Heaps of repairs are needed at the U and MnSCU

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2014 - 7:06 PM

To modernize, higher educators are daydreaming about getting off the bonding bill roller-coaster.

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Even when the stuff that can be moved is cleared away at the University of Minnesota’s mechanical engineering space (the engine research lab is shown here), there’ll still be a maze of infrastructure that needs to be updated. Many buildings at the U are more than 70 years old. The money for these tasks in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding proposal is less than half of what the two systems seek, but it is a typical amount.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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How do you turn a 20th-century engine research lab into 21st-century University of Minnesota mechanical engineering teaching space? You relocate most of the engines, recycle the fuel drums, untangle the hoses and wires, scrub away the grime — and you’ve only started. A ceiling-level maze of exposed wiring, heating, and plumbing pipes has to go. The circa-1940 single-pane windows need replacement. So do circuit breaker boxes so antiquated that replacement parts are available only on eBay.

How do you do all that? With $34.6 million, or about a third of the $100 million in state general obligation bond financing needed systemwide for building repairs and renovation, the university’s Board of Regents told Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature in October.

Adding $100 million to the renovation fund known in Capitolese as HEAPR (that’s “higher education asset preservation and replacement”) tops the university’s request list this year. The same is true for its sister system, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which is making a $130 million HEAPR request.

Dayton registered his response last week. His proposed bonding bill includes $40 million for HEAPR at each system.

By past bonding bill standards, that’s a typical HEAPR helping. Compared with today’s needs on Minnesota’s public campuses, it’s not enough. Not enough to do the Mechanical Engineering Building renovation — not when it’s one of 71 projects on the university’s HEAPR list. Not enough to catch up after a dozen years of bonding parsimony at the Capitol. Not enough to satisfy Minnesota’s ambition to make its public higher-education systems magnets for talent from around the world.

That’s not just maroon-and-gold boosterism. It’s also the studied conclusion of ISES Corp., a Georgia-based facilities consultant that recently assessed the cost to maintain at current functionality the 29 million square feet that comprise University of Minnesota campuses. The number ISES derived: $160 million per year. In the past five years, the state and university together have been investing $110 million per year.

The university isn’t alone in this predicament. Perennially deferred maintenance is a misery-loves-company lament on most public campuses in this country. Another collegiate facilities consultant, Connecticut-based Sightlines, said in a 2013 report that the nation’s colleges are “at a unique point in the history of managing facilities.” Buildings constructed to educate baby boomers 50 years ago now require significant renovation to remain useful. That bill is coming due just as state and federal funding spigots are tightening and governing boards are growing wary about debt.

“The traditional strategy of cyclical building renovations and replacements will not work for the future,” the report’s executive summary predicts. “There is just too much work to be done.”

“Cyclical” — that would be the ebb and flow of bonding bills at state legislatures. Minnesota has seen plenty of that in the last 10 years. Twice, in 2004 and 2007, no bonding bill passed; several other bills were significantly downsized by either a Republican governor’s vetoes or Republican legislators’ unwillingness to authorize more.

Those vagaries could be shrugged off as tolerable politics as usual, were not the work of bonding bills — especially on campuses — so important to the state’s future. (I might say the same about the bonding bill’s transportation and civic infrastructure items, but that’s for a future Sunday.) And were the state’s research flagship also not showing its physical age more conspicuously than many of its peers. (More than a quarter of University of Minnesota buildings are more than 70 years old.)

For the 2014 session, it’s “game on” for higher ed. They’ll enlist friends and alumni and dispatch a cadre of officials to the Capitol to try to convince legislators to not just see Dayton’s bonding bid, but raise it.

But they’re also beginning to talk about changing the game.

“What higher-ed institutions really need is predictable, adequate HEAPR funding on a year-to-year basis,” said Jason Rohloff, special assistant for government relations to university President Eric Kaler. “What we’ve been having is fits and starts, because of the political environment. That makes it very hard to manage and repair what we currently have. We’re very open to discussing different options to get there.”

Like what? Some politicians have been talking about options, too —like insisting that the U and MnSCU use more of their own operating funds for HEAPR. The Legislature requires the institutions to supply one-third of the funding (or debt service) for new campus buildings. No similar requirement prevails for HEAPR. Add one, and building repair costs would shift away from state taxpayers and toward tuition-payers and, indirectly, higher-ed employees and programs.

That’s probably not what university and MnSCU officials have in mind. Their thoughts likely run more in the direction of a new dedicated tax or fee or endowment fund, politically insulated from the Legislature and governor, that would annually cough up a sum sufficient to allow for an orderly schedule of building replacement and renovation.

I’m probably not the first to inform them that pretty much every administrator of every public facility in the country daydreams about the same politically far-fetched thing.

But they should keep thinking, and the political stewards of this state should join them. Politics eventually bends to changing reality. And the reality is that much is riding on higher education’s ability to supply workers for the knowledge economy. Doing that well will require more than Wi-Fi and a new coat of paint in old classrooms. It will require learning laboratories configured for the multimedia, interactive, collaborative pedagogy that’s now deemed a best practice, particularly in the sciences.

The reality is that while much of the state’s public infrastructure is aging, obsolescence in higher-education facilities exacts a long-lasting and escalating price.

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  • The Tate Laboratory of Physics building on the University of Minnesota campus has visible wiring strung through the hallways.Supplying workers for the knowledge economy will require more than Wi-Fi and a new coat of paint in old classrooms.

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