new Wold Building (webcam link). This is a multi-million-dollar new building containing offices, labs, and classrooms (and a gigantic atrium), that will house faculty in various science and engineering programs.

How can these two situations go hand in hand?

The answer has to do with the way colleges and universities fund their operations. Normal day-to-day activities are funded through tuition, fees, and endowment income, which is budgeted pretty tightly. Large capital projects are founded by donations from wealthy individuals, in this case John Wold, class of mumble, who is a very nice man who made a great deal of money in the energy business.

The problem is, maintaining existing buildings is not glamorous, so it is exceedingly difficult to get any wealthy people to pay for things like a functional modern air-handling system, or windows that provide some insulation, or any of that sort of thing. A new building, on the other hand, will be named after the major donor(s), and that’s much more attractive.

So, even though we can’t afford to keep the buildings we already have in an appropriate condition for faculty to work in, we build new space. that we will also not be able to maintain, so ten years from now, some new faculty person will be sitting in an office in the building that is now so shiny and new, complaining that they can’t feel their fingers because the heat doesn’t work.

It’s absolutely maddening.

My advice to you, should you ever find yourself with several million dollars to donate to your favorite institution of higher education, is this: Don’t buy into the glamorous new space that they’re trying to sell you on building. When you make your donation, insist that it be used to upgrade and maintain existing spaces.

The people who build their careers on demonstrating the ability to get sparkling new facilities built won’t like it, but the faculty and students will love you forever.

15 thoughts on “The Perverse Economics of College Construction

  1. Could be worse. You could be in a cockroach infested no fire alarm containing biology research building while they re-renovate the D1A football stadium to add more luxury boxes :p

    Cockroaches will eat the bacteria of a petri dish, if anyone was curious.

  2. Does Union’s alumni affairs office (whatever name it goes by) have somebody whose job it is to schmooze potential megadonors and make some attempt to channel their donations in a useful direction? The places I am familiar with do, and such persuasion is sometimes successful. It won’t help if your donor has his mind set on funding the Donor’s Name Here Center for Underwater Basketweaving; the best outcome in that scenario is to get something more useful like the Donor’s Name Here Center for Science Education. But maybe he will settle for having the big lecture hall that results from the renovation your building so desperately needs be the Donor’s Name Here Auditorium. You can’t know until you try.

    Besides which, does Union actually need the space? There is a demographic bubble going through college about now, after which the available pool of students will start shrinking again (and that’s before considering affordability for private colleges and universities).

  3. When I was in school, it always angered me that there was not enough room in the upper-level classes for everyone that wanted to take them, but they were constantly building brand-new unnecessary (in my opinion) buildings to not have more classes in.

  4. Yeah they were leaving the agar alone. You could see the wedge shaped clear areas on the surface of the plate where they fed. The miracle of antibiotics in the media is what prevented it from being even more disgusting :p

  5. I think there are multiple things at play here. First, I think it is legitimately difficult to get most donors to give money to straightforward renovation/ maintenance of existing buildings. On top of that, the people who do fundraising know that it’s difficult to get money for this sort of project, so they don’t generally bother pushing hard for it. And on top of that, people who are out to make a career for themselves in the administration and fundraising world have an incentive to push for bigger, more glamorous construction projects, because saying “I raised $40 million to build a new Interdisciplinary Performing Arts Stadium” is more impressive to potential new employers than “I raised $20 million to fix the plumbing and heating system in our 1970-vintage science center.”

    And, of course, because they don’t put as much effort into maintenance funding as they put into new construction funding, they don’t get maintenance funding, which contributes to the general knowledge that you can’t get money for that sort of thing, and on and on.

  6. JohnV, I think by “disgusting” you mean “awesome”! Of course, I’m I microbiologist, so I would think that…Sounds like preliminary data to me 🙂

  7. A few years back we had some “deferred” maintenance during the middle of winter, but in the exact opposite direction. Our building’s heating system was stuck on “ON” for three days. The temps were in the low 90s by the third day. The maintenance people were afraid of turning it off because it wouldn’t turn back on…and they were right.

    BTW, we just got a brand spanking new DONOR NAME HERE sport arena.

  8. When you come back from christmas and find that your lab mates have dedicated your bench to this experiment, you will consider it disgusting and not awesome 😛

  9. It’s administrivia. Capital construction is a different line item from maintenance, which in turn is a different line item from faculty pay. The term used by university adninistrators is: “Not all money is green.”

    My wife and I more than winced at a 2001 Caltech reception, where the university President boasted of how Gordon Moore (of “Moore’s Law”) and his wife donated $600 million to Caltech, the largest gift ever to an institution of higher education. He said that he wants the gift to be used to keep Caltech at the forefront of research and technology. Moore was chairman of Caltech’s board of trustees from 1994 to 2000, and continues as a trustee today. In 2003, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Then he said: “Line up over there to buy drink chips.” They are like casino chips, and are redeemed at the cash bar.

    So Caltech just got 6 tenths of a billion dollars, and nobody would buy me a beer?

  10. It could be worse. You could be in South Korea:

    1. There is no central air/heating in schools at any level. Common areas, including rest rooms, are open to the elements, even in the winter, when windows are always open at both ends of hallways in rest rooms (surely, Benjamin Franklin would have adored this country) Rooms use kerosene space heaters that spew noxious fumes, although students never remove their layers.

    2. Universities not only use government funds to build new buildings, they recycle them. And, instead of paying bonuses to programs receiving acclaim or monies explicitly attached to curricula, administrations use the monies to construct new buildings.

    Universities are just magnets for corruption.

  11. In our university in the UK, Queen’s University, we had a similar situation – though unrelated to the largess of wealthy donors. The university could apply for grants to build and stock open-access computer centres, but they had to supply staff and pay for maintenance themselves. The end result was a constant stream of new open-access centres coming online, with the older ones becoming more decrepit and hard to maintain as they were starved of cash. On paper Queen’s had great computer access for its students, reality was a bit harsher.

  12. I work for a state agency that is housed on the BigStateU campus (and everybody thinks we’re part of the university). I could share my own 55 degree office story but I’ll just second the space heater suggestion – screw energy efficiency you need warmth. We found it is close to impossible to do meaningful office work below 65 degrees. Luckily our was easily fixable, once we convince maintenance that we (me and my coworkers on this hall) weren’t just whiners.

    We work with a several of universities regularly (usually with sub-contracts going one way or the other). I seem to remember my boss saying that schools get to add extra overhead for capital projects, so there is incentive to keep building new stuff and little to incentive to fixing older buildings.

    Here they do a pretty good job of keeping buildings livable but ‘biggering’* the university is a stated goal of the current administration. There has been new construction of something (dorms, new buildings, parking lots/garages) constantly for the last 4 years.

    *For reference, see my favorite Suess book, “The Lorax”, an excellent choice for Steelykid when she’s a little older.

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