Donald Parsons: A better way to spend $10 million

The Board of Trustees recently approved spending $10 million of the University’s money to do preliminary planning on the Cologne Cathedral (“Cologne Cathedral on 23rd St.?” Feb. 2, p. 4), otherwise known as the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC). If nothing else, the University should finally learn whether the price tag on the new building is $250 or $400 million – or should that be $260 or $410 million?

The Board of Trustee’s vice chair and chair of the Board’s own SEC committee, Nelson Carbonell, made a courtesy visit to the Faculty Senate SEC committee the week before the decision to alert members that he would shortly recommend the expenditure to the Board. Alas, the committee, or at least certain members, did not quite understand Carbonell’s mission, instead imagining he was interested in faculty input. In a style known to decades of introductory economics students, professor Anthony Yezer launched into a spirited lecture on his concerns about the University’s dwindling operating margin and reserves and the risks of an increasing debt burden.

Perhaps energized by Yezer’s enthusiasm, I pointed out the glories of modern project planning, glories so far unappreciated by the administration – careful consideration of alternatives, pricing them out, running them by perspective donors for marketability, etc. Unlike our students, who must pretend to agree with professorial chatter, at least through the final exam, Carbonell quickly dispatched the wonders of project planning. As he put it, “If you consider alternative B, then why not C or D or E?” suggesting that one could spend one’s life planning if one didn’t have more important things to do.

Carbonell did assure the committee that the monolith would not be built if the administration’s current, cheerful view of the economy turns sour. Still $10 million, though a small part of the estimated cost of the monolith, is a nontrivial sum. The University could refund $1,000 to each and every undergraduate student for that amount – a welcome gesture in these difficult times.

Under the hopeful assumption that the $10 million has not already been swallowed up, I would like to propose an alternative. At the meeting, Carbonell remarked that the shell of the building – and hopefully some of the interior if gifts appear – will probably not be completed until 2014. This fact raised an obvious question, for which neither Carbonell nor the members of the Faculty Senate committee seemed to have an answer: What are the administration’s plans for improving the education of the current generation of science and engineering students, most of whom will only see the building when they return as alumni?

With that apparent planning vacuum in mind, I would like to propose that the $10 million currently earmarked for elaborate planning of a structure that may never be built be used instead to renovate the worst science and engineering laboratories. Investing resources in educating the students currently paying GW’s bills would not seem a fanciful investment. Like tuition cuts, it makes GW a “better buy.”

A little pause in the push to build the monolith would itself be valuable, at the very least giving the administration more time to assess the depth of the current recession. It might even give the administration a chance to consider attractive alternatives more carefully.

The writer is a professor of economics and a member of the Faculty Senate special committee on financial & operational planning for the Science & Engineering Complex.

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