UI facilities maintenance fee a sign of state's neglect
Tuition at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus is proposed to increase about $333 a semester for incoming undergraduate students next year. That's no great surprise since there's been a tuition increase every year for decades. Nowadays tuition is guaranteed for four years, so on an annual basis, it will increase less than 2.5 percent a year, an acceptable rate. Room and board rates likely will be increased too, by as much as 7 percent.
But the UI board of trustees will consider another substantial cost increase at Tuesday's meeting: an unprecedented $500 a year "facilities maintenance fund assessment" for all new students. If approved, the fee would be used to cover part of the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance at the UI's three campuses. A 2004 study found that there was $617 million in universitywide maintenance deficiencies, including $309 million on the Urbana campus.
The proposed maintenance fee is outrageous. It's patently unfair to ask future students to pay for maintaining buildings that they haven't even used.
Yet it's the only alternative for the university because of the state's disgraceful negligence of its most valuable single asset (an institution with a current replacement value of $4.4 billion). For several years the governor and Legislature have declined to appropriate one cent for maintenance of hundreds of university buildings. And it appears there won't be any money in next year's meager university budget – the one that, as proposed, gives the UI a 1.4 percent increase, its first budget hike in three years.
It's shameful that the state of Illinois continues to shift more of the costs of higher education – even the costs of repairing roofs and replastering walls – on today's students. The classrooms buildings, laboratories and libraries on the UI campus were built – some more than 100 years ago – with state funds, and with the understanding that the state would maintain them. But it hasn't.
Some of the most magnificent buildings on the UI's Urbana campus are showing serious signs of unarrested deterioration. The cracked and worn tile floors in Lincoln Hall are an embarrassment. The leaky roof and crumbling plaster inside the glorious Smith Memorial Hall are a threat to safety and to the integrity of the rest of the building. Paint is peeling, ceiling tiles are missing, pipe insulation is crumbling and plastic bags cover windows in other academic buildings. A great university for a great state is literally falling apart.
The university hopes to spend $800 million over the next 10 years and to eliminate the backlog of deferred maintenance. As proposed by UI President B. Joseph White, half of the funding for the maintenance work would come from the student assessment, 35 percent would come from planned university spending and the remaining 15 percent would come from the state. But even that 15 percent might be optimistic, based on the state's scant level of support in recent years.
The student facilities maintenance fund assessment is a bad idea, but letting the campus infrastructure deteriorate even more is worse. The governor and Legislature have neglected their responsibility and left the university with nothing but poor choices.