At their October meeting, the University of Minnesota regents approved a plan to request the Legislature issue $200 million in Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) bonds for each of the next six years for the restoration of existing U facilities.
Almost one-third of the buildings on the Twin Cities campus (7.4 million square feet) are rated in poor or critical condition by the university administration. In February 2016, a university assistant vice president reported that the administration should be spending twice as much as it was spending simply to maintain university facilities in their current condition. (See page 8 of the Feb. 23, 2016, Senate Committee on Finance & Planning report at tinyurl.com/u-spending; click on “Meeting Minutes”.)
The costs of maintenance and restoration of existing facilities on all campuses are projected to be a staggering $4.77 billion over the next 10 years. The administration acknowledges that “a growing deferred renewal backlog has widespread impacts on academic programs, research initiatives, student experiences, and general competitiveness.” (See pages 4-5 of the October 2019 Finance & Operations Committee docket at tinyurl.com/2019-docket.)
This is the consequence of the decadeslong failure of the administration to allocate sufficient funds for the maintenance of academic facilities. At a meeting in October 2017, the university vice president responsible for infrastructure described to the regents how “insufficient stewardship” has increased the backlog of necessary maintenance. (See page 3 of the October 2017 BOR docket at tinyurl.com/2017-docket.)
During those same years, the costs of administration have skyrocketed. The former chair (and current member) of the Board of Regents has declared that the current business model of the university is “unsustainable.” (See the final paragraph on page 14 of the September 2017 BOR Friday docket at tinyurl.com/u-unsustainable.)
In the 2018 legislative session, the administration requested $200 million in HEAPR bonds. The Legislature approved $45 million. In the 2019 session, the administration again requested $200 million in HEAPR bonds. The Legislature did not pass a bonding bill, so the university received zero.
Even if the Legislature unexpectedly issued $200 million in HEAPR bonds for each of the next 10 years, the total would be less than half of what the administration deems necessary to restore the crumbling academic infrastructure. It is clear that the administration will have to start spending a far greater share of university funds on academic infrastructure and a far lesser share on the costs of administration. (See a previous commentary of mine in the Star Tribune — “U pare: The need to cut administrative costs at the University of Minnesota,” April 7 — at tinyurl.com/u-pare.)
Just as the maintenance of roads and bridges is an essential task for state and local governments, the maintenance of academic facilities should be a priority for an institution of higher education. We need an administration and a Board of Regents that will allocate the substantial resources of the university to the right priorities.
Michael W. McNabb is an attorney. Color-coded campus maps on the condition of University of Minnesota buildings are available at tinyurl.com/u-buildings.