Minnesota’s public college campuses are deteriorating, and higher education officials say they need state money to fix them.

From basic repairs to sweeping renovations, officials at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems say lack of state funds has forced them to delay key infrastructure projects. Capital needs of the two systems have caught the attention of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who’s made fixing up college campuses a top priority in his final year in office.

The U and Minnesota State are asking lawmakers for more than $220 million each to address mounting backlogs of maintenance and renovation needs. Dayton proposed even more: a total of $542 million to the two campuses to fix their buildings, about a third of his $1.5 billion bonding request to the Legislature.

“Further damaging the future success of our colleges and universities is the chronic inadequacy of our state’s capital investment in their campuses,” Dayton said during his State of the State speech.

At the schools, officials say not getting sufficient money for repairs would force difficult decisions.

“At some point, buildings are going to have to get fixed, or they’re going to have to get closed or … taken down,” said Brian Swanson, the U’s assistant vice president for finance and strategy.

Capital spending for both systems has lagged inflation since the 2008 recession. The U requested more than $1.7 billion in bonding funds in the past decade but got $641 million, about 38 percent. The Minnesota State system asked for around $4 billion in that same time; the Legislature funded just under half that.

Minnesota State officials say “inadequate” funding contributed to $913 million in deferred maintenance across its 54 campuses.

“Your student walking around campus will see spotted or stained or missing ceiling tiles because of roof leaks,” said Brian Yolitz, associate vice chancellor for facilities. “There will be cold or hot classrooms, musty smells. That detracts from the learning environment.”

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said the backlog could balloon above $2 billion in the next decade if requests aren’t met. The U and its five campuses are facing a maintenance backlog expected to exceed $4 billion in the next 10 years.

“We have very, very complex buildings that are getting older … and older. They decay on a fairly predictable rate,” Swanson said.

Nearly half of U campus buildings are at least 50 years old. The university asked for $24 million to renovate Pillsbury Hall, built on the Twin Cities campus in 1889. Without it, Swanson said Pillsbury will be shuttered indefinitely.

Sen. David Senjem, the Rochester Republican who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee, said Minnesota’s higher education system has “huge” infrastructure needs. But competing projects and fiscal restraints make them difficult to fully fund, he said.

Senjem said Dayton’s $1.5 billion bonding proposal is unrealistic, and the final bill will be closer to half of that amount. Still, he said the Legislature will likely spend more on higher education infrastructure than in past years.

“I think we will do well with them, probably at the peril of some other things,” he said.

If capital funding requests continue to go unfulfilled, Yolitz said Minnesota State will have to dip into money meant for academic programs and potentially close buildings. “One bonding bill is not going to solve this,” he said.

Vice President for University Relations Matt Kramer said the U may eventually have to find new ways to fund projects: “If the solution is to depend on the state to make up that difference, I think we’re not being very prudent in terms of our own planning.”

 

Ryan Faircloth is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.