Branstad cautions against overbuilding at regent campuses

Governor said he was raising “a cautionary flag” since more learning is taking place online

DES MOINES – Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday he was raising “a cautionary flag” about over-building at university campuses at a time when more learning is going online when he vetoed planning money for big-ticket capital projects at state college campuses last week.

With college credits increasingly available through Internet-based options, the governor said he did not think it was wise to charge into a new wave of building projects at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa State University in Ames and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls without first embarking on a comprehensive, long-range look at future educational strategies.

“The answer is not to just keep building more huge, expensive buildings on our college campuses,” Branstad told reporters during his weekly news conference. “I think we need to recognize that changes are taking place in the way that people learn and rather than have a lot of building that are going to sit empty in future years, we need to really decide are these absolutely essential.”

In finalizing work last week on the fiscal 2014 budget bills lawmakers sent him before adjourning their 2013 session in May, Branstad vetoed several funding items that would have provided state money to plan and design construction projects at regent universities.

Branstad vetoed $3 million for the planning and design of a UI Pharmacy Building, noting in a letter the project has an eventual expected cost of at least $67.6 million. In his veto message, the governor said it was inappropriate to spend taxpayer money designing and planning the project 'until strategic plans and sustainable financing are secure.'

The Pharmacy Building is at the top of the university's deferred maintenance priority list, UI officials have said. They want to raze the old building and replace it in the coming years with a new facility. UI spokesman Tom Moore noted last week that officials were disappointed, but said they will 'continue to work with the board to make the case again next year' for state funding.

Branstad also vetoed $2.5 million for the planning and design of the new ISU Biosciences Building, and $1.5 million for the planning and design of UNI's Schindler Education Center renovation.

“Remember, you spend the money for planning and the next year it’s going to cost a whole lot more when you fund the cost of it or then borrow the money to build it, which is even worse in my opinion,” the governor told reporters Monday, noting that the proposed funding for the regent projects were a “last-minute” addition to session-ending budget negotiations.

“So consequently, I just think we need a very thoughtful approach. We need to look at the long-term needs and we need to look at how much of the learning that is going to take place on campus, how much of it may occur online and elsewhere,” he added.

Branstad noted that online-based institutions like the University of Phoenix increasingly are providing college credit options “without a lot of brick and mortar” and that trend likely will continue in the future.

“I’m not saying that’s what all of education is going to be in the future, but I’m expecting a significant share of it will occur in that manner,” the governor said, calling it a topic he would like to discuss further with regent members.

“I just want to at least put out a cautionary flag that let’s just not say we’re going to charge forward and everybody that wants a new building is going to get a new building,” he added. “We need to carefully review and consider each of those on its own merits based on what the needs are. That’s something I’m very willing to work with the regents on as we go forward.”

The governor noted that he did sign $12 million for an ISU research park that he predicted would be a “great economic development tool,” and he pointed to more than $1 billion in planned UI projects to rebuild areas of the Iowa City campus damaged by the 2008 flood as examples that “big projects already are taking place” at regent universities.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.