Produced by Carmen Mendoza
Following is a transcript of the conversation.
“When you think about where the college might want to spend their money, they want to spend it on growing, expanding their program, hiring faculty. The next air handler isn’t on their radar.” —Mark Conselyea
Scott Carlson: Hello, I’m Scott Carlson. And welcome to The Evolving Campus. The voice you just heard belongs to Mark Conselyea, vice president of facilities operations at Ohio State University, who’s joining me today on the podcast to talk about deferred maintenance. University systems can have a backlog of repair and replacement projects in the billions of dollars.
Mark is here to talk about how he’s handling that at one of America’s biggest universities, Ohio State. Then later in the episode, we’ll talk to David Sheppard about how years of inadequate state support have led to a deferred-maintenance crisis at historically Black colleges and universities.
This podcast is sponsored by Perkins Eastman. Halfway through the episode, you’ll hear a bit about campus space and deferred maintenance from Stephanie Kingsnorth, principal at Perkins Eastman, along with Brock Read, editor of The Chronicle. Now back to Scott.
Carlson: Mark, welcome to The Evolving Campus.
Mark Conselyea: Thanks very much, Scott.
Carlson: Mark, you’re at Ohio State, and Ohio State is one of those big American universities. I just wanted to ask you, how big is that campus? How do you sort of convey the girth about that place?
Conselyea: Sure, Ohio State, I kind of think of it as a small city, or maybe even a big city. We’ve got over 68,000 students enrolled. We are a university that has over 1,700 acres, over 1,300 buildings. We have about $7.6 billion in revenue per year, 15 colleges. And we do have the main Columbus campus, but we do have five other campuses around the state. Plus we have a large agricultural extension that has a number of locations throughout the state. We’re, I believe, the fourth-largest public institution of higher learning in the nation. We do have about 36 million square feet of building.
Carlson: So what do you see as the big challenges of maintaining and sustaining that kind of large campus? Is there something that’s peculiar to that kind of task, compared with the task of maintaining a smaller campus or a single set of buildings?
Conselyea: I think the first, most obvious thing is the scale of it, because we have so many buildings. And when we think about how you assess our buildings and you think about the average quality of our research buildings, for example, and if the average is at a good level, you still have a lot of buildings that are below average. And certainly, when you think about the bottom 10 percent or 20 percent, that ends up being a big number of buildings.
So those are the most challenging, of course, to maintain. And again, when we’re talking about research, the parameters that we need to maintain those buildings are relatively narrow and difficult under any circumstances. So to have a significant amount of your building space that is challenged really means that we have to invest regularly and significantly in order to provide the kind of experience that we want our faculty, staff, and students to have. So the sheer scale of the number of buildings is important.
The complexity of the buildings, again, research being maybe the most complex, and the health-care, buildings as well — we have to disproportionately invest in those buildings to maintain the environments. And we’ve already really focused primarily on buildings. But we really can’t forget about the infrastructure. Across this campus, we have six miles of tunnels, we have 25 bridges, we’ve got 47 miles of storm and sewer. So historically, one of our challenges has been that we’ve really focused on buildings. And you can’t forget about all that infrastructure that’s connecting everything.
Carlson: Why is the infrastructure forgotten a lot of the times when campuses are looking at what they have?
Conselyea: Well, it’s even one step removed from what’s happening inside the building. So most people experience what happens within the walls and how nice the building looks from the outside, or what’s the quality of the classroom, and does it have updated carpeting and chairs? But what’s been happening behind the walls, most people don’t see, but that’s our responsibility.
The colleges and departments, unless they’re experiencing a real-time issue with the environment from heating, cooling, water infiltration, that kind of thing, most of what’s happening behind the walls is hidden. And when you think about where the college might want to spend their money, they want to spend it on growing, expanding their program, hiring faculty. The next air handler isn’t on their radar. And when you’re trying to prioritize where your investments are going to be, often that gets lost. And it’s really up to us as the stewards of the facilities to help make sure that those kinds of things are weighed appropriately.
Carlson: And so does that attention on deferred maintenance, does that shift from administration to administration over time? I mean, do some administrations have more of a focus on that? Or does nobody really have that at the front burner, just generally? And I’m not speaking necessarily at Ohio State, but just sort of across the sector, what you see.
Conselyea: Sure, yeah, deferred maintenance is clearly an issue with all of our colleagues and universities across the nation. Nobody, I think, really spends the amount of time and attention and dollars on deferred maintenance that I, as a facilities leader, I think we should. And trying to convince administration and faculty that we do need to make sure we take care of those things in proportion to, say, the percentage of new buildings that we build versus the investment in the existing, that’s a challenge everywhere.
Carlson: So what kind of deferred-maintenance backlog is Ohio State currently sort of grappling with?
Conselyea: Previously, we were making a general assessment of the building, scoring them kind of on a one-to-five scale across 65 major building components, and then backing into, based on the total value of that building, what our deferred maintenance was. Now we’re really going in and assessing the specific deferred maintenance and doing specific estimates on that deferred maintenance.
So we don’t have a clear handle across the entire university yet. It’s going to take us a couple of years to get across that 36 million square feet that I mentioned earlier. But this isn’t a $100-, $200-, or even $500-million issue. This is — this is much larger than that.
Carlson: In the billions, you would say?
Conselyea: Yes, certainly at least a billion.
Carlson: How do you even begin to grapple with that?
Conselyea: Well, and I think that’s actually been part of the historical issue is that the number, whenever this has been looked at in the past, has been so large that the folks can’t get their head around it and can’t begin to think about how can we disproportionately invest. Or what programs would we take money from? Or what strategic initiatives will we not do because we have to invest in our existing assets?
So that’s really been a challenge. And my goal is to really make sure that we have a comprehensive understanding, and again, not just of buildings, but the horizontal infrastructure as well. And my goal is to get it baked into a long-range financial plan. None of us, none of the colleges, none of the universities across the country will ever get the amount of money they need to have zero deferred maintenance. There’s always going to have to be some acceptable level that we’re going to try and reach and maintain.
Carlson: Mark, what are some of the funding models that are used to cover some of the deferred maintenance that’s necessary out there?
Conselyea: That’s a good question. So in athletics, or in student life, or in the medical center, they have revenue that comes into those parts of the organization, and they have budgeting that is relatively independent from what the rest of campus does. And so they make those decisions within those units and address deferred maintenance pretty much as they experience their need, they decide how they’re going to invest.
Much of the rest of the academic campus, they pay into a funding model that pays for custodial maintenance and some level of repairs in those buildings. But it’s not really designed to replace systems and buildings. And so that kind of expectation is that the colleges would bring forward projects and fund the renovations that are necessary to handle those major building systems. And often, we’ll partner with central funding on projects to be able to address deferred maintenance.
But I think colleges really do need to think about the incentives and the way that their budget process evolves so that deferred maintenance is clearly a part of every college’s decision-making. And that there’s some sort of review and oversight and input that the facilities team — and then, ultimately, some of the leaders at the university — make sure that the right proportion of investment is going into existing facilities. Often, colleges want to invest in what’s new, and it’s tough to prioritize the deferred maintenance.
Carlson: Well, Mark, it’s been great having you on The Evolving Campus. Thanks so much for joining us.
Conselyea: Thank you, Scott. It’s been a pleasure.
Carlson: We’re going to take a brief break for a message from our sponsor.
Brock Read: Hi, I’m Brock Read. I’m the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. And I’m very glad to be here today with Stephanie Kingsnorth. Stephanie is a principal with Pfeiffer, a Perkins Eastman studio. She’s the head of the renovation and historic-building practice area for Perkins Eastman. Stephanie, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Stephanie Kingsnorth: Of course, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here to have this conversation.
Read: So Stephanie, I wanted to ask you about a very big part of the work of adapting older buildings. Of course, the adaptations are very, very often done with sustainability in mind. I wanted to hear from you: What are you seeing that’s exciting or challenging in that vein?
Kingsnorth: Well, we’re finding that a lot of campuses are finally starting to embrace an enhanced form of sustainability. And that’s going above and beyond LEED certification or LEED Silver, which, in many places, is building-code required. And they’re looking to break the barrier and be the front-runner in sustainability for their campus. So they’re looking at different metrics, or a higher level of metrics, such as trying to hit LEED Platinum on a historic building, or going with net zero, or looking for carbon neutrality.
And it’s really taking, essentially, a shift within the campus administration. Typically a new president comes in and says, we need to embrace this. And then they’re moving forward with this. So that’s really exciting to see campuses push themselves and push the A&E world to say, no, we can do better. We can do something different than just checking the boxes on a LEED scorecard. Let’s make a difference with our existing buildings and get them as performance-heavy as possible.
Read: So regardless of their size, most campuses have a list of deferred-maintenance needs that far outstrips their budget for the work. With that in mind, how can institutions make smart decisions about where to place their priorities?
Kingsnorth: To do everything they want to, and many times, their deferred-maintenance lists are specific to systems infrastructure: Oh, that air handler is failing. Oh, the boiler is failing. Whatever it might be. But there’s multiple things that go into deferred maintenance, not just about systems. Of course there’s the building envelope, so waterproofing failures, things like that, ADA upgrades that need to happen in existing buildings.
Then of course, there’s just the aesthetic question of, That poor interior hasn’t been painted since 1962. What are we going to do? So as we work with campuses on this, we really ask them to work with us to prioritize, because they all have different issues. Some campuses, it is absolutely about, The building envelope needs to be secure. Because water can migrate anywhere, and it’s going to assist in building failures everywhere.
Other campuses are more focused, let’s say, on sustainability. So they’re looking for, We’re going to replace that air handler. And their funding mechanisms right now are kind of changing in terms of deferred-maintenance lists and additional state or federal funding related to sustainability. So we’re finding a pretty succinct tie-in between the two as we’re working with campuses. But the prioritization, in all honesty, always comes back down to health, safety, and welfare. And how does that impact the inhabitants of the building?
Facilities folks are really good with maintaining existing air handlers and whatnot. We walk in there and we see something from 1920 that’s still running. And you just want to give everyone a big high five, saying, Good job. But again, sustainability factors, it can do better, it can be better. And if they have the funding, we say go after that. And get those deferred-maintenance items taken care of before anything else.
Read: Stephanie, you’re an expert in historic buildings. Campuses are very, very rich with history. It’s often a kind of multilayered history, different buildings from different generations with a whole bunch of different needs. So how do institutions strike a balance between modernizing those buildings and preserving the unique character of their campuses?
Kingsnorth: It’s a great question. And we find that, again, it varies campus by campus. Because on some campuses, there’s a love for the beautiful, so those turn-of-the-century buildings, and all the attention will be given to those turn-of-the-century buildings, which are very different from the mid-century buildings. Of course, there’s a lot of discussion about, Oh, that’s a brutalist building. It’s ugly.
And so there’s this interesting dichotomy that happens between the history of place, the history of the campus, the evolution of campus, showing those layers of history from turn of the century through to today. And someone can even look at an 1980s building, we work on campuses with those all the time, and go, Oh, that’s awful. Oh, we just don’t even want to deal with it. We know we’re going to tear that down in X many years.
And that’s where the discussion comes into play about, OK, but why? Why are you doing that? Why have you already slated this building for that? Why are you looking at your mid-century buildings different than the turn-of-the-century buildings? They’re all part of the joy of the place that makes up the campus. And unfortunately, mid-century buildings have a higher failure rate, because the construction techniques just weren’t as good turn-of-the-century and recent past buildings as they were — mid-century, my apologies, as they were turn of the century.
So we always promote retaining buildings. Of course, it’s the greenest thing you can do in terms of a carbon footprint. But they are challenging. They’re not easy buildings to work with. And as long as a campus is a partner in working through that instead of just, Oh, we want to make it all look you name the style, that’s what we want to do. And we want to start getting rid of these other buildings, we’re in a great place. And we just start working through it in terms of what does that mean for your building stock.
Read: Stephanie, thank you so much for your time and insight. This is really interesting stuff, and I very much appreciate it.
Kingsnorth: Well, again, thank you for having me. And I just want to kind of leave with the parting thought that, really, campuses and higher education need to understand that we can make any building sustainable. It just takes a decision as to what to do and how far to go with it, and based upon what metric. And it will influence their deferred maintenance and all their other thoughts. But don’t give up on the existing buildings. They’re really amazing and an intricate part of campus history.
Read: That’s a great note to end on, I think.
Carlson: We’re back. And we’re joined by David Sheppard of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. David, welcome to The Evolving Campus.
David Sheppard: Thank you, Scott. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Carlson: David, let me ask you, how vast is this problem of deferred maintenance among historically Black colleges and universities?
Sheppard: Scott, it’s very significant. The [Government Accountability] Office, so that’s an arm of the federal government, released a report in 2018 having surveyed the then 101 accredited HBCUs throughout the United States and found that deferred maintenance was a significant issue on our campuses. In fact, on average, they found that our institutions had $67 million worth of deferred maintenance.
Carlson: And are there particular kinds of structures — say research buildings, classroom buildings — that are deeply in need of repair or replacement among these kinds of colleges?
Sheppard: Honestly, it’s across the board. The survey that the [Government Accountability] Office did reflected that — and again, this is on average — on HBCU campuses, 46 percent of their building space needed to be repaired or replaced. And unfortunately, because of the historic underresourcing of historically Black colleges and universities, our institutions haven’t had the luxury of addressing those maintenance needs, those regular repairs that we would do to our physical plant.
In fact, separate and apart from the GAO report, because we at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund are currently working on legislation with several members of Congress to address infrastructure needs on our campuses, including the issue of deferred maintenance, we surveyed our institutions. And our survey reflected that they had, on average, $81 million in deferred-maintenance expenses.
Now, I will clarify that by saying that the Thurgood Marshall College Fund principally represents the public HBCUs, so they have a tendency to be larger institutions. But if we consider the results from the GAO report versus our survey to correlate, then that shows that deferred-maintenance expenses on our campuses have increased 23 percent over that span of time. So that’s from 2018 to the present.
Carlson: Wow, that’s a big bump in a short period of time. Why is that happening in that particular moment?
Sheppard: Well, I think there are a couple of issues that have come into play. So everyone is familiar with land-grant institutions. They were created back through a piece of legislation called the Morrill Act of 1862, which, in essence, set aside land for the establishment of institutions to focus principally on agriculture. But they also could teach the humanities and the like.
As a consequence of African Americans not being allowed to be admitted to those institutions, there was a second Morrill Act of 1890, which instructed states to either admit African Americans to those original land-grant institutions or set up a second set of land-grant institutions, which are the original HBCUs (although not all of the HBCUs that existed at that time were the genesis of the second Morrill Act).
But suffice it to say that as a consequence of that legislation, there was a requirement by states to do an equitable and just allocation of resources to both those flagship land-grant institutions and HBCUs. And the reality is that, over the passage of time, states have not met their obligations to our HBCUs. And there’s a perfect example of that that came out in the press back in April.
An arm of the Tennessee government did an audit of Tennessee’s support for Tennessee State University. And what that audit found was that at the high end, that the state of Tennessee had failed to give the requisite financial support to Tennessee State University to the tune of $544 million. And let me also add that’s not a situation that’s unique to Tennessee.
Now, unfortunately, this is a condition that has existed since the inception of our institutions. HBCUs exist disproportionately in states of the old Confederacy. And if you know your history, that’s basically the southeastern United States as far west as Texas and Oklahoma. And because of that storied history that we have about how African Americans have been treated, suffice it to say that the government within those respective states has not placed the emphasis on providing equitable and just funding to historically Black colleges and universities.
And as a consequence of that, our institutions have suffered in terms of both dealing with issues of their physical plant and also having resources for appropriate instruction and modern-day research and development on our campuses. And so that has built up over time. One of the things that came out of the GAO report, interestingly enough, was that actively today, on average, our institutions are using historic buildings as approximately 10 percent of their meeting and instructional space.
Well, there’s a lot of maintenance costs associated with historic buildings. And if you’re actively using those buildings, then the costs associated with those buildings in particular can outstrip what resources you might have available to address deferred maintenance needs across your campus.
Carlson: Historic buildings sort of convey a sense of not only the history of a campus, but also its character. To what extent are they at risk?
Sheppard: I think the reality is that when you are using them approximately as 10 percent of your active building space, having the requisite capacity to maintain that space is problematic at best. The cost to maintain a historic building is markedly more significant than it is to maintain the average building because of the requirements that you need to meet. And the other challenge is, oftentimes, when you undertake to make upgrades to them, then there are other things that come into play, like having them meet ADA requirements.
And then there’s a significant cost associated with that. So it’s not simply a matter of making sure that the building still stands. It’s meeting the requisite federal and state codes that come into play the moment that you make additional improvements to that building space.
Carlson: And what about technology? I mean, technology has a cycle of obsolescence that’s pretty quick. And it’s expensive, on top of that, to replace. It’s also deeply connected to things like student learning. How is that affected at historically Black colleges and universities?
Sheppard: You know, that’s a really interesting question. One of the challenges, in particular, that our institutions faced in the wake of the rise of the pandemic in late February, early March of 2020 was that, like all institutions of higher education, they had to pivot. They had to, in most cases, close campuses, shift their students to remote learning, and try to finish out that semester in that very challenging dynamic.
Our schools were getting buffeted at both ends, with respect to having to stand up an online-learning infrastructure on the fly, and also trying to make sure that we had the technology needs of our students addressed at home. And that’s dealing with a certain student population who had the luxury also of going home. Because of the student population we happen to support, you had students who had or may have not had a home to go home to. And so we had to operate our campuses in a hybrid environment, where students would stay in dorms and learn remotely in their dorm room, but yet we still had to incur the costs of making sure that the dorms and library space were deep cleaned, as well as other academic space on campus as needed. And many of our campuses pre-pandemic had to deal with challenges where certain parts of campus did not have broadband access. I know that seems strange in 2020, and now 2021. But the reality was that one thing that needed to be addressed on campus, particularly when teaching in a hybrid environment. So technology has been a real challenge. And it’s a challenge we still have to navigate today.
Carlson: So how do you think this problem can be sustainably solved into the future? Do you think that the proposals that are out there are sufficient to handle and address what HBCUs really need? Or is there a massive change that needs to happen?
Sheppard: We are off to an encouraging start. But I will submit to you that currently we’re looking at about $2 billion potentially being available to address infrastructure needs. And the challenge is that, as currently crafted, that would be accessible to both the HBCUs and MSIs — and that we would have to compete for those dollars. And if you look at the numbers that the GAO found or we found from our own survey, at a minimum, across our institutions, you’re looking at $6.7 billion in deferred-maintenance needs.
And that’s just simply deferred maintenance. That doesn’t address the needs of new infrastructure on campus in order to be competitive in the higher-education marketplace. It doesn’t address the laboratory space or the technology in order to do research and development work. And those numbers, when we surveyed our institutions, are around the, on average, $200-million range. So you’re dealing with billions upon billions of dollars of needs for simply HBCUs alone.
Carlson: Students, in terms of where they enroll, are also influenced by the condition of the campus in terms of which colleges they pick. How is that affecting the picture here?
Sheppard: Yeah, it’s really an important issue, Scott. The reality is in order to be competitive in the higher-education marketplace — and let’s be real about it, there is a higher-education marketplace — you need to have the best facilities available, the best technology on campus in order to be competitive. Students may make a choice if they’re deciding between a PWI, what we call a predominantly white institution, and an HBCU. They may choose to go to the PWI, because they have a panoply of resources that HBCUs do not.
And then there’s also, if you look at the largest institutions of higher education, those top institutions from a research-and-development standpoint. They have the benefit of getting those federal R&D dollars in the door, and having that supplement what they are able to do from a resource standpoint. Oftentimes the awards allow flexibility with respect to some of those dollars to address technology needs, or lab space, or even physical plant.
And the dollars that you have available to address those issues, you’re now shifting resources from that in your budget to addressing deferred maintenance. So these are the things that play on one another in terms of our institutions’ ability to address both issues of deferred maintenance on campus and also new infrastructure needs or technology needs, simple things like broadband.
Carlson: Well, David, thanks for joining me on this show and talking about this important topic.
Sheppard: Absolutely, it was a pleasure to be with you.
Carlson: This has been The Evolving Campus, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by Perkins Eastman. For additional episodes, look for us on the Chronicle website or on your favorite podcast app. I’m Scott Carlson.
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