Why do universities build?

Arnold Kling:

Over the last twenty years, every campus that I have visited has been in a construction frenzy. I would love to see data comparing square footage of physical plant per student at the top fifty universities in 1990 with today–my guess is that it has gone up by more than 30 percent. And yet we have known that the Internet was going to reduce the relative value of buildings. It is hard to think of a more striking phenomenon of supposedly smart people (in charge of universities) doing an obviously stupid thing (putting up buildings).

I have a few wild-assed guesses:

  1. Perhaps universities aren’t building classroom complexes so much as they’re building football stadia, student commons, and so on.  It’s perfectly reasonable to replace lecture halls with Skype sessions as more and more classes go online, but it’s more difficult to do the same with public spaces that facilitate activities whose first goal is social rather than academic.  The internet has not reduced the value of my local brick-and-mortar bar, because buying a six-pack and hanging out on ChatRoulette is a horrible substitute for going to a bar.  This ties into…
  2. Universities aren’t building buildings to have more useful buildings, they’re building buildings to attract more donations from alumni (and probably to recruit more students).  Sweeping wide-angle shots of campuses perfectly lit by the only-slightly-photoshopped sunrise look great in TV ads in ways that screenshots of your favourite online-learning software never ever will.  (The careful reader will recognize Hanson’s Razor.)
  3. Government funding packages are often earmarked for construction.  This is why my alma mater built a bignormous concrete park during a hiring freeze back in 2008.  No university wants to turn away state funding — they might be offered less of it next year — so they have to find something to build with it in order to satisfy the gasbags in the (state|provincial) capital.  And just like big-donor alumni, politicians would rather have their names attached to Impressive Collegiate Architecture than a server farm in the basement of the science library.
  4. I’m unwilling to rule out the possibility that university administrations are just plain old-fashioned stupid, although in this case we might be able to dress up the term as “charmingly old-fashioned”.

Kling offers a fifth hypothesis (which dovetails with 1. and 2.):

[A]t the high levels, college is a status good. Let me repeat that going to a top college today is like belonging to the right church in 1850 or the right country club in 1950. When you are supplying a status good, ostentatiously wasting money on buildings can increase demand.

This suggests a natural experiment: Does the amount of money being wasted ostentatiously on buildings correlate to the status of a college?  I imagine that the really high-level universities (Oxford, say) are perfectly happy to keep their old (“storied”) buildings, while those that’re trying to improve their status are the most profligate builders.  (This certainly explains my alma mater‘s construction binge.)


2 Responses to “Why do universities build?”

  1. 1 tetsujin79
    December 28, 2011 at 11:29

    i’ll agree with college as a status good. Take the college my wife graduated from. They want to be “ivy league” so they built a new entrance that isn’t easily accessible from both directions of traffic, but allowed them to erect an “enternal flame”. They built a bigger library with impresive new architecture, but didn’t buy more books. They made it a walking campus, yet the buildings are too spread out to make it safe or easy to get to and from classes. All this of a school located in the rural midwest, of which there’s no geographical reason (ocean, moutains, etc.) to go there. It isn’t the best school in any of the majors they offer, either. The school is probably the best in the region, but its competition is an ag centered school, a school that lost acreditation, and a commuter school with limited programs and poor staff (I went to that one and can vouch for that – the teachers weren’t the problem).

    They did all that just to make it seem higher caliber or worth more, but did nothing to improve the quality of the education. A status good.

  2. 2 Petey
    December 28, 2011 at 14:07

    I work for a company that designs and sells HVAC equipment for colleges in Nebraska & Iowa. Here’s what I have noticed in the last 4 years:
    – a tremendous amount of energy efficiency upgrades with gov’t contributions covering greater than 50% of the upgrade. Not just ‘Green,’ but increased efficiency with high tech management systems.
    – Elimination of central steam plants for more numerous, smaller boilers to improve efficiency and lower facility maintenance license requirements.
    – A high amount of ‘Made in America’ requirements indicating gov’t funding even when it is not apparent on the plans and summary documents
    – sports complex builds/renovations, we’ve had around 4 new stadiums in both states this last year
    – new mech, elec and civil engineering and business buildings – Lots and filled with Chinese, Saudi, Turk and Indian students. The business schools get European students working on MBA’s.
    – at least one new high dollar proton accelerator for medical science research/treatments
    – new laser science, entomology and meteorology buildings
    – Colossal University medical projects and several new VA hospitals (The local VA hosp. & teaching school build is $1.5B on the short end of the project)

    The single biggest money makers have been in research buildings, dorm efficiency upgrades and University Hospitals. This came as a (pleasant) surprise to us, we expected the States to consolidate rural schools districts into more cost effective central buildings the last few years with gov’t money.

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