Kinjo Kiema: GW only hurts itself by keeping SEH fundraising details in the shadows

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Nicole Radivivlov | Contributing Photo Editor

I’ve been awakened early in the morning by jackhammering outside my Fulbright Hall room multiple times so far this year.

While the noise is annoying, what GW is constructing there may wind up being a much bigger headache to the rest of our campus community.

The Science and Engineering Hall is the University’s biggest academic financial investment. Ever. It’s costing $275 million to fund this block-long building, which is meant to attract more engineering students, high-quality faculty and research grants.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Kinjo Kiema

The University has accumulated debt in part to pay for the project. Now, the regrettable icing on the cake is GW’s refusal to disclose just how much money it has raised for the construction.

We’ve faced fundraising challenges in the past when it comes to this building, making GW’s lack of transparency on this front a whole new kind of upsetting.

If the University needs to fundraise more, obscuring information is not the way to build trust with potential donors. When you’re running for office, you don’t hide from your supporters how badly you may be doing. You let them know you’re three points behind in the polls so they rush to the polls. It makes no sense for GW to keep quiet about how much additional money is necessary – in fact, it looks cowardly.

When I spoke to Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, he told me, “There’s such a tendency these days to go out and say, we want this new building, we’re trying to raise more money… Eh, we’ll just build it anyway. We’ll borrow whatever we need, and then hopefully the money will come. That isn’t a particularly prudent strategy.”

Here’s how the University’s strategy adds up to being not so prudent.

Like any other debt, we have to pay the money back eventually. Right now, GW’s paying back what it accumulates in interest each year without getting to the real meat of the cost – the principal amount. That’s fine in the short term, but eventually, the principal has to be paid off, too.

So where’s this money coming from? The University hopes to raise a portion through fundraising, with the rest coming from other sources, including revenue from GW’s commercial properties and government subsidies for research. Good plan, right?

But donors to GW can earmark what they want their dollars to go toward, and most who give to SEH, understandably, only want to donate to specific scholarships or programs. Not as many are jazzed about the less-than-thrilling option to contribute to paying off the school’s debt.

And even if the school becomes massively successful with nationally renowned programs, it would still take GW a while to churn out high-paid engineers to donate enough money back for those more boring expenses.

“If the building is so spectacular, so mind-boggling that it just captures the fancy of the engineering world, it will have a payoff. But that’s an awfully big risk, it seems to me,” Vedder said.

It’s an even bigger risk given GW’s already-high tuition, upon which it is heavily dependent. To start paying off the debt, the University will be forced to turn to other revenue sources, like tuition, to make up the difference – especially when it comes time to pay the principal.

But because the University already has one of the highest tuition rates in the country, it’s unfathomable that it’d be willing to raise the rates to help pay for a building that has already prompted some negative reactions from faculty and students alike. Raise tuition to pay for it, and the folks in Rice Hall can expect a torch-wielding mob banging on their doors the next day.

Without raising tuition, GW would have to redirect dollars away from other day-to-day operating costs – which include, for example, professors’ salaries. What would give GW a little more wiggle room when it comes to spending is a larger endowment: Luckily, ours has grown as of late, but it will take many years for it to be substantial enough to relieve the University’s tuition dependence. And it would be ironic to slash faculty hiring to pay for a shiny new academic building.

As a student on this campus, one who lives right next door to this massive building, I often find myself looking up at it and wondering a pretty obvious question: Is it even worth it? Without knowing about the hall’s financial situation, but with the concern that it’s sending my school deeper into debt, it gets harder and harder to answer that question in the affirmative.

Kinjo Kiema, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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