Halls Of Ivy—And Crumbling Plaster

Amid a building boom, colleges scramble for funds to keep up aging facilities

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College students and their parents have come to expect flashy campus amenities: towering research labs, sprawling B-school trading floors, and recreation centers with 50-foot rock-climbing walls. And the nation's universities have in recent years launched a multibillion-dollar construction frenzy akin to an arms race.

What you may not realize is that many existing buildings on the nation's campuses are falling apart. Blame old age and less-than-diligent maintenance. "When dollars are flowing into new facilities," says Terry W. Ruprecht, director of energy conservation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "they aren't flowing into old facilities. It's taking an existing problem and making it worse."

The issue is how schools will pay for this. According to conservative estimates, the nationwide repair bill could reach $40 billion. Asking well-heeled contributors to open their wallets isn't an answer since most philanthropists want to see their names on a fancy new building, not a fixer-upper. "Maintenance doesn't have that allure to a private donor," says James E. Alty, director of facilities services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a result, students and their parents are more and more expected to foot the bill, especially at state schools where funding is tight.

More than half the buildings on U.S. campuses were slapped up in the 1960s and '70s, a period when enrollment nearly doubled. Today those buildings are pushing 40. It's not a pretty picture. At Kansas State University, limestone exteriors are crumbling, the electrical system shoots sparks on humid days (workers call the control room the Frankenstein room), and the wind whistles through the eight-foot, single-pane windows at Waters Hall, whose deteriorating frames date back to 1923. The University of Illinois, meanwhile, has just completed a new $80 million institute for genomic research but has a backlog of repairs that will consume as much as $600 million. Chapel Hill's outstanding maintenance bill: $400 million, on top of 25 new building projects. And so it goes, from coast to coast.

To deal with the problem, schools are hiring consultants to conduct on-site assessments and prioritize maintenance projects. Others are seeking additional state funding, borrowing cash, or diverting existing budgetary funds to the most pressing projects. Several universities are adding a surcharge to tuition fees to help cover the outlay. At the Illinois campus of 41,000, students were hit with a $500 annual maintenance fee last fall--raised to $520 this year--to bring in more than $20 million a year for the campus' $573 million worth of high-priority repairs and replacements.

Sometimes the buildings are so outmoded that fixing them is just not worth it. The University of Texas at Houston is simply demolishing five buildings in need of updates and building anew. But even that is not a solution. Tearing down the 17-floor, limestone-and-steel Houston Main building next year will cost $6 million, not to mention the $250 million to build a new medical research and treatment facility in its place.

Having learned their lesson from the '60s building boom, universities these days are planning new projects with long-term costs in mind and investing in energy-efficient, low-maintenance designs. But there's only so much they can do. The shorter lifespan of the electronic gizmos found on the modern campus--interactive whiteboards, motorized window shades, and remotely operated lighting--means frequent upgrades. And with enrollments rising, the cost of accommodating additional students will rise, too. William A. Daigneau, head of facilities at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, says considerations such as these must be top of mind. "Once you've got that brand-new asset," he says, "you've got a liability."

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By Jane Porter

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