University of Utah on a Construction Spree

The University of Utah is ending a decade-long building program, one of the most expansive in the university’s 164-year history.

And it’s being accomplished with a lot of help from Utah’s conservative Legislature, and a lot of private, donated money.

Indeed, U. officials say their building program – they would not call it a spree – is part chicken, part egg.

For what comes first – private donation pledges or the promise of state aid if private matching funds can be found?

Over the last nine years, the U. has raised $401 million in private donations, often coming with the donors’ names attached to specific building projects.

In all, 37 new facilities have been constructed, new buildings popping up in numbers not seen since the 1960s.


If one sits in enough House GOP caucus meetings while members are briefed on state building needs, one learns some form of this statement: “We have to build this (university or college) building in the next (two or three years) or the donors’ pledges will go away; we’ll lose millions of dollars.”

It’s not blackmail. It’s smart politics.

“There’s no question, (donor pledges) clearly, clearly help,” says Fred Esplin, U. vice president for institutional advancement.

“You won’t get a building” constructed via large donations “if it isn’t already a building wanted” by the U. bosses and various state building authorities, he adds.

But you can get that building built faster if there are large donations behind it.

“What you are not seeing,” says Esplin, a long-time U. administrator who has dealt extensively with the Legislature, “are comments (by lawmakers) asking us to go out and get some private donation” matches.

Thus the chicken and egg example: Do large matches mean fast building, or do legislative demands for large private matches bring quicker state aid?

Take the old Natural History Museum on the U.’s original Circle.

When it became clear that the museum was going to move up to a new building in Research Park, there were a number of U. agencies who wanted to move into remodeled old structure.

But U. officials decided to match a modern need, more science/technology teaching space, with a healthy private donation aimed at genome work.

Thus the new Gary & Ann Crocker Science Center — $21 million was raised privately (the Crocker’s the main contributors) and the Legislature allowed the U. to issue revenue bonds to make up the $55 million needed for the project.

The building’s front, facing the historic Circle, stays, while the back of the building is greatly expanded in new space. 

How do you get conservative lawmakers to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on new university buildings?

“You never lie” about how much private money you have raised, or can raise, says Esplin. “You tell the truth. But you use what leverage you can” to convince legislators that the state can’t risk losing private donations if the building the donors want to fund is put off year after year.

“There is a limit to how long” any donor will wait – his gift money sitting in some U. bank account or in the donor’s funds with little or nothing being done on Capitol Hill.

It may seem to the lay person – or even some legislative veterans – that something odd is happening when a new building seems to jump to the top of the Legislature’s funding list when it hasn’t seen the light of day before.

But all approved buildings have, almost always, been years and years in the planning stages – first by U. administrators, then by the public institution’s Board of Trustees, then the state building board, and finally by legislative appropriation committees.

Mike Perez, associate vice president for facilities management at the U., says before ground is broken there is “an involved process.”

The steps are longer than your arm. But along the way there are U. officials looking at who in the community may want to give for this or that facility.

Who wouldn’t be tempted to donate money so their name can be on a beautifully restored (and expanded) structure on the U.’s Circle?

Harder to find, if not impossible, are private donors so the U.’s 50-year-old steam and electrical distribution lines can be replaced.

I mean a plaque on the Bob Bernick Steam Pipe just doesn’t cut it.

The U. is finishing a $99 million replacement of the old utilities, which includes $32 million in revenue bonds.

A review of the U.’s infrastructure needs presented to the Executive Appropriations Committee earlier this year explains how lawmakers year after year refused to fund the whole project, giving just a little of what was needed.

Finally, U. officials turned to revenue bonding – with the payments being made by “profit centers,” parts of the U. that make money – to do the work.

That financing tool is expensive – it will take decades to pay off the bonds, and a lot of interest. But like a 30-year home mortgage, sometimes that is the only way to pay for something no donor wants to support.

Don’t get this wrong – U. officials are very grateful for all the Legislature does.

“Obviously, we are extremely grateful for all the private support given,” says Esplin. “You would not see what has happened without that.

“It also would not have happened without state support.

“It is really public private participation. That and our bonding capacity – it takes a team,” says Esplin.