Edifice Complex Strikes Again: University Edition

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  1. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    It is never going to end. It is as old as urban civilization itself. Even in the days of God-Kings beholden to nobody but themselves, most politicians preferredt shiny new buildings to demonstrate their glory than maintaining what already existed. The private sphere is no better even when your dealing with a corporation rather than an indvidual business person. Lots of buisness people thought building grand headquarters or magnificent stores and mansions were important like the old Pennsylvania Station, Grand Central and the great skyscrpaers.. We got some really great buildings out of this. Your going to have to change human nature to get rid of the edifice complex.Report

    • Avatar Notme in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      Yes, it will take a change to human nature. I dont understand why saul cant seem to acknowledge that and instead keeps asking these silly questions.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      This is an excellent point, @leeesq .

      It seems that by Saul’s logic, any project that spends a dollar on something that doesn’t achieve a dollar’s worth of utility is a waste. Don’t put a facade on that building! Poured cement floors should suffice! Hell, why do buildings even need to look different?

      And yet, at the same time, he champions the arts. Isn’t architecture a form of art? He laments money spent on buildings but at least buildings shelter people from the elements. What good has a play ever done the world?Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    The Great Library at Alexandria was not one building but several. Not every building was dedicated to learning and study, and not every building remained in use for the lifetime of the institution. In fact, I think none of them were used throughout the duration of the Great Library’s duration.

    Why should a modern university be any different?Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      @burt-likko

      I largely agree with what you are saying but at the same time I think it is important for universities (and other places) to have different priorities and possibly say “Hey maybe we don’t need this fancy new building especially because we are mainly having classes taught by poorly paid adjuncts and tuition is going through the roof.” A lot of building seems to be for “Very Important Buildings” just like Krugman likes to talk about “Very Serious People”.

      It is the same problem as I pointed out in the Edifice Complex article. So many public officials seem to be attracted to horrible and not very good boondoggle projects like mouths to flame. Why build a small subway from the CalTrain Station in SOMA to Chinatown? Why build a largely useless airtrain connection to LGA instead of the more necessary and practical improvements that can be done to the NYC subway system? Seattle’s Tunnel also seems like a too expensive and ill-advised public infrastructure project:

      http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/would-berthas-failure-doom-transit-tunnels-in-downtown-seattle/Content?oid=21396982Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Saul Degraw
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        says:

        I largely agree with what you are saying but at the same time I think it is important for universities (and other places) to have different priorities and possibly say “Hey maybe we don’t need this fancy new building especially because we are mainly having classes taught by poorly paid adjuncts and tuition is going through the roof.”

        Why exactly ought these administrators have different priorities, when these are the priorities that parents and students reward?

        I have never seen any indication that spending money on new facilities or using adjuncts to teach undergrads or raising tuition in any way inhibits a school’s ability to continue to attract students, faculty and grant money. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Students seem to have an expressed preference for expensive schools with lots of bells and whistles.Report

      • Avatar Guy in reply to Saul Degraw
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        says:

        As someone attending a university, I can attest to the truth of @j-r’s comment. Good buildings are good. In fact, they’re pretty important. I’m a double major, and both of my majors have new, nice buildings with dedicated study spaces for their undergrads. Significantly better than the majors that are still trapped in 70s style concrete block buildings with three foot wide corridors and terrible HVAC, or the ancient marble-staircased buildings, also with terrible HVAC. What’s bad is when there’s a nice new building that goes up that contains nothing but office space, and the students don’t actually get a better experience from it (*cough* new humanities building *cough*).Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw
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        says:

        @guy

        “Significantly better than the majors that are still trapped in 70s style concrete block buildings with three foot wide corridors and terrible HVAC, or the ancient marble-staircased buildings, also with terrible HVAC.”

        As someone who was relegated to exactly this type of building throughout my undergrad, I can attest to how lackluster it was at providing a stimulating learning environment. But such is the way with schools of education.Report

  3. Avatar Chris
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    says:

    One wonders when building mania is going to stop.

    Wait, how many years of university education do you have? You must know that universities do three things constantly: create parking problems, beg alumni for money, and build shit (often where there used to be parking). Construction on a university campus is a constant, and much of that construction is of shiny new buildings with designs chosen to be architecturally and technologically distinct and advanced. Thus has it always been (or at least for the last century).Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Chris
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      says:

      and build shit (often where there used to be parking)

      So true…Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        When I was in grad school, I usually took the campus shuttle to campus, but in the summer there were periods of no service or infrequent service, so I had to drive. I got a parking pass for a lot that was way, way, way on the other side of campus from the psychology buildings, which was a bit of a pain in the summer, because it was Austin, so hot. Then the psych department built a (really shiny, really really expensive) new building almost directly across the street from my parking lot, and I was so excited. I used the parking lot when we were moving our lab over, and then on the first day that I was going to use it to actually go to work (that is, to the lab for work), it was closed: they were building a new building on it. Murphy’s Law of University Parking.Report

  4. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    To be fair, the cost of the shiny building was expected to be much lower than it wound up being (almost a quarter of the actual cost, I think it said).

    That said, if a building costs 4 times as much as the estimate, I want to know who lost their job &/or is under indictment or facing a suit for fraud? If the answer is “nobody”, then we have a serious problem.Report

  5. Avatar Alan Scott
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    says:

    That is not how these things are supposed to work. If your school can’t find tech companies to build your shiny buildings for you, you have no business putting “Polytechnic” in the name.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    But they have to compete! What if the next school over has a bigger and shinier building? There would be a big and shiny building gap!

    Kudos on the Shelley reference. One of my favorite poems ever!Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    Wait… is this Edifice Complex? Or Building Mania? I’m losing track of which ‘crisis’ is supposed to be keeping me up at night.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      In this case, I don’t think that it’s supposed to keep you up at night. It’s just supposed to help you remain convinced of your own superior tastes and preferences while lamenting that you have the poor fortune of being born into such unenlightened times.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r
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        says:

        @j-r

        Unenlightened, maybe. But decidedly shiny!!! And obviously the ONLY reason people would build a big building was because they never matured beyond toddlerhood.Report

  8. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    “In 2000, the university, located in Troy, had assets totaling $929.7 million, the paper reported. But by the end of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the total had dropped by 55 percent, to just $414.8 million drop. In addition, the university ended nine of the last 13 years with an operational deficit, including $18.1 million at the end of 2013, the paper reported.”

    The reported cost of the building was north of $200M. So that explains less than half the drop. So, no, the cause was not the building. Or edifice complex. Or building mania. This particular project may have been A cause among many. But it was not THE cause.

    Which the article states: “According to the newspaper, R.P.I.’s financial downturn can be attributed directly to “six consecutive years of operational deficits, the issuance of nearly $500 million in tax-exempt bonds to cover costs on new campus constructions, and a steep decrease in the yearly revenue made up by grants and donations coming into Rensselaer.””

    A primary cause? Defined benefit plans. ““During this time frame, both unrestricted and total net assets of Rensselaer have been adversely affected by the necessity to continue to fund a legacy defined benefit retirement plan, established in 1944, and to honor Rensselaer’s commitment to our retirees and the remaining participants in the plan, which was closed to new employees in 1993,” Brond said. “Exclusive of the impact of the defined benefit retirement plan, both unrestricted and total net assets would have been higher by $266 million respectively through fiscal year 2013.””

    They also hired 320 faculty members.

    Honestly, Saul, did you even read the article? I doubt you’d want to see the college defund its retiree’s pensions. Or freeze hiring. But none of those things fit either of the make-believe crisises you’ve imagined and thus were ignored in your ‘analysis’.Report

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