On way to Northwestern, Blank urges more building project control

There are many things Becky Blank will miss about her time as chancellor at UW–Madison, from game days to visiting Union Terrace to simply meeting with students and faculty.

She won’t miss the red tape involved in repairing or constructing campus facilities.

In an interview before her departure to become president of Northwestern University this fall, Blank took aim at state regulations that prevent the UW System’s flagship campus from issuing its own bonds for new buildings and which add time and expense to routine maintenance.

“It has been a constant headache that we have not solved because it involves so many actors in the state,” Blank said.

For reasons that date to the late 1800s, UW–Madison lacks the authority to issue bonds — essentially, borrowing money to pay for construction over time when there are long-term benefits. In fact, UW–Madison is the only public flagship university in the United States that lacks such authority, leaving it largely at the mercy of state support.

State dollars are usually augmented by private donors, but even a minimal amount of state funding holds hostage those private dollars to design and review processes that add time and cost in inflationary times.

“I will not miss some of those constraints — the need to go through three sets of committees and five votes and the governor’s office in order to get something done,” Blank said. “We have to find some way to have more control over our projects.”

Because UW–Madison added many buildings in the 1960s and ’70s, Blank said, the lack of nimbleness with campus capital projects and repairs wasn’t a dire problem until that generation of buildings aged.

“In the last 15 years, that has simply not been true,” Blank said. “All buildings have a life span, so our deferred maintenance grows every year.”

The start-to-finish time for new buildings is illustrated by projects such as the $47-million Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and Center of Dairy Research addition. It won state budget approval in the mid-2010s, work began in the fall of 2018 and still isn’t complete. Projects such as the College of Engineering plan to replace a 1930s-vintage building have also been slowed, despite being a top campus priority and tied to a business sector need for engineering graduates.

Another campus project got around the state process by simply not seeking any state dollars. The $225-million building to house most of the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences will be financed by private and foundation sources.

While there were other flagship schools that lacked their own ability to borrow decades ago, Blank said, that’s no longer the case. The default record over time is strong and the bond market knows public research universities aren’t going to fade away.

Within the Big Ten Conference, independent bonding is common. The University of Michigan issued a $2 billion “century bond” earlier this year. A century bond is debt that needs to be repaid in 100 years versus the more typical 30 years.

Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Rutgers are among other Big Ten schools that have issued century bonds or have the go-ahead to do so.

The competition among top research universities such as UW–Madison is intense. UW–Madison attracted about $1.5 billion in research dollars in 2021, which kept it among the nation’s leaders. Without more freedom to chart its own course with capital projects, however, that standing may be threatened.

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