Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why Administrators have Edifice Complexes

By Professor Doom


Admin: “Plans for the new building are now available in the Administration Building. Please feel free to review them and make suggestions!”

--it doesn’t matter if most of the rooms in the existing buildings are empty most of the time, there are always plans for new buildings.


     Every university I’ve set foot on has had huge buildings that were mostly unused. One campus had, literally, enough spare buildings to be a high school (because it was, in fact, a high school). I “rented” a room there once for use as a classroom. The place was spotless. There were chalkboards that, clearly, had never been used (trust me, getting rid of every single particle of chalk dust just isn’t going to happen, and these boards had not a speck anywhere near them). Before the class met, I toured the building to see room after room that was immaculate in a way that only a classroom that’s never been used can be immaculate.


Announcement: “Our Explorations in Mathematics class has moved to the new auditorium. Maximum enrollment has been increased from 400 to 600.”


      One might think that the ever increasing class sizes are due to all the new students that have come onto campus in the last few decades, but no…there’s plenty of room. The issue is it’s so much cheaper to just have faculty teach larger classes. Yes, buildings cost millions, but that’s a different budget.

      There’s plenty of room on most campuses. Yes, there are some campuses (especially community colleges that have experienced amazing growth) that have issues with providing classroom space, but even then it’s only during peak hours.

     That campus with the spare high school? It still had trailers being used year after year for “temporary” use as classrooms.


Admin: “If you need furniture, please fill out a requisition form. We have plenty of old furniture available for use.”


     One quirk of campuses is that the older they are, the more the classrooms get cluttered with furniture. Some older campuses have rooms that are veritable obstacle courses with extra podiums and desks crammed in them. Older institutions can have, literally, warehouses filled with old, moldering, furniture. Faculty can order whatever they want, and it’ll be delivered…although often the reek coming off such furniture makes it tough to use.

     Why don’t the institutions get rid of the furniture? Well, it’s a budget thing. See, nobody actually owns that furniture, so nobody can take responsibility for selling it. You can’t sell it. It’s branded by the university, so you can’t take it home even if you were inclined to thievery. If you can’t use it in the classroom, then it either sits in the room forever (I’ve seen portable chalkboards with decades-old classwork, shoved onto the sides of rooms), or off to the warehouse.

      On one campus the warehouse, by policy, only held furniture. The policy never accounted for computers, and there was no way to update policy. You couldn’t shuffle old/broken computer crap off to the warehouse (no matter how broken, you weren’t allowed to throw computer parts away). I saw with my own eyes several rooms, former classrooms, just filled with old monitors; presumably the towers and floppy disk drives were elsewhere. That was years ago, but for all I know they are still sitting there, patiently awaiting the apocalypse.

      The bizarre treatment of furniture and computer parts is due to the budget rules of campuses in higher education; those strange rules also account for why administrators on these campuses all seem to have edifice complexes, intent on building structure after structure even when the institution isn’t even close to using all the buildings it has, and there’s no possible way the institution will use the new building all that much, either.

      The issue is everywhere, but a blog post details just how demented the situation is in North Dakota. The title says it all:


     Now, North Dakota is hardly a state renowned for its massive population growth. The article does a good job explaining why campuses are experiencing insane building growth: corruption. The potential here, obviously being realized, is immense. Trustees, presidents, and many of the higher administrators are in a great position to get a kickback and profit in many other ways by selecting which contractors get to build what buildings and where.

     The money for this doesn’t really come out of tuition; for public universities, legislators usually have to work to have a bond offering…again, the potential for corruption there is pretty straightforward. From the article:


“…Senator Lonnie Laffen (R-Grand Forks), whose company JLG Achitects receives millions of dollars worth of building contracts from the university system, [took]- the presidents of the state’s two largest universities on a pheasant hunting trip in his company’s private airplane. The universities defended the trip by claiming that the presidents don’t have anything to do with picking which contractors get building contracts, but it’s worth remembering that the university presidents appoint the committees who make the decisions….”


      Presidents don’t make the decisions? Seriously? What do they get those massive salaries for? Anyway, the article is correct: the president cherry-picks the committee that makes the decisions. He can personally destroy anyone on the committee that doesn’t make the decision he wants. Yeah, he makes the decision.

     The committee is a smokescreen at best. I’ve been on a few such committees, our “decisions” are simply ignored if they don’t agree with admin, in addition to retaliation that comes later. What’s funny about this is when admin’s decision is criticized, they claim it was “the committee’s decision,” so we got flack for the “bad decision” that was the exact opposite of what we said to do.

     The blog article does a great of job of showing how, obviously, all the new buildings are completely unnecessary:

     First off, enrollment has been dropping the last few years…what business expands in the face of a shrinking customer base?

      Out of state student enrollment is increasing, but that’s no justification in light of the overall decrease. In fact, it’s rather insulting, since North Dakota taxpayers pay for the bonds for the buildings, but administrators get the fat loot from the out of state tuition.

     Online student enrollment is up, further exacerbating the overall dropping of student enrollment (and you sure don’t need buildings for online students).

     Finally, Students are taking less credit hours per student. There are less students, spending less time on campus.

     Seriously, there’s no way a competent administrator can look at the numbers and think that these institutions need many more new buildings. The article sums up the situation nicely:


     Every institution I’ve set foot on has new buildings going up, with administrators doing cartwheels over the “success” of putting up what will eventually be a mostly empty building. When I teach, my classroom is packed full…while the rooms adjacent are completely empty of students. Nevertheless, my institution always seems to have a new record of students, every year, and I’m often taking detours from new construction on campus.

     Back to North Dakota. North Dakota hardly has a reputation for corruption, at least no worse than many other states…and yet their institutions of higher education are spending hundreds of millions on new buildings. Perhaps it’s a bit worse there than in other states, but my own eyes tell me it’s not by much.



--in just the classes I teach, the students are charged this much tuition over the course of a year. Even if students don’t actually pay that tuition, the money comes from somewhere. I’m very lucky to be paid more than average, but I don’t get even 5% of that figure. Where oh where could all that money go?


     The next time you hear someone saying that higher education needs more money, or you see your local government floating yet another bond to pay for new construction, realize that it’s all a lie. There’s just no way the buildings are necessary, and no way the money couldn’t be found another way.


1 comment:

  1. At the institution where I used to teach, I found out what happened to the older furniture.

    Shortly after I started there, our department offices were relocated into an adjacaent building. Two lecture rooms were renovated, one of which became our new facilities. We were promised "new" furniture which, as it turned out, was second-hand stuff that the institution had put into storage.

    What made it "new" was that somebody quickly slapped a thin coat of paint onto it, so thin that I could scratch through it with my thumbnail. My desk had drawers that didn't close properly and the top was something like arborite and was lifting at one corner. The only thing actually new were the chairs, probably because there weren't enough left over in the warehouse.

    So who got a new desk? You guessed it: the department head and the secretary.