Miami U. tapped out budget with $53.1 million student center

Another $21.5 million to be spent on project.

When the public university’s Armstrong Student Center opened in January, students were greeted with a $202,000 landscaping job, upscale leather furniture and red diner chairs that cost an extra $12,000 in re-upholstery charges to achieve the “Miami appearance.” The design of the building alone — which was a $5 million chunk of the project — was so expansive it required more than 40 out-of-state trips costing $71,000 from design, landscape, lighting and culinary facility experts.

Some college experts say the new building follows an unsettling, nationwide trend of publicly-funded colleges erecting lavish buildings. Others argue the center was partly funded through generous alumni donations and will serve as an integral part of college life at the campus for decades to come.

The Journal-News requested thousands of public records documents from the multi-million dollar project to investigate the real cost — from start to finish — of the building. The analysis found officials have depleted the $53.1 million budget for the building, which included $2.1 million in back-up funds tucked away for the project.

A bulk of those costs — more than $37.9 million — concentrated on the actual construction of the building, including costs for plumbing, electrical, fire protection as well as heating and air modifications to the building. Changes, costing more than $1.5 million, were made during that portion of the project for a variety of reasons, including unexpected site conditions or plumbing problems.

University officials are currently negotiating with contractors on a remaining roughly $200,000 for the project and believe they will remain on budget once those talks are finalized, David Creamer, the vice president of finance for Miami University, said.

“At the end of the day, we came in on budget,” Creamer said.

But, there’s still more work to be done: a $21.5 million addition to the building is slated to begin in 2016 and is scheduled for completion in 2017.

A $1,035 lamp

Talk of a new student center — to replace the Shriver Student Center erected in the 1950s— began years ago, but trustees first approved a nearly $90 million project in 2008. Roughly two years later, the total project cost was whittled to $62 million.

Students, Creamer said, led the charge for the new space, which includes a 500-seat theater, diner, food court, meeting spaces and student organization offices.

“That’s what it was intended to do: really enrich the student experience in a way that the Shriver Center was unable to accomplish,” Creamer said.

Among the details that enrich the new student center: leather couches, $1,400 wooden cocktail tables and decorative tripod lamps purchased from Restoration Hardware, an upscale furniture store, at $1,035 a piece. Additionally, a $240,000 3D rotunda, in the design of the university’s seal, was financed by a donor.

Students could also ditch the plastic chairs and tables once found at the Shriver Center’s dining room in exchange for red vinyl chairs at the new 1950s-themed diner in the Armstrong Student Center, which serves up hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes.

Those diner chairs — 82 total — were initially purchased in black leather but Miami University President David Hodge ordered them to be reupholstered at a cost of $12,450 or $151 per chair, Creamer said.

“The appearance (of the chairs) did not align well with the Miami colors,” Creamer said. “It was more reflective of the University of Cincinnati.”

New parts for the chairs were purchased the day the student center opened, according to documents, and Creamer said the decision was made, in part, because the project was under budget at the time.

Overall, the university spent $1.061 million furnishing the new center.

Some of the more luxurious details in the building were likely funded through alumni donations — more than $32 million worth of the $53.1 million project was paid through alumni donations.

Miami did receive more than $57 million in state taxpayer funding last year, according to the Ohio Board of Regents, but no state funds were directly applied to this project.

Students, however, will be charged a $110-per-semester fee for the next 25 years to pay down the remaining debt on the project. Those fees will also pay for some operational costs of the building, including the estimated $1 million in yearly utility costs for the building.

Richard Vedder, the director of a Washington, D.C.-based research center called the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, argues that taxpayers are still getting cheated in the deal. He points out that many of the alumni donors likely claimed tax exemptions as a result of their lofty donations.

“These donors are getting tax deductions to buy fancy lamps. What is the education function served by that? Is there any?” Vedder said. “It’s more like giving people donations for building a new clubhouse for a country club.”

‘Arms race’ in higher education?

Miami University’s new student center is one in a string of student centers that have been constructed, renovated or upgraded in recent years at Ohio’s public universities within the last decade.

Ohio University in Athens spent $60 million on a new student center unveiled in 2004, while Ohio State University opened its $118.8 million student union in 2010. Both charge students a fee as a result, but neither are as high as Miami University’s student fee.

Ohio University’s student center features offices, a food court, an apparel store and a large ballroom. The building has been useful for students and a key in attracting prospective ones, too, Ryan Lombardi, the vice president for student affairs at Ohio University, said.

“For us, it’s a front door to our institution. That’s where admissions tell prospective students to arrive; it’s the first place they see,” Lombardi said. “I think it’s pretty common to have these type of facilities.”

So common, in fact, that Greg Lawson, of the conservative think-tank called the Buckeye Institute, fears public universities are simply using the new buildings to bulk up the war chest in the contest for new recruits.

“It’s almost like an arms race between the different higher education institutions,” Lawson said. “They’re competing based upon the amenities they offer as much as the educational programs they have. That’s a sign of concern.”

But part of the boom in campus construction is timing, Dan Hurley, a spokesman for the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said. More universities have updated their recreation center, dorms or academic buildings because of low lending rates during the economic downturn, he said.

And, many of those construction projects have been at the direct benefit of the student, he said.

“With regards to students, those buildings have served as a nucleus of student activities, academic programming, activities, cultural and entertainment activities,” Hurley said.

Miami University’s student president Cole Tyman says the new student center at Miami has done just that. Students have gathered for campus lectures, poetry readings and even a student-organized gala this past year since the building opened.

“Students are constantly in there socializing, studying and having lunch,” Tyman said “The student center has exceed just about everybody’s expectations. It’s getting used by any stakeholder that wants to use it.”

‘Every thousand dollars counts’

James Brock, an economics professor at Miami University, said he hasn’t visited the student center yet, mostly because he doesn’t want to go out of his way to see it.

“It kind of struck me as obscene excess,” Brock said. “We did need some new buildings. It’s just a matter of balance here. There’s got to be some reasonable middle ground on this between spending every last nickel and spending nothing.”

Some, like Brock, argue construction of these upscale facilities at public universities contributes to the rising cost of a college education.

Tuition and fees at four-year public universities in the country have risen 27 percent during the past five years to nearly $9,000 annually, as of the 2013-2014 school year, according to data compiled by College Board, the organization that oversees college admissions tests. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced Miami University had the highest net price — cost of attendance minus scholarships and financial aid — of public universities across the country.

“It’s $110 (for the student center fee) a semester; that’s $880 over four years,” Brock said. “It’s not as if most families have a lot of room here. Every thousand dollars counts, I think.”

Miami’s debt load, as well, has increased from $53.2 million in 2002 to $641 million this year. Most of that increase is the result of a flurry of campus construction in recent years, including new dorms, dining halls and the Armstrong Student Center, Creamer said.

Hurley, of the American Public Colleges and Universities, argues construction fees aren’t the problem.

“Clearly, college affordability is an issue,” Hurley said. “But this is one small fee that, when added up against everything else, certainly portrays a broader issue of college affordability. Is there a direct linkage? The answer is no. It’s one of hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that go into college costs.”

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