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Enough with the freakin' buildings, already.

Apparently, the American Council on Education (along with some other groups) is wasting no time in getting in line for bailout/stimulus money, petitioning the Obama administration-in-waiting to set aside a significant chunk of change for construction projects at colleges and universities across the country. The idea is that construction projects create jobs, and that once the buildings are finished, colleges and universities will be better able to provide students with exposure to and experience in the latest technologies. Oh, and the buildings will be suitably green, and 'shovel-ready' within 180 days.

Well, that's all fine and good. I have to give the ACE credit for being shovel-ready, based on this plan. But there's a much easier, faster, more effective way to shore up and improve higher ed in America. It's suitably green, the economic effects would be both quick and lasting, and it would have a direct, positive impact on students.

Don't spend it on more buildings. Spend it on people to work in the buildings we already have.

The faculty is an obvious place to start. Salaries come out of operating budgets, and the states' support of operating budgets has been falling faster lately than at any time in the last three decades, and that's saying something. Nationally, the aggregate response to that has been to shrink the ranks of full-time faculty and to replace them with part-timers. National studies have shown consistently that too heavy a reliance on adjuncts has negative effects on student success; at this point, that debate is pretty well settled. We're wasting an entire generation of scholars through hiring freezes, then doing a measurably worse job of educating a generation of students because of it. Given the money, we could start hiring full-time people at the drop of a hat.

Of course, faculty aren't the only ones needed. Labs and libraries don't maintain themselves. IT networks require constant attention. Campus security can't be left to volunteers. And don't even get me started on financial aid offices...

Unlike construction projects, which actually take years to move from concept to completion, we could ramp up our staffing on short notice. (Hell, at this point, just preventing layoffs would require a substantial infusion of cash.) For those who haven't had the pleasure, a quick overview of the various phases of a construction project:

  • "Visioning." Allow several months for input, internal politicking, deal-making, and arguing over what, exactly, should be built. Build in costs for ADA, LEED, etc.
  • Environmental impact studies. "You can't build there – that's a mating ground for the rare three-toed hornswaggler. And you can't build there – the local residents are organized and pissy. And you can't build there, because there would be no place to park. And what's taking you so long, anyway?"
  • Permitting. 'Nuff said.
  • Political deal-making. Luckily, there's no corruption in the construction industry.
  • Bidding, appeals, re-bidding. Since everything has to be built by the lowest bidder, the game is to make the specs ridiculously specific. Otherwise, some really inconvenient corners will get cut. (See "Big Dig, The") This takes TIME.
  • Actual building time.
  • Lawsuits over cost overruns. These occur with the regularity of the sun rising in the East.
  • Delays as various developers go broke. For reasons I still don't understand, the average construction firm has the lifespan of a fruit fly.
  • Unanticipated last-minute fixes.

If you think that can all get done in 180 days, you've been huffing the pungent musk of the three-toed hornswaggler. Can't. Be. Done.

On the other hand, give me a green light to beef up the English department and the library staff, and I'll have folks ensconced in their positions faster than you can say 'environmental impact study.' And those people will spend their paychecks, stimulating the economy just as well as anybody else. Better, those folks will actually improve the quality of education for our students, so there's a real long-term payoff to complement the real short-term payoff. We can get to the buildings when we get to them.

Yes, there's a legitimate fear that Federal money would simply displace state money, but that's relatively easy to prevent. Just do what you do for highway funding, and require the states to match a certain portion. If you really want to get creative, require state-level set-asides. It takes a little doing, but it's far easier than managing thousands of construction projects across the country.

In fact, there's a very intelligent case to be made that rather than lining up as simply another industry begging for a handout, higher ed should partner with k-12 and law enforcement and petition the Feds to bail out the states. State budget shortfalls will lead to layoffs, which are the worst possible moves in a downturn like this. Keep people on payroll -- whether they're college professors, elementary school teachers, cops, or anything else -- and they'll keep spending. Cut them loose, and they'll cut spending. Buildings can wait.

The alternative is to continue to grow buildings while shrinking the faculty and staff. To my mind, that plan is truly shovel-ready.

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