Morris buildings cause accessibility debate

Several buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are both difficult and costly to renovate.

Charlie Bartlett

Accessing the second floor of certain University of Minnesota-Morris buildings can be a challenge.

Several buildings in the mall area — the campus’ central hub — don’t have elevators.

And though school officials and student leaders say they want to increase the buildings’ accessibility, several of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making them difficult and expensive to renovate.

Lowell Rasmussen, Morris’ vice chancellor of finance and facilities, said the University had to make a decision in the mid-1990s to either tear down the campus’ old buildings or preserve them. The school chose to save them for both financial and historical reasons, he said.

“These buildings did represent a fundamental educational transformation from individuals who were in western Minnesota,” Rasmussen said.

Since the buildings were deemed historic in the early 2000s, the University has had to follow guidelines set by the State Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. Department of the Interior, Rasmussen said.

And the guidelines limit the types of renovations that can be done to the buildings, especially to their exteriors.

Rasmussen said the facilities aren’t in line with federal accessibility standards. And to increase their accessibility, the school would have to retrofit the buildings within the historic register’s guidelines, which would be expensive, he said.

Among the problematic buildings is the Multi-Ethnic Resource Center, Rasmussen said. The building lacks an elevator to access the upper floors, which includes the campus’ Office of Equity, Diversity, and Intercultural Programs.

“[Students with physical disabilities] can’t even get into an equity and diversity office that supposedly represents them,” said Morris Student Body Vice President Cory Schroeder. “That’s a little problematic.”

Schroeder, who is also chair of the Disability Alliance student group, said the lack of accessibility could deter students with disabilities from attending the school.

“We’re missing out on talented, bright, gifted students that are coming and looking at Morris, but they can’t get around,” he said, “so they choose somewhere else.”

Associate French professor Tammy Berberi, Disability Alliance advisor and former president of the Society for Disability Studies, is an advocate for students with disabilities.

Berberi, who has a mobility impairment, said though the campus community is very accommodating of her and disabled students’ needs, physical access to facilities is still a large problem that should be addressed.

“We focus a lot on financial accessibility and keeping costs down, but there has been much, much, much less focus on physical accessibility,” she said.

Money to help cover the costs of renovations, like adding elevators, throughout the University’s five-campus system primarily comes from Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation funding from the state. The University asked for $55 million in HEAPR funding in its 2015 capital request.

Morris will receive about 3 percent of the total amount the state agrees to allocate the University this year, and Morris’ portion is based on a formula that compares the size and need of each system campus, Assistant Vice President of Finance Brian Swanson said.

Previous HEAPR funding will cover the costs of a new elevator in Morris’ Blakely Hall residence building, Rasmussen said. The University recently finalized a contract with a local architectural firm to propose designs for the elevator.

Campus leaders are finding new hope in preserving the school’s history while also making necessary updates.

“I’m more confident with the fact that we can meet the guidelines for the [National Register], but [that] we can also still make these buildings very functional,” Rasmussen said.

Still, many students and faculty hope for more action from the University and state to address accessibility issues — not just at Morris, but at all campuses.

July will mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the event would be the perfect time for the state to take action on this issue, Berberi said.

“What a terrific occasion to imagine better access to the University of Minnesota,” she said.