New Buildings Rise At Kansas Universities As Students Bear The Cost Of The Old Ones

Mar 6, 2019

Henrion Hall is where the dirty art happens at Wichita State University.

Sculpting. Ceramics. Spray painting. Students are likely to ding, splash and generally make a mess of the walls. With the building nearing 100 years old, the university doesn't mind.

“It allows the students to be able to express themselves without people being upset that they're expressing themselves,” said Jeff Pulaski, the director of the School of Art, Design and Creative Industries at Wichita State.

Yet for the students, the building's age is a much larger issue. There are rats. Lighting is poor. Limited air conditioning can raise indoor temperatures past 90 degrees.

Then there’s the silica dust. Overexposure can cause lung disease. That’s always a concern while using sand and clay. But the former gym’s ventilation system does a poor job mitigating those concerns.

“Being in here every day, you can tell it’s pretty rundown,” said Wichita State freshman Robbyn McKellop.

Universities in Kansas and across the nation face aging campus buildings. Roofs leak. Some classrooms are out of commission. Power outages destroy thousands of dollars in research.

The backlog of repairs for Kansas universities has grown for years and now hangs just below a billion dollars, according to the Kansas Board of Regents. Those universities need $100 million a year to keep the buildings just from further deteriorating. The state gives universities less than half that amount.

“Some of your buildings are from 1910s, 1920s with limestone exteriors, it’s going to take a lot of funding to keep those buildings going,” said Elaine Frisbie, vice president of finance at the Kansas Board of Regents.

That’s led to universities turning to students fees to cover some of those facility costs. Yet while older buildings crumble universities are on a construction spree. Millions are spent creating new buildings while older halls decline.

Universities find themselves stuck in a game of one-upmanship. Schools that invest most of their funds in renovating older buildings risk losing students to schools institutions that spend their money on shiny new buildings to wow prospective freshman.

“We’ve often referred to this sort of as the higher education arms race,” said Peter Reeves, a regional director with Sightlines, a company that advises colleges on the state of their facilities.

Kansas State University and the University of Kansas both built new business school buildings in 2016. Wichita State is planning on constructing its own.

The state doesn't provide any funding for universities to construct new buildings. Universities instead turn to private donors. They tend to be less likely to invest in renovating older buildings — they offer fewer naming possibilities, groundbreaking ceremonies — than construction for a new one. The other revenue source is tuition and fees.

Wichita State students rejected a referendum Wednesday to raise their fees. Some of that money would have gone to renovating buildings like Henrion Hall, but the majority would have gone to Wichita State's planned business building.

“Please fix the buildings we’re actually using right now first,” said Wichita State student Ashley Yancey, “ then you can build your new buildings.”

K-State and KU have raised student fees in recent years to renovate older buildings.

If universities had invested more in preventative maintenance — getting ahead of the inevitable issues that come with the aging buildings — they could have slowed the rise of their repair backlog. Instead, a lack of funding leads them to patch the latest maintenance emergency.

“You tend to fight fires instead of managing the forest,” said Ryan Swanson, the head of facilities at Kansas State University. “There might be one or two universities in the country that aren’t that way.”

Still, the main reason for the eroding quality of many buildings at Kansas campuses is age. Many of the buildings were built before the 1950s. And with aging buildings comes a growing need for repairs.

The near billion dollars the Board of Regents estimates Kansas universities need would just get those spaces to their original condition from decades ago. They would still lack modern needs and amenities — backup generators to protect sensitive experiments, air conditioning to make late spring semester classes more tolerable and wiring for internet. To add those universities would have to spend much more.

New buildings could mitigate this issue by replacing the old. But the new construction typically adds on rather than replaces. The new facilities house new programs while older departments stay put in aging spaces.

That's led to frustration from students and faculty stuck in the rundown buildings.

“Sure, it’s great that the university is growing,” said Wichita State student Kelsey Coffey. “But also we already have problems in buildings that already exist and need a little love.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.

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