Like many higher-education institutions, the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, experienced significant growth in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
"About 80 percent of our space was constructed during that time," says Jim Cahill, the university's director of facility planning.
Over the years, construction was made a priority and maintenance was put off, resulting in most of the campus' 9 million square feet of space not getting the attention and repair it required.
The result? By the late 1990s, the backlog of maintenance on the Amherst campus was estimated at $400 million.
"We had a huge deferred maintenance liability," says Cahill. "We felt compelled to get on top of it."
The numbers may be different at other campuses, but the general scenario is familiar to countless colleges and universities. Aging buildings, many of them constructed quickly a generation ago to meet enrollment spurts, need fixing. In most cases, the need outstrips the available revenue, so projects are postponed. The needs grow, and problems that are not fixed promptly cause more deterioration. Soon, a school is in a deferred maintenance hole so deep it has no way to escape.
Like their counterparts in K-12 education, colleges and universities are scrambling to tackle the critical problem of deferred maintenance in their facilities. To do so, facility officials must convince the people who control the purse strings at their institutions - the university's own administration, state legislature, charitable donors - that the consequences of continuing to defer the problem could be dire.
Money for repairs
As awareness of the problem has grown and a healthy economy has freed up more resources, colleges and universities are able to spend more money to repair or replace their aging facilities. American School & University's most recent Official Education Construction Report (May 2000) found that colleges spent more than $13.9 billion on projects completed in 1999 - $8.4 billion on new construction, nearly $2 billion on additions and $3.5 billion on modernizations. Projections for 2000 to 2002 show total spending on college construction of $32.5 billion - $22 billion for new facilities, $4.5 billion for additions and $6 billion for modernizations.
In Nebraska, officials at the state's university system and leaders in state government have worked together to address facility needs on the four campuses in the University of Nebraska system.
"It has been a partnership from the beginning," says Rebecca Koller, director of planning for the university.
The university estimated it had a backlog of more than $110 million in deferred maintenance.
"Many of the University of Nebraska's facilities were built more than two or three generations ago and some are approaching the point where they may have to be closed because of general disrepair, unsafe physical conditions, improper air-handling systems, and noncompliance with fire, safety and ADA codes," says a university report. "Over the years, competing budget priorities and limited resources have not allowed for sufficient funds to repair or replace major building infrastructure."
The solution was two-pronged: addressing the most urgent maintenance needs quickly and aggressively, and a more gradual increase in maintenance budgets so the campuses could deal with repairs and replacement as the needs arose.
The $95 million initiative was signed into law in 1998. The state increased allocations to the university by $5.9 million for 10 years to help pay off bonds issued for repair projects. In addition, the university increased tuition to cover the costs of the maintenance plan.
To bolster its ability to keep on top of repairs, the university also committed to increasing annual expenditures on building maintenance by $1 million a year for 10 years until the maintenance budget equals 1.5 percent of the replacement value of the system's buildings.
Koller says projections show that under this plan, the university could eliminate its backlog by 2015.