Should Minnesota's state colleges fix old buildings or construct new ones?


I’ve been looking into a minor debate going around the higher-ed legislative circles: whether the state should spend its limited higher-ed construction money on new labs and buildings, or on maintaining and renovating the buildings it already has.

Sounds about as interesting as a rusty pipe.

But it’s actually turning into a lively debate about priorities, preparing for the future and the burden it could put on students. And it hasn’t been too partisan — rather a debate among DFLers, judging from statements at last week’s House higher-ed committee hearing.

Some politicians, such as Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter), have stressed the need to do a combination of both. (He told me later we really should be doing a lot more of both, and hopes the debate highlights the need.)

Concentrating only on the long list of maintenance projects, he says, will only put Minnesota colleges and universities out of date technologically. Students need to learn in modern labs, workshops and other facilities if they’re going to make it in the job market, he stresses.

But two-year-student leaders have a different slogan: “Fix it first.”

They said in last week’s Senate hearing that maintaining buildings costs them nothing, because the state pays for it. Colleges pay part of the cost of new ones, however, and usually transfer part of that cost to students in the form of higher tuition, they say.

Most adamant on the whole subject was Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona), a guy who always seems up for a fight.

He said avoiding critical maintenance failures is Job #1, and wanted officials from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system to give pols a prioritized list of the most critical projects in the system.

He recalled difficulties that Winona State University had in getting maintenance for its boilers under the Jesse Ventura administration — boilers that were apparently at a crisis point:

“A new building is great. You get the groundbreaking and you get the pictures, and you get the shovel. If your boilers fail, that building isn’t heated or cooled, and in Winona’s case, if they failed in the winter and the water was in those basements and froze, you would have no building on campus that didn’t need to be replaced. …  I don’t think any campus should come to us with a new building unless they have everything repaired that is on that campus first.”

There’s more to that debate, and I hope to get to it soon.