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Edifice Wrecks

Ball State University officials are eager to spend student money, but their plans are feeble.

By Marilyn Flowers

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December 30, 2012

“The Hospitality and Food Management (HFM) program utilizes student-centered pedagogy that is derived from research and experientially executed. Theory formation and testing is executed in labs and shared with the hospitality industry to inform best practices.”

Can you figure out what that means? I can’t.  

Sadly, that gobbledygook is offered as a primary justification for Ball State University’s plan to spend $25 million on a hotel/meeting center (McKinley Commons) close to the Ball State campus. No matter how good the HFM program’s “student-centered pedagogy” might be, it doesn’t provide any reason for building a new hotel and meeting center.

More distressing yet is the university’s claim that, because McKinley Commons will be a “living-learning laboratory” for its Hospitality and Food Management program, the university is justified in using eminent domain to seize property owned by a business (Hiatt Printing) in order to complete the property acquisition necessary for the chosen site of the complex. Whether it’s called a “living-learning laboratory” or some other nice-sounding name does not make this seizure of private property just.

As part of the planning for McKinley Commons, the university prepared an internal document entitled “Preliminary Market and Feasibility Assessment for a Hospitality and Food Management Immersive Learning Center on the Campus of Ball State University.” Despite the prominent role assigned in the title to the HFM program, the study did not address the interface between the project and the HFM program beyond the two sentences quoted above. How, in other words, will the McKinley Commons improve the program?

In an effort to find out, I contacted the director of the HFM program to ask about that aspect of the plan. She referred me to the associate dean of her college who, in turn, referred me to Randy Howard, vice-president for business affairs, whose office presumably prepared the feasibility assessment. 

And guess what? There is no plan. Dr. Howard assured me that the parties involved were excited about the program and conversations about how to use the new facility were ongoing, but that, to date, there was no formal plan for how to use it.  

All of this seems very odd. The kindest interpretation is that, in their eagerness to support a growing program, the powers that be managed to put the cart before the horse. 

More realistically, I doubt that “immersive education” for HFM majors is the driving force behind McKinley Commons. Spending $25 million for a facility at which a couple hundred majors can “practice,” is a stretch, even for Ball State. The university acknowledges that professional management will be required for the facility, so what are the students going to do?

If this is a “lab,” will the students be trying out new ways to managing lodging and conferences, some of which will presumably fail?  That is hardly a selling point for potential clients.

More likely, this is a manifestation of the university’s “edifice complex.”  Driven more by appearance than function, the complex is fueled by two realities, both of which are enemies of fiscal prudence. 

First, the university will be spending other people’s money. It’s always tempting to do that, especially when the officials will get the limelight but any losses will fall on the taxpayers or students and will not become evident until after the project is complete. By that time the administrators currently pushing the project may well have moved on.

Second, there was no effective oversight. There is no evidence that the board of trustees asked any tough questions about this project. Public officials have a long history of forecasting project benefits that prove to be unrealistically high, while making cost estimates that are unrealistically low.

The aforementioned feasibility study was shockingly sloppy. In addition to a failure to address the interface with the Hospitality and Food Management program, most of the analysis about possible clientele for the hotel and conference center could best be categorized as wishful thinking. The study looks serious. It is reasonably long and has a nice, glossy cover. Although the trustees presumably were given copies, I doubt that there was a serious expectation that they would actually read and analyze it.  No one with a modicum of intelligence could take this study seriously.

To be fair, the university did contract with an outside consulting firm to evaluate the financial feasibility of the project. A summary letter the consulting firm provided the trustees indicated that the project could yield net income between $1.5 and $2.1 million annually during its first five years of operation. That income would be available to service the debt. The report, however, did not evaluate debt service costs because financing methods were supposedly still under consideration.

The letter also indicated that the projections were subject to “assumptions and limiting conditions provided under separate cover.” I wonder if any of the trustees asked about those “assumptions and limiting conditions.” How realistic are they? I also wonder if any asked what would be wrong in continuing with the current arrangements the HFM department has for giving students hands-on experience. What’s so bad about the status quo?

Almost certainly the university would sell bonds to fund the bulk of this project. If the hotel doesn’t generate sufficient revenue to service the debt, students will be socked with higher fees.  At a time when affordability is a major concern for students and their parents and when future enrollment is uncertain, a cavalier approach to the risk of this project seems especially inappropriate.

Ball State’s marketing slogan is “Education Redefined.” It is inoffensive and pretty banal. When it comes to McKinley Commons, I would argue that “Feckless Redefined” would be more appropriate.

 


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