The University of New Mexico was established in 1889, at a time when building a university in the middle of the desert was considered risky, even unheard of. After 125 years, UNM has grown to be the flagship university in the state, and competes on a national level in medicine, law, business, and engineering, among many other disciplines. However, in order to compete in today’s world, UNM needs to address pressing economic issues when it comes to its aging facilities.
Currently, UNM consists of over 400 buildings housing 12 million square feet of space on over 1,000 acres of land. The age of these buildings range from 125 years old to brand new, LEED certified, energy efficient and technologically advanced buildings. It is a mighty feat to maintain a campus this size with students and researchers relying on the facilities to support their intellectual aspirations and achievements.
Solving the issues that come with aging facilities is an expensive venture and is a priority among several key stakeholders within the University. There is a capital planning and prioritization process that outlines long-term planning for the facilities at UNM. Once the top priorities are defined, they are reported to the Board of Regents and the Higher Education Department (HED) with the hope of receiving funds through the capital outlay process, general obligation (GO) bonds (voter-based), severance tax bonds or through the issuance of institutional bonds.
The University has defined several projects as the top building needs for the campus that will, in part, be funded by the issuance of institutional bonds:
- Physics & Astronomy (PAIS) building
- Anderson School of Management building
- Renovation of Smith Plaza/Union Square
- UNM Children’s Campus
- Johnson Center Expansion & Renewal (JCER)
Institutional bonds are a proven and accepted method of funding brick and mortar projects at most public universities. UNM has used this financial tool over the years to leverage large construction projects when full funding could not be found elsewhere, i.e. Communications & Journalism building, Centennial Engineering, and Mitchell Hall, to name a few.
Institutional bonds are similar to loans (debt commitments) based on UNM’s credit rating, assets, and ability to pay back the debt with revenues generated within the University, comparable to what private citizens do when they buy a home and take on a mortgage.
There are many factors to consider when prioritizing capital projects when the overall building needs on the UNM campus are immense and where funding falls short. Older buildings cost more to maintain and repair and may not be able to support the academic mission of UNM, which is what is currently taking place at the Physics and Astronomy building.
“We have missed the opportunity to hire certain faculty and receive specific grants due to the poor condition of our building. It impedes our ability to do research,” said Wolfgang Rudolph, chair, UNM Physics and Astronomy Department.
Jim Todd, director of UNM Recreational Services, says that Johnson Center has needed a renovation for decades because of poor design, lack of amenities, and failing infrastructure.
“We spend about $1 million a year in maintenance at Johnson Center. This is like putting money down the drain, when in fact, what we need is a new building.” said Todd.
Despite the economic challenges facing UNM, the Physical Plant Department with a staff of over 400 employees, is dedicated to maintaining the wide range of facilities and infrastructure at UNM. In 2014, UNM was honored with the APPA Award for Excellence from an international organization dedicated to understanding the complexities in managing facilities in higher education. This prestigious award was granted to UNM because of its stewardship and outstanding achievements in its management of UNM’s facilities.
UNM is very similar to a city in some respects: it needs revenue, upkeep, a solid infrastructure, a community of productive citizens, decision-makers, and a reputation for being a great place to be. UNM must ensure that it will be viable in the future. It needs stakeholders who understand the impact of their decisions, and a community invested in establishing its mark on future generations.