When Gov. John Bel Edwards and a delegation of state lawmakers toured LSU’s Middleton Library earlier this year, they found a leaky basement, ragged furniture, bubbled and cracked wallpaper, rooms that flood so often from the rain that a vacuum is kept out to clean up the mess.
A complete overhaul of Middleton would cost $100 million. Instead, officials have settled for an $8.5 million renovation of the first floor, paid for partly through private donations. A similar tour of Southern University several days later revealed similar horrors. Such calamities abound on campuses throughout the state. LSU has a maintenance backlog of $700 million. The total maintenance backlog at Louisiana’s public higher education institutions is nearly $2 billion. No one knows where the money will come from to fix what’s broken.
As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Louisiana isn’t alone in dealing with sagging campuses. Across the nation, America’s universities face a deferred maintenance of more than $40 billion. “Despite adding student fees for facilities and even demolishing buildings that are beyond repair, the campus To Do lists continue to grow as buildings push 60 years old,” WSJ writer Melissa Korn told readers. “For schools already under financial pressure, a burst pipe could spell disaster.”
At New York University, a tarp helps keep a leaking electrical closet dry. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, officials worry that rain will get on work at the National Soybean Research Laboratory, which no longer has a decent roof to keep out the weather. When a transformer failed on a 50-year-old research building at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the model was so outdated that the school had to find a replacement fuse on eBay.
State governments have drastically cut funding for higher education, and that stinginess is evident in sagging campus facilities. The financial crisis of 2008 sapped college endowments, leaving less money to help answer urgent needs.
But as The Journal also pointed out, university leaders often prefer to spend money on new buildings with marquee appeal rather than fixing the old stuff. Wealthy donors are more likely to endow new dormitories or academic halls than write a check to fix the rusty pipes.
LSU recently offered a variation on that theme when it opened a huge new “leisure pool,” similar to a lazy river attraction, all part of an $85 million expansion of its student recreation complex. The upgrade was paid for with student fees, not money from the state capital outlay budget. Even so, it’s ironic that as students have a big new place to get wet, the books at LSU’s major library could, with the next rain, get wet, too.