UNC system facilities are 'in a mess'

The $2.5 billion spent since 2000 addressed a fraction of maintenance needs, but the backlog keeps growing.

Staff WriterOctober 3, 2010 

  • N.C. State isn't the only public university with serious facility problems.

    Though UNC-Chapel Hill spent more than $500 million through the higher education bond issue on 50 projects over the last 10 years, that campus still reports serious deficiencies.

    A couple of examples:

    Howell Hall, the longtime former home of the journalism school, is 104 years old and has more than $7.4 million in maintenance needs, including more than $1.4 million in improvements to its worn exterior.

    Davis Library, which opened in 1984, has deferred needs totaling $35 million. Included in that is $11 million in heating and air-conditioning upgrades that have been delayed.

    N.C. Central University has a backlog as well. Though it spent $122 million in higher education bond money on 23 renovations and new construction projects since 2000, it has put off additional fixes totaling $85 million, according to UNC system records.

    What to renovate?

    Because the 2000 higher education bond program was created in part to meet a projected undergraduate enrollment surge, buildings catering to undergrads took priority when officials decided which facilities would get fixed. Because it was too costly or impractical in many cases to renovate outdated science facilities, new ones were built early in the bond program, with the old science buildings then retrofitted for classroom teaching.

    Renovate, or build new? Officials followed this guide: If the cost to renovate a building was 90 percent of the cost of new construction, it made sense to tear it down. That metric did not apply to historically significant buildings, which were preserved.

    Source: Kevin MacNaughton, N.C. State University associate vice chancellor for facilities

In N.C. State University's Gardner Hall, scientists struggle to keep their workplaces free of mold even as they study it under microscopes.

The decaying, 58-year-old, red-brick building houses several plant science departments whose faculty members routinely analyze mold and fungi. The soundtrack for these efforts is the rattly, tinny din of dozens of dust-coated air conditioner window units that run year round - a low-tech attempt to counter the mold spores that slowly but resolutely attach themselves to walls and countertops.

Faculty here will continue this battle for the foreseeable future. There isn't nearly enough money available to properly maintain Gardner Hall and hundreds of other teaching and research facilities across the UNC system.

This may sound familiar. In the past decade, the state issued bonds to raise $3.1 billion to repair university and community college buildings. Though that money was used to revamp hundreds of campus facilities, the construction program fell far short of fixing all the UNC system's infrastructure needs.

So as campus officials keep shifting money around to fix the latest busted heater or hole in a roof, Gardner Hall's scientists will continue producing 21st century science in a building unlikely to be featured in an NCSU marketing campaign anytime soon.

"We're not on any campus tours," said Margaret Daub, head of NCSU's plant biology department. "Nobody lets anyone over here."

In 2000, North Carolinians made a resounding statement about the value of public higher education, approving the bonds in an Election Day referendum. That sent the UNC system on a 10-year building campaign on a scale rarely seen in American higher education. Hundreds of buildings were gutted, renovated, or built anew - creating an influx of flashy new facilities with the latest and most expensive technology.

Total spending for the UNC system: $2.5 billion. Community colleges received $600 million . UNC spent about $1.4 billion on new construction and the balance on renovations, infrastructure, land acquisition and technology improvements.

The bond program legislation read in part, "The General Assembly finds that although the University of North Carolina is one of the state's most valuable assets, the current facilities of the university have been allowed to deteriorate due to decades of neglect and have unfortunately fallen into a state of disrepair because of inadequate attention to maintenance. It is the intent of the General Assembly to reverse this trend and to provide a mechanism to assure that the state's capital assets are adequately maintained."

But the trend wasn't reversed. Though the bond program created construction booms at public universities, it touched just a portion of the infrastructure at each campus. For those many buildings that didn't benefit from bond money, the slow, steady deterioration caused by a lack of repair money continued. In all, the $2.5 billion spent addressed less than half of the $7 billion in total needs cited in a 1999 consultant's report.

And the meter keeps running. The UNC system's backlog now tops $3 billion, according to system data.

"The problem is perpetuating itself," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "As the economy has slowed, the state's ability to give us the money we need has declined. We're in a mess."

Eisenhower-era building

Poor Gardner Hall - with its chipped, stained floor tiles, poor ventilation and white cinder block walls - is NCSU's poster child for disrepair.

"It is a true Sputnik-era science building," said Kevin MacNaughton, associate vice chancellor for facilities at NCSU. "It is one we have tried mightily to keep afloat."

The higher education bond program financed 40 projects at NCSU that resulted in new or renovated facilities, but the campus still has a maintenance backlog totaling more than $439 million.

"We have the haves and have-nots on this campus," MacNaughton said. "The buildings touched by the bond program are the haves, and the ones that were not are the have-nots."

Across the state, public campuses tell similar tales. N.C. Central University in Durham received $122 million in bond funds for 23 projects; its maintenance backlog stands at $85 million. Chapel Hill, which spent more than $500 million on 50 projects, would need $645 million to adequately update its facilities, officials say.

This problem isn't unique to North Carolina. Across the nation, public universities are grappling with crumbling infrastructures and shrinking state appropriations. When budgets are tight, it has proven easy for campus leaders to put off that new roof on the science building or that new steam line for the library.

The costs swell over time until they're so daunting some campus leaders just don't want to deal with them, said Terry Ruprecht, now retired from the University of Illinois, where he spent 40 years in various facilities and energy services positions.

"Their eyes roll back in their heads when they see the total numbers," said Ruprecht, co-author of a study on the subject. "They're too big, so the easiest thing to do is just move on."

An unfulfilled pledge

It wasn't supposed to be that way in North Carolina.

In 1993, the General Assembly pledged to provide state agencies with 1.5 percent of the current replacement value of their building stock as a way of combating deterioration. That target was later raised to 3 percent.

But it proved tough to hit. In 2009, for example, the state would have had to appropriate $282 million to the UNC system to meet that goal. The actual appropriation was $25 million.

From 2000 to 2010, the state spent just one-quarter of what it hoped to on repairs and renovations for the UNC system - $558 million. It would have needed $2.1 billion to hit that target.

And, of course, times are much different now than when the $3.1 billion bond issue was approved in 2000. The economy was healthier, and the university system, under the leadership of President Molly Broad, was in growth mode. Today, the university system, while far larger in terms of students, is a leaner operation and in reduction mode because of the state's lagging economy.

"For any significant construction program, the economy has to get healthy again," said state Sen. Richard Stevens, who was the trustees chairman at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2000 when the bond program began. "You'd need another bond program, and that's not going to happen anytime soon."

The UNC system is not engaged in any broad effort to solve the maintenance issue, though it has in recent years tried to slow new construction, and it is pushing for more transfer students and online courses to alleviate stress on residence halls and classrooms.

So what's a campus to do? At UNC-Chapel Hill, trustees have convened a working group after a facilities report earlier this year showed a deferred maintenance backlog of $645 million.

In a sense, the bond program exacerbated the problem by financing so many new buildings that require upkeep.

"We built a bunch of new facilities; we really upped the ante spending $2.5 billion," said Roger Perry, a UNC-CH trustee leading that working group. There was no provision for maintaining the new buildings.

What now?

At UNC-CH and elsewhere, campus leaders kick ideas around. Some insist another bond issue is the best solution. Others wonder about a private fundraising campaign aimed specifically at repairs and renovations - a tough sell to donors who like their names on things. Another idea: a trust fund of sorts for each new building, where you shave off a percentage of the project cost strictly to be used for upkeep.

Ruprecht, the retired University of Illinois official, tried to persuade his bosses to adopt a version of that plan. It never caught hold because it meant either spending far more for a building than expected or constructing a smaller facility with the money provided.

"That requires fiscal discipline that in all of my years in higher education has never existed," Ruprecht said.

Earlier this year, Ohio State University took a bold step to hold down facility costs, requiring that for a new building to go up, another of equal size would have to come down. The goal there is to add no net academic space, said Julie Anstine, Ohio State's special assistant to the senior vice president for administration and planning.

The policy is an acknowledgement that the largely underfunded long-term costs of running a building dwarf its one-time price of construction.

"It's the operating costs, the energy and utilities and everything that comes with it," Anstine said. "It's a total shift in how we think."

While UNC campus and system officials search for solutions, the gang over at NCSU's Gardner Hall will conduct business as usual - running the heaters and the air conditioners together to combat humidity, and covering expensive lab equipment with tarps, lest a burst pipe from the floor above drip through the ceiling and ruin an experiment.

And they'll keep fighting off that mold and bacteria.

"We want the kind we study," Daub said, "not the kind that comes flying in from outside."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service