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Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2006

University lowlights

Behind some of the impressive facades on Kansas university campuses is a crumbling infrastructure that must be shored up.

November 5, 2006

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Only about a dozen Kansas legislators went on what might be dubbed the "worst of KU" tour last week, but perhaps they will carry the message to their colleagues that action must be taken to address maintenance needs on the state's university campuses.

On the tour, the lawmakers traipsed through basements and back staircases to get the full impact of the deterioration and damage to Kansas University buildings caused by time, weather and use. KU officials calculate that the combined maintenance needs at the Lawrence campus and the KU Medical Center campuses would cost $237 million to correct.

Some of the legislators were impressed - not in a positive way - by what they saw. Similar tours of other state campuses also were organized by the Kansas Board of Regents, so maybe legislators in various parts of the state can compare notes about the maintenance needs and recognize that to allow this situation to persist is not good stewardship.

KU and officials at other state universities probably share the blame for this situation because they have been unwilling to divert money from other parts of their budgets to fund the maintenance. It may seem like an unwise choice now, but it is a decision that any struggling homeowner can understand.

If your refrigerator must be replaced, there may be little choice about putting off a new roof or some foundation repair for a year or two. When universities have to weigh the need to provide salaries high enough to attract and retain top faculty against the need to repair a concrete staircase or replace electrical wiring, it's understandable that they would place top priority on the need more closely related to the school's educational mission.

Obviously, however, maintenance can't be put off forever, and in the case of many university buildings, it already has been delayed for too long.

In the last legislative session, the Board of Regents' plan to approve a tax increase to fund delayed maintenance received a cool reception from legislators. A tax increase, even a temporary one, may not be the answer, but legislators and university officials must work together to set priorities and fund a program that will address the maintenance backlog and prevent a similar backlog from occurring again.

It's an injustice for state taxpayers as well as an insult to generous donors who provided funding for many of the university structures now owned by the state to allow those buildings to deteriorate perhaps beyond the point of no return.

The state needs better leadership on our university campuses, and regents need to demand that the schools' chief executives run their institutions in a sound, fiscal manner.

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