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.