If They Build It, U Will Pay

Flawed contracts. Cut corners. Inadequate inspections. Complaints about conflicts of interest. University of Minnesota president Mark Yudof might be getting out just in time.

On the morning of May 10, the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents gathered in the McNamara Alumni Center's sixth-floor conference room to get some bad news from the school's 14th president, Mark Yudof. Not the bad news that the U of M's much-lauded leader would be leaving the state to become chancellor at the University of Texas. That story wouldn't break for another three weeks. This bit of bad news had to do with the school's budget.

Yudof told the regents that a confluence of factors has necessitated yet another hike in tuition and fees. For students at the Twin Cities campus, that will amount to a 16 percent increase in the coming year--a hefty jump, considering that it will come on the heels of a 13 percent boost in 2001. Before Yudof launched into a characteristically detailed explanation of the reasoning behind the recommendation, however, there was one other small matter he wanted to address.

The million-dollar bus shelter.

It seems the shelter, which is to consist of two 80-foot-long structures, situated on opposite sides of Washington Avenue Southeast in front of the Coffman Union student center, poses an aesthetic conundrum. Sporting a copper roof, stainless-steel frame, and granite foundation, it might obstruct the south-facing view from Northrop Mall. And that, Yudof cautioned, could degrade the Mississippi River-centric vision of the campus first articulated by the acclaimed early-20th-century architect Cass Gilbert. Never mind that Coffman Union, which was built in 1939 and is now undergoing renovation, blotted out the river view from Northrop long ago. That was beside the point. An ugly bus shelter is, after all, an ugly bus shelter.

And what of the eye-popping price tag of $1 million? "A lot of things in this world cost more than I think they should," Yudof responded when the subject of cost was briefly broached.

After hearing Yudof's concerns, the regents quickly voted to place the matter back in the president's hands for further consideration. The deference to Yudof on the matter was hardly surprising; nor was the absence of any kvetching over the shelter's cost, even given the specter of a double-digit tuition hike. In his five years at the helm, Yudof has presided over the biggest construction boom in the school's history, and the regents have seldom shied from an opportunity to dig into their wallets. In all, the university has poured $1.2 billion into new construction and renovations during Yudof's five-year reign. Both the quantity and pace of the work is unprecedented not only in the Big Ten, but, according to U spokesman Tim Busse, in the nation. In recent memory, only the University of Connecticut has attempted a similarly large capital improvement campaign. "But they spread it over ten years. We've done ours in five," Busse boasts.

The media has cast this flurry of activity as an unmitigated triumph. When Yudof announced that he was leaving for Texas, columnists and reporters made note of the highly publicized athletics scandals that he inherited (and, some believe, bungled). For the most part, the press has summed up the president's tenure in glowing terms and has invariably paid tribute to his legacy as a builder. Yudof's political acumen, gift as a speaker, and undeniable fundraising skills, the orthodox view goes, transformed a musty, moribund campus into a gleaming testament to smart, aggressive planning.

Without question, the U campus was in need of more than a little nip and tuck when Yudof made the scene in 1997. There had been a chronic shortage of student housing in Minneapolis (before the construction of Roy Wilkins Hall in 1996, no new student housing had been added since 1969). And the lack of routine maintenance on existing buildings was beginning to show: roofs leaked, windows rattled, and grime accumulated. Campus landmarks like the once magnificent Walter Library, for instance, had fallen into pitiable disrepair, its treasured contents subject to the ravages of mold, dust, and cockroaches.

Yudof immediately made revitalizing the school's campus a priority. He promoted a painting, litter-cleanup, and flower-planting effort called "Beautiful U Day," that has since become an annual affair. More significant, in 1998, after his first appearance before the legislature, he secured a record $207 million dollars for an ambitious slate of new construction and renovation projects; soon after, pictures of a hard-hat-wearing Goldy Gopher, emblazoned with the slogan "Building a Better U," were plastered all over campus.

But as Yudof has garnered funding and promoted a plethora of projects, one question has been largely obscured: Is the U of M getting its money's worth? Publicly, U officials have consistently maintained that the school is getting a bang out of its buck. Privately, however, some are voicing worries that the U's biggest projects have been mismanaged. "The cost overruns were very large, and have been a great concern," says one senior official in the administration, in reference to the renovation of Coffman Union and the construction of Riverbend Commons, a new student-housing complex.

In three separate reports issued between April and June of this year, the U's Department of Audits and the Office of the General Counsel raise questions about the building boom and, in particular, call into question the use of a fast-track construction process known as "design-build." Among the problems documented: flaws in the contracts with builders, complaints about conflicts of interest, episodes of corner cutting, incidences of contractor overcharging, lack of oversight, and inadequate (sometimes nonexistent) inspections. If things don't change, one audit report warns, the U will be "exposed to substantial risks," and problems with the projects "may not be detected and could significantly reduce the quality or long term durability of University buildings."

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