Regents eyeball campus construction

by Kristin Gustafson

University regents, state legislators, facilities management staff members and others donned hard hats and plastic glasses Wednesday afternoon as they toured nine campus construction projects.
The tour came one day before the regents’ facilities committee will vote on schematic plans for two construction projects, discuss the capital improvement plan and address the committee’s work plans for the months ahead.
At Friday’s regents meeting, the regents will consider the next capital request for the Legislature and lay the conceptual framework for the next six years of capital plans.
A University project manager and an administrator from affected programs at each construction site spoke to the group.
On the East Bank, the group toured the Mechanical Engineering and Molecular Cellular Biology buildings; Ford, Murphy, Amundson and Jackson halls; Coffman Union; and the Riverbend Commons. Then the group boarded a bus and viewed the Barbara Barker Center for Dance and the Elmer L. Anderson Library on the West Bank.
“It is impressive to see the magnitude of the projects going on,” said University graduate and state Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista. “There is a sense of renewal of buildings that are aging on campus.”
Renovation of older buildings, such as Coffman Union, impressed Olson. “They are not just tearing down buildings willy-nilly,” she said.
Olson was optimistic that the Legislature would continue to fund University capital improvements.
She said that private investments, such as the three $10 million gifts in the past year, demonstrate support from the private sector. Yet the University remains a very public institution.
It is in the Legislature’s interest to maintain a high level of quality at the University and to help where it has fallen behind, Olson said.
University graduate and state Rep. Phil Carruthers, DFL-Brooklyn Center, voiced concern for this year’s legislative capital request and asked whether state money is better spent on buildings or University programs.
“I think it’ll be a tougher go,” he said, noting Gov. Jesse Ventura’s goal for a smaller bonding bill. Bonding is the primary source for state funding for University capital improvements.
Carruthers asked: “Does it make sense to put a lot of money into the buildings, or does it make more sense to put money into what happens in the building?”
Seeing concrete examples of how construction impacts specific undergraduate education helped, Carruthers said.
Carruthers, who went to the University before Coffman Union’s renovation in the 1970s, said that while he was pleased with the schematic plans for the newly renovated union, he was disappointed the renovation wasn’t done right the first time.
“This is a valuable lesson to planners and architects at the University of what not to do,” Carruthers said.
Now the University is “spending millions of dollars undoing what was done,” he added.
Eric Kruse, vice president of Facilities Management, gave an example of how the construction will impact educational programs.
“I’ve walked through there and have seen people teaching in the hallways,” Kruse said as he stood in front of the Mechanical Engineering building. “It’s pathetic.”
Tom Fisher, dean of architecture and landscape architecture, said it has been difficult to attract the best students because of poor facilities.
“We taught a watercolor class using the sinks in the men’s facilities,” Fisher said of the Mechanical Engineering building prior to its renovation. Students had to wear hats and gloves because portions of the building had no heat, he said.
Built in the 1950s and designed for 300 students, the building has now forced the program’s 700 students into hallways and five buildings across campus.
“This will allow us to bring the whole college back together,” Fisher said.
Fisher, as well as other administrators presenting to the regents and legislators, explained how the renovation connects to the University’s five initiatives — in this case, housing a new Design Institute.
Al Tims, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, described to the group how renovation of the 60-year-old Murphy Hall is tied to the University’s New Media Initiative.
After consulting with every major media organization in the country, the school ensured the renovation will provide all the tools journalism and mass communication students will need, Tims said.
The tradition of excellent journalism at the University is about to be reborn, he said.
Tony Baraga, a regent who serves on the facilities committee, said the University is fortunate to have received substantial funding for capital improvements in recent years.
“You can only patch things so long,” Baraga said.
He said the tour showed him how the University can spend wisely on new construction and renovation.
“You can do function without sacrificing the aesthetics,” Baraga said.

Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and welcomes comments at She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3211.