UNCG’s Edifice Complex

Students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) pay the highest debt service fee—the fee used to pay for past and future campus construction costs—in the UNC system. Out of the $2,390 that a UNCG student shells out each year in student fees, $707 is used to pay off the school’s construction-related debt. Of that $707, $435 is being channeled into a controversial project for a $91 million campus recreation facility, which is scheduled to open in 2016. 

UNCG, like many colleges in North Carolina and across the country, has raised its tuition and fees at a marked rate in recent years. From 2007-08 to this 2013-14 academic year, tuition and fees at UNCG have increased by almost 60 percent. As the fifth biggest school in the UNC system, UNCG now also has the fifth highest tuition and fees. So for some students and professors, the $91 million recreation center (the most expensive building in the school’s history) represents a huge burden and signals that the university’s priorities are backwards.

On October 30, more than forty students and faculty members held a press conference on UNCG’s campus to express their disapproval of the new center. A faculty member said that UNCG is becoming “a fancy hamburger stand without the beef,” claiming that the push for flamboyant campus facilities has overtaken the push to improve academic excellence. “I am very concerned about the shift in emphasis at this university,” said another professor, Susan Dennison.

Student representatives and other concerned parties (including Greensboro residents who oppose the construction) have been vocal throughout the past few months. For example, two days after the press conference, one student, Jonathan Lyle, wrote a letter to the editor of Greensboro’s News & Record, claiming that “prioritizing this expansion undercuts UNCG’s teaching mission, making it less attractive to students looking for quality, yet affordable education. UNCG is failing its students and it’s failing as an institution of higher education.”

The recreation center is part of a massive, multi-year project initiated by UNCG, called Spartan Village. The university has been buying up property and real estate near the school to create room for new dormitories, a new campus police station, restaurants and retail shops. School administrators have cited other UNC universities, which have 40 to 50 percent of students living in dormitories, as motivation for the expansion. UNCG has roughly 30 percent of students living on campus.

However, Spartan Village was planned and designed—at least partially—around enrollment projections that have not matched reality. According to the UNC General Administration, the school’s undergraduate and graduate enrollment figures declined by 5 percent and 12 percent respectively between 2009 and 2012. Those arguing against the new construction say that it makes little sense to force students to pay $435 per year for an expansive facility at a shrinking university.

Students are already paying for the “old” recreation center to the tune of $65 per year. Many students don’t use the present recreation center. And current students who would like to use the new center will graduate before they have the chance.

Some opponents aren’t as troubled by the new student fees as by the areas to which the fee revenue is being directed. They’d rather see student fees used more for academic and educational purposes.

In a letter to the editor of the (Greensboro) News & Record opposing the recreation center, Deborah Bell, an instructor at UNCG, wrote that from 2007-12 the school saw an increase of 33 administrative jobs and only 5 faculty jobs. David Perrin, the provost, wouldn’t confirm these numbers when I reached him via e-mail; nonetheless, as this recent Pope Center report makes clear, administrators outnumber faculty by wide margins in the UNC system.

According to the UNCG administration, 45 faculty positions will be eliminated this year because of recent state funding cuts (although those are vacant positions); the school is also shuffling 14 professors to new positions to avoid layoffs. There will also be reductions in graduate student stipends. Students and faculty who are against the new recreation center believe that spending fee revenue on projects unrelated to what they view as a deteriorating academic environment will do a disservice to students and the reputation of UNCG.

The university administration and student government association president see things differently. To them, the existing facility is too small given the current student population, and demand for recreation facilities has increased since the current building was built in 1992. They also point out that the new building will provide new jobs for students, host concerts, dances, and other campus events, and will be an overall benefit to the community. When reached for comment, the provost directed me to a FAQ web page that further addresses issues related to the construction project from UNCG’s perspective.

In some ways, the controversy surrounding this recreation facility resembles those involving taxpayer funding of National Football League stadiums. Proponents of the new construction point out the “public benefits” (in this case, the increased well-being of college students, a more attractive campus, etc.) and the jobs that will be created. Opponents are wary of what they see as a major encroachment and waste of resources. Unlike the stadium funding cases, however, school administrators don’t have to contend with the politics that accompany traditional taxation.

Rather, schools can rely on student fees that, while bearing a great resemblance to taxation, are often paid for by a third-party source, such as a student loan or scholarship. Thus fees rarely receive serious backlash from the students, who view them as a peripheral nuisance instead of a direct invasion of the pocketbook. Even so, there are some internally enforced restraints on student fees. In the UNC system, schools can increase fees by no more than 6.5% each year, per Board of Governors regulations (although the Board is considering capping such increases at 5% through 2019).

Other North Carolina colleges have caught the construction bug. NC A&T State University has announced plans to build a $90 million student union, to be funded entirely by student fees. A couple of years ago, NC State renovated its student center for a cool $120 million. At a recent UNC Wilmington trustees meeting, the administration presented plans for a new athletic facility. A host of other schools have recently constructed buildings or have plans for sprawling renovations.

As long as students are divorced from immediately bearing the direct costs of facility expansion, we can expect student fees to foot the bill, especially since the North Carolina legislature hasn’t appropriated state taxpayer money for such projects since the 2007-08 session.