Higher Education and the Edifice Complex

Higher Education and the Edifice Complex

Higher Education and the Edifice Complex

It’s been said that colleges and universities have an edifice complex: they like big buildings.

Major donors like having their names on buildings–or at least chiseled into the lobby. Faculty (setting aside the precarious position of adjunct faculty) feel that they need separate offices–even if they often work from home, or the laboratory or library, or even if they go off for a few weeks every year for seminars and lectures at other institutions. The conventional wisdom is that potential students, making their choices, judge by the evidence of their eyes whether the buildings of an institution seem stable and substantial.

My wife and I sometimes note that when you are a child, houses seem like nearly permanent objects, like the Egyptian pyramids. Then when you become a homeowner, it comes as a shock to discover that your house is instead a bunch of systems–roofing, windows, heating/air conditioning, water, electrical, large appliances, carpets, siding, painting–that are continually wearing out and breaking down. Across the country, many colleges and universities have been tempted to take a parallel approach to campus buildings: build them as if they were permanent and unchanging, and then be astonished at the concept of maintenance.

Scott Carlson provides a readable overview of the issues in “The Backlog that Could Threaten Higher Ed’s Viability: A Big Bill for Deferred Maintenance is Coming Due” (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 31, 2023). Carlson writes:

Meanwhile, bricks, steel, concrete, and mortar follow the laws of entropy. As a rule, buildings have two critical stages in their lifetimes: At 25 years, a building needs significant updates and renovations; at 50, a major overhaul of its structure and systems. In recent decades, colleges went through two peaks of construction, one in the early 1970s and another in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Do the math: Two building life cycles will come due in the 2020s.

Lander Medlin, the president and chief executive of APPA, an association of higher-education facilities managers, points out that the construction costs of a building represent only about 25 percent of the total lifetime expenses. Recurring annual costs, like utilities, everyday maintenance, and operations, represent another 35 to 40 percent. The rest is periodic costs in the lifecycle of essential building systems: replacing the roof after 50 years, updating the heating and cooling system after 20, the plumbing and wiring, the building’s skin, and more.

Carlson cites a number of examples: for example, the major state university branch in my own metro area, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, “has a 10-year renewal need of $4.2 billion, with more than seven-million-gross square feet of space in poor or critical condition.” It is not an exceptional case.

Moreover, when money is tight, postponing some deferred maintenance often feels easier than the other options. But the number of college and university students has been declining for a decade now, and the combination of US demographic trends combined with pandemic and political factors that have made the US a less attractive choice for international students, the decline seems likely to fall. For a lot of what faculty members do, including the rise in online classes, work-from-home is a very plausible option.

Thus, the supply of space at institutions of higher education is to some extent already determined by the decisions of the past, and some major categories of demand for the use of that space have been in decline. At some places, it’s not just a matter of deferred maintenance for existing space, but of an overload of space. If you walk around a college campus during the standard workweek, you will often see a substantial office and classroom spaces not being used. At a lot of places, this underuse is especially apparent first thing in the morning, as well as Monday morning and Friday afternoon, when students and faculty would prefer not to be in class.

These issues have been around for awhile. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, an economist who ended up doing a stint as an administrator at Cornell, described some of the issues in a 1999 article: “Adam Smith Goes to College: An Economist Becomes an Academic Administrator” (Journal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 1999). With regard to academic buildings, he wrote:

[O]ur trustees have long been aware that new buildings add to the operating and maintenance cost of the university. A rough estimate is that if the building was expected to have a total project cost of a given amount, it would take an equivalent endowment to provide the funds for utilities, custodial services, and routine and planned maintenance over the useful life of the building. This estimate derives from these costs averaging roughly 4 percent of the project costs and 4 percent is what Cornell ‘‘targets’’ as the annual payout, after investment expenses, on its endowment funds. …

Cornell’s trustees have long required that a plan for meeting operating and maintenance costs be present before construction of a building can begin. Realistically, however, once a major donor has committed to funding half the cost of a building and it has been publicly announced that the building will be named after that donor, the idea that construction on the building would be held up because an endowment for maintenance had not been raised is a non sequitur. Furthermore, our ability to raise the additional construction costs, let alone the endowment for operations and maintenance, was somewhat uncertain and based upon forecasts of our development staff. So, while the university hoped that funds to endow a
maintenance fund for the building will be raised, we instead planned to pay for the needed operating and maintenance funds that will not come out of indirect cost recoveries from our annual operating budgets.

Inevitably then, this new building will compete for funds with faculty positions, graduate student support and faculty salaries. The very same faculty members who vehemently argued that the institution needed the new facilities to remain competitive in the physical sciences and engineering are likely to turn around and chastise the administration for spending too much on buildings and not enough on faculty salaries, new faculty positions, and graduate student support. … Many faculty members understand the tradeoff between buildings and other costs, but apparently only after their unit’s new building is finished.

Raising money for a new building at a college or university can be difficult, but being able to put the donor’s name on the edifice helps. Maybe with some creativity, donors could put their name on the renovation of a building: The Smith Renovation (Re-Imagining? Resurrection?) of good old Jones Hall. Or in some cases, the right answer will be for the college or university to rethink and shrink it’s use of physical space, and the best answer will be the Smith Quadrangle (or playing field, or garden) which will be sitting in the space where good old Jones Hall used to be.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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