By Mihir Zaveri
For years, a dark stairwell inside a UC Berkeley science building posed a potentially deadly threat as leaking water pooled next to 12,000-volt transformers and switchgears.
Lacking money to repair the leak, maintenance workers attempted to configure a temporary solution. They rigged sheet metal to divert the leak so that it wouldn’t drip on the electrical equipment and blow out the power that runs laboratories where scientists are conducting some of the world’s most advanced biological research.
Yet that solution posed a new danger — that someone could be electrocuted if they stepped into the growing puddle.
Only recently has work begun to repair the leak, a $625,000 project that the university tried to avoid because of the cost. But even that may not be the end of the problem. Another stairwell in the same Valley Life Sciences Building has a similar leak.
Money problems at California’s state universities have only worsened over the past several years as state legislators have slashed spending. Tuition has skyrocketed and class sizes have grown.
But little noticed in the higher education debate is the billions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance, a problem that critics say threatens to derail the schools’ teaching and research missions.
Prestigious private universities, meanwhile, report few problems with leaky roofs, crumbling walls or malfunctioning air conditioners.
“People come back from other campuses and claim that our facilities for teaching are not as good as they are at other universities,” said John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.
At the University of California and California State University, the larger and older campuses have the biggest maintenance backlogs, which continue to grow each year.
At UC, the Berkeley campus has the biggest backlog, estimated at nearly $700 million. UCLA’s is about $677 million, and UC Davis has more than $400 million in deferred maintenance. Every UC campus except the new Merced campus has a backlog of at least $100 million, officials say.
Meanwhile, CSU’s backlog now totals about $450 million for its 23 campuses, according to spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp.
“It’s a very real issue. We’re cognizant of it,” said Patrick Lenz, UC’s vice president of budget and capital resources. “We’re doing everything we can to try and make some progress.”
That progress has been slow.
Nearly half of UC’s buildings were constructed between 1955 and 1975, when the university system expanded rapidly to accommodate increasing enrollment. CSU experienced similar growth during this period.
Many of the buildings’ systems, including heating and ventilation, electrical and plumbing, are now in need of replacement, university officials acknowledge.
UC estimates that it would take $290 million a year for the next five years to replace these systems and update infrastructure, plus an additional $100 million per year for maintenance that cannot be deferred any longer because of its significant impact on teaching or research.
In other words, the university predicts it will need nearly $2 billion over the next five years to address capital renewal and deferred maintenance.
In the fiscal year that begins in June, UC and CSU will receive more than $1 billion less in state funding than they did this year. And that gap could double as lawmakers struggle to close the state’s remaining $15.4 billion budget deficit.
“The problem with something like deferred maintenance is it’s one of those things that’s easy to put off,” said UC Davis law professor Daniel Simmons, chairman of UC’s Academic Senate.
Officials might think, “Well, I need money for some other thing or a start-up package for a new faculty member and you know I can just put off fixing this crack in the ceiling or the heating and ventilation,” he said.
Compare this with Stanford University. Spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the school has “little to no deferred maintenance.”
Money for capital projects at UC or CSU is often earmarked for specific projects, such as the $321 million bond for renovation of Cal’s Memorial Stadium. None of that money can be used, for example, to repair the stairwell at the life sciences building.
But because Stanford is a private university, administrators have much more discretion on how to spend its money.
The difference wasn’t always so stark.
In the early and mid-1990s, the state consistently provided UC with millions of dollars specifically for deferred maintenance. But after a budget shortfall in the late 1990s, that money stopped flowing.
In response, the university system borrowed money and financed more than $290 million worth of projects between 1999 and 2002. But as state support for UC dropped in 2002-03, the university eliminated the program. And while individual UC campuses are still allowed to borrow money, many have chosen to save for other purposes.
“The challenge is that this deferred maintenance has to be stacked up against student fees, student enrollment, faculty positions, ongoing day-to-day maintenance,” said Jack Powazek, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for general services, “and the state has got its own problems.”
The CSU system has received only $6.5 million from the state for deferred maintenance over the past 10 years, a period in which the backlog grew by close to $100 million, and it hasn’t received any funds since 2007-08. “We do continue to ask,” Uhlenkamp said. “Ultimately it ensures student success.”
Many campuses use programs such as multimillion-dollar bond measures for seismic retrofits or for energy-efficiency upgrades to replace old, problem-ridden buildings.
Campuses also rely on quick fixes to save money, patching roofs instead of replacing them or installing wire nets to keep crumbling walls from falling on passers-by.
“We’re basically in a situation where we’re doing triage,” Powazek said, “like a battlefield surgeon.”
This approach can end up costing more in the long run, said Allen Tollefson, assistant vice chancellor for facilities management at UC Davis.
Last month, power to an animal hospital at UCD went out when an electrical panel malfunctioned, Tollefson said, and the campus did not have a backup generator for the building.
“We had to scramble on many, many fronts to keep from a pretty major loss,” said David Wilson, the director of the hospital.
Maintenance staff raced to get a new power generator, leaving the hospital, which provides emergency care for animals and other services, without power for four hours. The problem ended up costing much more than replacing the electrical panel would have cost initially, Tollefson said.
— Reach Mihir Zaveri at firstname.lastname@example.org