September 19, 2021


True Conservative Viewpoints

The Wasteful ‘Edifice Complex’ of College Officials

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Back in 2000, the University of North Carolina system wanted a huge bond package ($3.1 billion as I recall) to finance a gigantic building spree. I closely examined the list of proposals and found that much of it came down to the fact that old buildings had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where spanking new ones were “necessary.” UNC pulled out all the stops, including some illegal use of state funds, to get it passed.

The desire among college officials for new buildings is not limited to North Carolina. In today’s Martin Center article, Professor Rich Vedder looks at the “edifice complex” that grips so many of them. Enrollments have been declining for the last decade, but still schools sink money into new construction.

Why do colleges behave this way? Vedder offers several reasons.

First, “College presidents reasoned that not only did old buildings need to be replaced, but they had to be bigger to accommodate the near-certain future increases in enrollment. The chemistry building constructed in 2010 had to accommodate the certainly larger number of students using labs in 10 or 20 years. They really believed that the nation would fulfill a goal that President Barack Obama set in his 2009 State of the Union Address when he inaccurately proclaimed that ‘by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.’”

Obama’s words were sweet music in the ears of college officials and they acted accordingly.

Second, those same officials thought that shiny new facilities would help them in the war to recruit more students.

Third, the Federal Reserve’s policy of keeping interest rates low encouraged wasteful investment on college campuses, just as it does throughout the economy.

Finally, numerous campus bureaucrats’ jobs depend on growth in facilities, and they’re pretty good at lobbying to protect their domains.

Vedder concludes with some sound advice: “Stop constructing new buildings—and start using them more intensively. Governing boards, who too often rubber-stamp administrative extravagance, should start saying no to perpetrators of the Edifice Complex.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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