Building a Discussion

A planning process for the SUNY system is trying to prioritize 32 campuses' construction goals and state needs. How it will do that is still up in the air.
July 26, 2011

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The presentation by a group of individuals associated with the State University of New York raised some eyebrows here at the annual meeting of the Society for College and University Planners, but it’s the follow-up presentation next year that will likely turn some heads.

That’s because the 32 four-year colleges and universities in the SUNY system are undergoing a major systemwide master planning process that could determine at least the next round of capital planning for the system, if not decades of construction projects.

Each four-year campus is being asked to develop a master plan that lists its capital priorities, both new construction and renovations. About half the campuses have finished that process. Once every campus has done that, the system and state will try to coalesce the various plans into one coherent capital strategy that prioritizes funding for the projects. That will probably be used to determine the 2013-18 capital budget and continued funding through 2023.

The systemwide facilities master plan is a slightly more structured way of planning campus development than the system has previously undertaken, with more scrutiny and involvement from the construction fund.

Traditionally the 32 four-year campuses developed their own plans and fed them into the construction fund. While the system compiles a master plan that looks at the academic and general mission of the system and its campuses, and the construction fund has developed medium-range plans previously that dealt with four- or five-year horizon, each campus still essentially developed its own goals with regard to facilities. The current coordination effort is designed to serve a much longer timeline with stricter focus on aligning each institution's academic goals with the available funding.

SUNY is also undertaking the planning process at a time of significant uncertainty and changing revenue streams. The system has seen its state funding cut significantly during the past few years, coupled with large increases in tuition.

Administrators said they don't yet know the criteria by which the projects will be prioritized. But the process of balancing the campuses' wants and needs, which is slated to start in 2012, will explore whether it is possible to bring 32 campuses with different -- and often competing -- goals, different constituencies, and different amounts of political pull in the state legislature under one plan.

If SUNY officials give an update on their progress at next year's conference, they might be able to provide what Monday's audience seemed to be looking for during the question-and-answer period -- a better sense of how a system should prioritize its resources in a way that makes all campuses happy. “It’s the cliffhanger at the end of part 1,” said Anthony P. Alfieri, an associate principal at Perkins + Will, of Monday’s presentation.

The major coordinating effort is being undertaken by New York's State University Construction Fund, a public benefit corporation that manages construction for the SUNY system. Money coming primarily from bond sales makes up the fund, which employs 10 capital program managers who are overseeing the coordination effort.

Monday’s discussion focused on the parameters of the systemwide process and how one campus, SUNY's campus at Binghamton, developed its master plan.

The problems that Binghamton is dealing with are similar to those at a lot of SUNY campuses. Binghamton administrators said about 75 percent of its buildings are in need of significant renovations, which puts it in line with the rest of the system. The SUNY system built a large chunk of its physical campuses between 1957 and 1973, so many campuses are struggling with outdated and overcrowded physical plants. The total backlog of maintenance projects totals more than $2 billion, said Lachlan Squair, one of the fund's capital program managers.

New York has separate funding streams for new construction and renovations. Whether to push for renovating old buildings or constructing new ones is a major question that each campus with which each campus must grapple. Binghamton erred on the side of renovation.

Binghamton’s proposed plan includes 38 renovations, 11 additions, and six new buildings. Planners wanted to focus on strengthening the campus’s science facilities, since research and teaching have moved in that direction. “It’s hard to change facilities directed toward English classes to science labs,” said Nicole Conklin, assistant director of long-term planning at Binghamton. One of the few new proposed construction projects is an integrated science facility.

Other major projects include a renovation of the library and a globalization center. The campus will also renovate several old dormitories into faculty offices.

While each campus is crafting its plan based on its ambitions, demographic, economic, and political factors will likely come into play down the road when the state tries to balance campus priorities.

The SUNY system has been going through periods of increasing and decreasing enrollments, though it is currently on the upswing. Scott B. Paige, an architect who works with the SUNY system and discussed the state of the system in Monday’s presentation, said he sees that trend leveling out soon. “Many of the institutions have had substantive growth and they are planning to extend themselves beyond that,” he said. “That is indeed possible for several of the institutions within the system, but it is not a possibility for the entire system.”

Whether the state even has money or political motivation to fund capital projects will be another aspect to the decision, as questions about economic recovery still linger over the state. Lawmakers did not appropriate any money for university capital projects in their latest budget.

Despite the looming discussion about priorities, administrators at Monday's presentation, which included representatives from the fund, Binghamton's campus, and outside planning consultants who work with the campus and system, said the project has value regardless.

Squair said the system rarely gets an understanding of what every campus's goals are, which is what it gets through this process.


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