Faculty Senate spars on SEC cost

A presentation on the proposed financial plan for the Science and Engineering Complex sparked debate between members of the Faculty Senate Friday regarding the accuracy of the $275 million cost estimate.

Hermann Helgert, a professor of engineering and applied science, discussed the breakdown of the cost estimate and a tentative plan for financing the complex, which includes the construction of eight levels of academic space, for a total of 290,000 square feet, he said.

Helgert said the estimate covers the demolition of the existing parking garage structure on the corner of 22 and H streets, where the complex would be built, a $9 million allowance for furniture and equipment for teaching and research labs, and an allowance of $4 million for customized lab set-up. In addition, the estimate would account for costs associated with LEED certification, a distinction given by the U.S. Green Building Council certifying that a building is evironmentally friendly.

But several Faculty Senate members argued the operating costs were missing from the estimate, making the figures low and generally unreliable.

“There is a big difference between saying what you’re going to spend for bricks and mortar and having a business model to support an investment,” said Anthony Yezer, a professor of economics and a long-time critic of the project.

Professor Philip Wirtz, a professor of psychology and decision sciences, said he is also skeptical of the cost estimate.

“The numbers are so flimsy and unbelievable,” Wirtz said. “Somehow, we have to get a realistic set of numbers. We know we have to plan for this.”

University Provost Steve Lerman ceded that the budget plan is likely to change as the project moves forward.

“The real question is, is it realistic and reasonable to assume that the sum of the financing will meet the cost of the building?” Lerman said. “I’ve gone over the numbers and I feel fairly comfortable about that, but since we’re all dealing with future projections, people will have different guesses and judgments.”

Dean Peg Barratt said that however high the cost of the building, the cost of not building the facility is too great.

“The building will let current and new faculty conduct the research that will attract federal funding,” Barratt said. “The cost of not building this really needs to be in people’s thinking.”

Dr. David Dolling, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said the school hopes to hire 32 new faculty members in the next year who will hopefully bring in research money. These hires, he said, would triple the amount of research funding from about $12 million to about $40 million to help fund the complex.

The new faculty members would not all be hired to new positions; some would replace faculty who resign or retire as well as the professors who accepted the buyout package offered by the school, Dolling said.

Dolling said the benefits associated with the complex outweigh the risks of the University taking on debt to pay for the complex.

“I think we have to take a certain chance,” Dolling said. “Everything in life has a certain risk to it. I don’t think we can analyze it to the nth degree.”

The next step for the complex includes a presentation of the budget and design plans to the Board of Trustees at its meeting in October. The vote will decide whether or not the University will move forward with the project.

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