Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Edifice Complex

Enough with the freakin' buildings, already.

Apparently, the American Council on Education (along with some other groups) is wasting no time in getting in line for bailout/stimulus money, petitioning the Obama administration-in-waiting to set aside a significant chunk of change for construction projects at colleges and universities across the country. The idea is that construction projects create jobs, and that once the buildings are finished, colleges and universities will be better able to provide students with exposure to and experience in the latest technologies. Oh, and the buildings will be suitably green, and 'shovel-ready' within 180 days.

Well, that's all fine and good. I have to give the ACE credit for being shovel-ready, based on this plan. But there's a much easier, faster, more effective way to shore up and improve higher ed in America. It's suitably green, the economic effects would be both quick and lasting, and it would have a direct, positive impact on students.

Don't spend it on more buildings. Spend it on people to work in the buildings we already have.

The faculty is an obvious place to start. Salaries come out of operating budgets, and the states' support of operating budgets has been falling faster lately than at any time in the last three decades, and that's saying something. Nationally, the aggregate response to that has been to shrink the ranks of full-time faculty and to replace them with part-timers. National studies have shown consistently that too heavy a reliance on adjuncts has negative effects on student success; at this point, that debate is pretty well settled. We're wasting an entire generation of scholars through hiring freezes, then doing a measurably worse job of educating a generation of students because of it. Given the money, we could start hiring full-time people at the drop of a hat.

Of course, faculty aren't the only ones needed. Labs and libraries don't maintain themselves. IT networks require constant attention. Campus security can't be left to volunteers. And don't even get me started on financial aid offices...

Unlike construction projects, which actually take years to move from concept to completion, we could ramp up our staffing on short notice. (Hell, at this point, just preventing layoffs would require a substantial infusion of cash.) For those who haven't had the pleasure, a quick overview of the various phases of a construction project:

- “Visioning.” Allow several months for input, internal politicking, deal-making, and arguing over what, exactly, should be built. Build in costs for ADA, LEED, etc.
Environmental impact studies. “You can't build there – that's a mating ground for the rare three-toed hornswaggler. And you can't build there – the local residents are organized and pissy. And you can't build there, because there would be no place to park. And what's taking you so long, anyway?”

- Permitting. 'Nuff said.

- Political deal-making. Luckily, there's no corruption in the construction industry.
Bidding, appeals, re-bidding. Since everything has to be built by the lowest bidder, the game is to make the specs ridiculously specific. Otherwise, some really inconvenient corners will get cut. (See “Big Dig, The”) This takes TIME.

- Actual building time.

- Lawsuits over cost overruns. These occur with the regularity of the sun rising in the East.

- Delays as various developers go broke. For reasons I still don't understand, the average construction firm has the lifespan of a fruit fly.

- Unanticipated last-minute fixes.

If you think that can all get done in 180 days, you've been huffing the pungent musk of the three-toed hornswaggler. Can't. Be. Done.

On the other hand, give me a green light to beef up the English department and the library staff, and I'll have folks ensconced in their positions faster than you can say 'environmental impact study.' And those people will spend their paychecks, stimulating the economy just as well as anybody else. Better, those folks will actually improve the quality of education for our students, so there's a real long-term payoff to complement the real short-term payoff. We can get to the buildings when we get to them.

Yes, there's a legitimate fear that Federal money would simply displace state money, but that's relatively easy to prevent. Just do what you do for highway funding, and require the states to match a certain portion. If you really want to get creative, require state-level set-asides. It takes a little doing, but it's far easier than managing thousands of construction projects across the country.
In fact, there's a very intelligent case to be made that rather than lining up as simply another industry begging for a handout, higher ed should partner with k-12 and law enforcement and petition the Feds to bail out the states.  State budget shortfalls will lead to layoffs, which are the worst possible moves in a downturn like this.  Keep people on payroll -- whether they're college professors, elementary school teachers, cops, or anything else -- and they'll keep spending.  Cut them loose, and they'll cut spending.  Buildings can wait.

The alternative is to continue to grow buildings while shrinking the faculty and staff.  To my mind, that plan is truly shovel-ready.

I like the idea of giving folks jobs, but...

The construction projects one hears talked about are relatively short term. The feds toss in money for three years, improve the infrastructure, and then leave the (much lower) maintenance costs to locals. If everything works, then the economy gets stimulated and in three years, someone else will hire the construction company to build a new building, and the feds are out of the picture.

But if the feds put in money for three years of instructional support, and then go away, the locals would have to pick up ever increasing employment costs. And there's virtually no other business that's going to come in and hire those people to teach elsewhere. (Maybe a few for-profit colleges, but there aren't many of them.)
What Bardiac said

And - for our university if you gave us money for additional teaching faculty without putting in resources for capital improvement it wouldn't do much good.

We are literally busting at the seams and the State refuses to let us limit enrollment any further. We need classroom space badly and this seems to be an opportunity to get that space. Is it perfect? No, but lemons out of lemonade...
I have to agree with you about the time frame for building being long. I worked at a school that burned down, which meant insurance covered the cost of its rebuilding. The day after the fire, the board, staff & students started the visioning process, etc. (as well as figuring out where to put 300 k-12 students in the meantime). 2 years later, we moved in, and that was with no SNAFUS ( a minor miracle in itself).

Ironically, funding issues meant that 3 of us were laid off before we could move into our shiny new building (after 2 years in portables - ugh!)
Real property is a capital asset.

Pay and benefits (esp after retirement) are liabilities.

If only GM and the UAW understood this . . .
Yeah, if only we could just build a bunch of useful buildings and not worry about employees, eh? Things would be great, since we'd have a ton of assets and no liabilities. No business either, but hey.
Plus, taxing Peter to pay Professors Paul and Pauline does not "stimulate" the economy, it only transfers funds (at best given the inefficiencies of the political process). Neither does building new buildings with tax dollars. My intro econ students can tell you all about opportunity cost and the broken window fallacy if you'd like.
This reminds me of a huge new medical office building we just put in near the county hospital that now stands empty because the county is experiencing a hiring freeze and can't staff the building. (sigh)

Besides, hiring professors only panders to the liberal elite. Construction jobs go to "real Americans".
In the system where I worked, it was always (relatively) easy to get money for capital projects, but almost impossible to get more money for operating expenses.

In my 5+ years there, my CC built 3 entirely new buildings, having just built a 4th right before I started, was in the middle of a 5th when I left, and was about to start a major renovation project as well. (IOW, 6 buildings in under a decade.)

At the same time, there was a continual operating budget funding crisis, which I can only imagine has gotten significantly worse. I had it described to me once as "we can build a building, we just can't turn the lights on, stock it with toilet paper, or have it cleaned." And that's not even getting to who's going to teach in it.

I like the highway funding analogy, maybe even as a long-term plan, since it gives the states some motivation to increase their funding as well. Hopefully that would nullify some of what Bardiac worries about!
Deferred maintenance is enough to eat up any stimulus package
"Stimulus" eh?

On what planet does taking money out of an economy, wasting half of it, then mis-spending the other half even remotely constitute a "stimulus?"

Ahhh . . . "Planet Congress" no doubt.

If we just make sure Rezko, Blagevich, Daly, etc get there hands on enough of it, all will be right with the world.

On second thought, Ted Kennedy knows a bunch of experienced construction firms (ref Dig, Big).

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