A month ago, Utah State University celebrated its founding with a dinner commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, legislation signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln that established land-grant universities across the country.
It was a reminder that USU has come a long way since its founding in 1888, when it was established as the Utah Agricultural College, and Old Main was the most prominent fixture at the mouth of Logan Canyon.
Today, buildings with grandiose architectural designs and state-of-the-art scientific features now seem to technologically overshadow Old Main — like the green solar panels bolstered on the side of the new Agricultural Sciences building or the towering brick structure of the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services. Not too far away is the USU Innovation Campus, which houses ultra-modern buildings dedicated to research efforts.
Since 2008, when the nation’s economy fell into a recession, the eight public colleges and universities within the Utah System of Higher Education lost ten of millions of dollars in state appropriations — $25.2 million of which was cut from USU alone.
But even over those last four years, those institutions, including USU, have built and will continue to build more facilities.
The university unveiled the $43 million Agriculture Sciences building on the Quad in February, thanks to legislation passed during the 2012 session; a $50 million USTAR BioInnovations building opened in October 2010, also with state support; and the Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center — the flagship building for the Uintah Basin campus — opened in August 2010 thanks to a $15 million private donation.
And, according to USHE figures, USU currently has $51 million worth of projects to come.
The money will go to fund a $34 million addition to the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, an ultra-modern $10 facility to house USU’s Regional Campuses and Distance Education program, and a $7.5 million strength and conditioning center for Aggie athletes.
Elsewhere in the state, Utah Valley University broke ground last year for a $30.6 million, 160,000-square-foot science building and the first phase of the University of Utah’s new home for its School of Business was completed last year, rising eight stories over the south end of campus.
The situation seems to be at odds with USU increasing tuition, laying off employees and experiencing a significant shortfall in operation and maintenance funding from the state — all due to the budget cuts.
But it is part of a nationwide building boom at universities that shows no signs of going away.
Dave Cowley, USU’s vice president for business and finance, is hesitant to call it a “building boom,” but whether to use that term depends how one evaluates the situation.
“As far as anyone can remember, we’ve always been saying that (while) budgets are tight we need more space because we’re growing,” Cowley said. “This is kind of a common theme for us. When you’re in an environment that grows (like higher education), you always feel like you’re playing catch up.”
But, when looking at the contributions toward USU’s comprehensive campaign — a $400 million goal slated to be complete this year — most deep-pocketed donors have been inclined to write out checks for facilities.
“They believe that those buildings will help USU ... on its mission,” Cowley said.
Holly Braithwaite, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, did not call it a “building boom” either, but she noted the need for building investment from the state at this time.
“The Legislature was well aware of the opportunities present and the needs of the institutions during a time of substantial enrollment increases and pressures on facilities, and acted accordingly. This meant that buildings were funded and built,” Braithwaite wrote in an email. “That said, there have been times in the past 10–15 years where substantially more funds have been available and appropriated for higher ed facilities projects.”
The answer to how USU is able to build as many buildings as it has is a not an easy one, but it is commonly misunderstood.
Where building funding comes from
Cowley said that in the last two to three years, faculty members have asked him how the school can construct new buildings while not providing compensation increases.
He said the same pot of money used to fund buildings is not the same pot used for faculty and staff compensation increases. Some of those dollars are one-time funds — to actually build a facility — while others are on-going from year to year — in order to keep the facility running year after year.
“If we chose to turn that money into salary money, it wouldn’t work because if you give someone a salary increase, that money would need to be a part of that salary every single year,” Cowley said.
Building funds come from Capital Improvement Capital Development appropriations, which are approved by the Utah Legislature. Before those funds can even go to USU, funding is determined by the Legislature in regard to priorities recommended by the Board of Regents and the State Building Board.
The State Building Board — under the Division of Facilities and Construction Management — serves as a policy board to assess and prioritize the state’s capital facility needs.
USU’s pending Brigham City campus location at the old abandoned Intermountain Indian School has been approved by USU’s Board of Trustees and Utah Board of Regents — and both boards eventually approved the first building to be built there — but it will be several years before the facility can be funded because it is low on the list of priorities the State Building Board and still needs funding approval from the Legislature.
There are also buildings not funded by the Legislature but that still need approval from it before the building can be constructed. That includes the $7 million strength and conditioning center unveiled last year by USU Athletic Director Scott Barnes.
As is the case with capital development funds, operation and maintenance funds are kept separately from other budgeting accounts as well, Cowley said.
How buildings are funded
According to Braithwaite, buildings are funded through state appropriation, private donations or bonding. Some USU buildings are entirely state funded, entirely donor funded or, in some cases, both.
In the case of donor funds for buildings, that money will go straight into the USU comprehensive campaign, officially launched in 2007. Approximately $121.8 million of the $381 million raised for the campaign so far is dedicated to funding new buildings, according to the campaign’s website.
Since Albrecht became president of USU in 2005, the total amount of construction costs of buildings that have been constructed or are authorized for construction totals $300 million, according to figures from Cowley’s office. Of that total, $125 million was donated, and $175 million came in the form of state funding.
During the recession, constructing buildings has not been so much of a problem as have maintaining and keeping those facilities operational has, Cowley said.
A building funded by private donations or other non-state funded sources could be approved by the Legislature to be built, but they can decide not to fund O&M (operations and maintenance).
This proved to be a problem for the Emma Eccles Jones Early Childhood Resource Center and the Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center during legislative sessions from 2009 to this year. O&M funding for the flagship building at the newly designated Uintah Basin Campus of Utah State University in Vernal has not been granted by the state, according to Cowley.
“That becomes a real burden for USU because now we either have to … not use the building — like California did — or we use the building, but we have to allocate other budget sources to O&M,” Cowley said. “So we have been in a situation like California, except we just never choose to let a building sit there. We’re not done asking (for the O&M) and we hope the budget appropriations are better next year.”
Cowley was referring to the University of California - San Diego. Its recently built new medical center building and state-of-the-art lab are dormant because the California Legislature cannot secure O&M funding. Many other states across the country are facing the same problem when it comes to higher education institution buildings.
Also used to help keep those facilities running will be the 1.5 percent Tier II tuition increase for the 2012-13 school year that was approved by the Regents on Friday.
USU and the other USHE institutions are able to operate buildings without leaving them dormant until operation and maintenance funding arrives, Cowley said.
“New buildings at USU are desirable from the standpoint of retention and recruitment of new students and faculty,” Cowley said. “Good facilities are important to any university.”
He added that even though the Legislature has been bad to USU in many ways over the last four years — taking $25.2 million from its coffers — it still recognizes “facility needs.”
“You’ve got to give the state some credit that the economic downturn doesn’t take away the fact that there’s still a need to provide a comfortable learning environment for our students,” Cowley said. “They didn’t cut it off completely.”