Canadian campuses in creaky condition

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McGill Reporter
July 27, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 18
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > July 27, 2000 > Canadian campuses in creaky condition

Canadian campuses in creaky condition

| At least we're in good company.

As most people at the University know only too well, McGill has a dark cloud of deferred maintenance hanging over its lovely campuses. From sea to shining sea, virtually every Canadian university faces the same problem. In the recent era of government belt-tightening, universities watched their budgets dwindle. As a consequence, the maintenance of their buildings was put off in order to pay for things deemed more important in the short run.

McGill has borrowed $10 million to take on a number of renovation projects this summer, including the repair and replacement of broken lockers for students.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
The result: $3.6 billion worth of accumulated deferred maintenance (ADM) or an average of $5,561 for every university student in the country. For McGill, that figure is $7,500.

This is the finding of a study of 51 universities (accounting for 87 per cent of total enrolment) conducted by the Canadian Association of University Business Officers for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

In the 60-page document, titled A Point of No Return: The Urgent Need for Infrastructure Renewal at Canadian Universities, CAUBO argues that "there is an urgent need for major reinvestment in the physical plant and infrastructure of our universities."

If the work isn't attended to, "there will be further deterioration and increased costs," warns the report.

Not that any of this is news to Canada's 91 universities. What is new, however, is the fact that the data has been compiled for the whole country and the AUCC has collected proof of the urgency.

Maurice Cohen, executive director of CAUBO and former vice-rector (services) at Concordia University, says the document will be used in the short term to lobby the federal government to allow universities to be considered under its $2.65 billion (over six years) infrastructure program. To that end, all ministers of education and rectors, presidents or principals of universities have received the report.

As it stands, universities aren't officially covered by the program, announced in last February's budget.

However, explains AUCC public affairs officer Jeff Morrison, when a similar program was implemented in 1994, three provinces negotiated to have their universities included in their agreement with the federal government, while five — including Quebec — used the money on an ad hoc basis to ease the problem of deferred maintenance at their universities.

For the long term, the AUCC will use the document to make the federal government face up to the fact that universities' core budgets have to be increased and transfer payments to the provinces restored.

In Cohen's opinion, Ottawa's current emphasis on funding research is unbalanced and even becomes a burden on universities which don't have the core funding to provide the necessary infrastructure — in terms of both human and physical resources — to support the research. "Every time you increase the research budget, you take more from the core."

Furthermore, he accuses the federal government of playing politics by handing out money for glamorous research while taking money away from core funding through its reduced transfer payments to the provinces.

"Research money is much sexier and it's easier for the government to take credit. If they transferred the money to the provinces, [the provinces] would get the credit."

Cohen concedes the equation is a little more complex than that, but argues that "globally, universities have had the core money taken from them and given to research."

And what's the first to go, when the core budget is down? "Maintenance, because you can always postpone it," says Cohen.

After close to 30 years at the University, Chuck Adler, director of the Planning Office, is well acquainted with the degree of the problem of ADM.

He tells the story of maintenance workers who refused to use the maintenance tunnel between the Arts and James buildings. Even an assistant to the deputy minister of education was shocked at the dangerous condition of the conduit and within one month of the University's having invited him to see the most pressing work to be done, a "special grant" came McGill's way.

The Ministry of Education is not insensitive to the issue of deferred maintenance, says Adler, and the University has benefited from special infrastructure programs from both levels of government in the last 10 years. Furthermore, the ministry has promised an annual $25 million to help the province's universities catch up on their maintenance. However, the money has yet to be put on the table.

Adler says McGill falls into the top one-third of the worst cases of the 51 universities surveyed by CAUBO because "we're old, we're in an architectural zone [i.e., the University has many heritage buildings] and we haven't built much since the 1970s."

That last point might seem like a non sequitur but it isn't when you consider the quality of construction in the '60s and '70s.

That was the era of massive expansion in universities to accommodate the babyboomers. Many of those buildings, which include Burnside Hall and the McIntyre Medical Sciences, Stephen Leacock, Otto Maass and Samuel Bronfman buildings, were "built quickly and economically," notes Adler. As Cohen points out, buildings constructed in the '60s have the approximate lifespan of a professor: 40 years.

Thirty to 40 years later, components of all of them are breaking down. Witness the terrace around Burnside, for instance. Fixing it isn't merely a question of esthetics. As Adler points out, the terrace is actually a complicated rooftop, one that used to leak water right into the computer room in the basement. The Burnside Terrace isn't alone in this characteristic. "Those concrete terraces were a '60s style," notes Adler. "All of them have leaked and all have spaces beneath."

In some ways, little has changed since the '60s in terms of how the University approaches the question of maintenance. According to the CAUBO report, universities should put aside two per cent of every building's replacement value every year in a fund for maintenance. That didn't happen in the '60s and it doesn't happen now, says Adler. "We're just making do again and the base maintenance budgets are no better off."

Still, Adler has some cause for optimism, especially because of Principal Bernard Shapiro's demonstrated interest in making headway on this matter; it was Shapiro who supported the Campus Renewal fund last year, using $10 million from the operating budget. It was a move that was greatly appreciated by Adler.

"If the people at the top don't give this priority, it just won't happen because the University is dealing with so many other important funding issues."

Shapiro, for his part, sees no alternative but to borrow or use money from the operating budget. "I'm desperate. You can't have students in classrooms with the walls falling down." Besides, he adds, "it costs more to let things go. The resultant deterioration costs more than the interest on the loans." McGill has taken out a loan of $10 million to fund a host of renovation projects this summer.

McGill is nearing the end of "stage one" of its strategy for deferred maintenance: looking after the dangerous structures. Stage two involves repairing or upgrading such items as ventilation systems, tunnels and roofs before they become dangerous.

"We've done the sprint stuff, now we're in for the long haul," says Adler with a laugh.

The problem of deferred maintenance is also one of image. It's hard to raise private funds for leaky roofs and mechanical problems, notes Vice-Principal (Development & Alumni Relations) Derek Drummond. "There's no sex appeal in replacing an air conditioning system unless [donors] are in the building themselves frying." And there are few opportunities for naming in the domain of repairs.

Shapiro believes that people are reluctant to make donations for maintenance because it's hard to identify with a new boiler, for instance, as opposed to establishing a scholarship. Furthermore, he says, "people don't want to see themselves as substitutes for government."

The only area where there's a possibility of attracting alumni support or support from the private sector is in the preservation of heritage buildings, of which McGill has no fewer than 35. Drummond started a donation program for heritage buildings last year but it hasn't attracted much support yet. As he says, "It's much easier to attract funds for new buildings."

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