Education Week, Part 6: Edifice Complex

Dictionary.com defines the term “edifice complex” as “The keen desire of public and educational administrators to build buildings.” Urbandictionary.com takes a more jaded view, defining it as

… a serious budget-busting illness that typically manifests itself on modern college and university campuses. Soon after their inauguration, an incoming university president will frantically and feverishly fall all over themselves to relentlessly badger wealthy donors and students for the purposes of leaving a mark with their name on it on the campus by constructing a new, over-priced, prime parking lot removing, ten-story structure post-modern eyesore whose purpose is solely to house administration, their support staff, and grace the cover of university brochures and websites. Faculty and students then are given the vacated, broken down, second and third string buildings for use as classes and offices.

The Curmudgeon goes with what’s behind door number two; it’s clearly the more curmudgeonly choice.

The Philadelphia area is currently witnessing a pretty serious outbreak of edifice complex as Temple University contemplates building a $100 million football stadium in the middle of its very urban campus.

It’s a very bad idea.

Temple University doesn’t need a football stadium. Currently its football team plays its home game at Lincoln Financial Field, which the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review described recently as “an ancient, 13-year-old venue so dilapidated its only other tenant is the Philadelphia Eagles of some minor-league outfit known as the National Football League.” For those of you who’ve never visited Lincoln Financial Field, it’s very, very nice – and even though it’s only thirteen years old, it already has undergone some major renovations to keep it very, very nice.

stadiumTemple’s football team is the midst of a good year and has been faring better over the past decade or so, but it’s never going to be consistently good and never going to be a true national football power. There are very few successful urban college football programs – please, before you point to the University of Southern California, take a ride through its campus and then consider what “urban” means – and none are located in an inner city, as Temple is. Any time the team enjoys a measure of success the coach behind that success is going to be hired away from the school by a more traditional football school and having a 35,000 seat stadium isn’t going to matter because it will never generate the kind of revenue needed to pay a top-flight football coach. (Temple’s current coach, according to USA Today, is paid approximately $650,000 a year. Eighty-eight college football coaches are paid more. Fifty-five college football coaches are paid more than $2 million a year, thirty-four more than $3 million a year, and sixteen are paid more than $4 million a year).

A Temple math professor, on the other hand, is paid…much less.

If Temple were accidentally to become a football power, a 35,000-seat stadium would be inadequate. No self-respecting, serious football program is going to visit a team with a 35,000-seat stadium because there’s not enough money to be made. This year, Notre Dame came to Philadelphia to play Temple, but that game was played at the aforementioned Lincoln Financial Field. Notre Dame can fill any stadium in the country and walk away with suitcases full of money and is never, ever going to play in a 35,000-seat stadium.

Temple officials say the new stadium would cost about $100 million and that the university is well on its way to raising that money, but a closer look reveals that this is just not true. $20 million of that $100 million would come from the state – Temple is a public university – so that’s not money Temple has “raised.” In addition, some of the $100 million would be financed – borrowed, that is, which means tuition would include money for debt service on that borrowing for each and every one of Temple’s nearly 40,000 students. Considering that nearly seventy percent of Temple’s students receive some form of financial aid, does anyone think kids who need to borrow money to attend college should be paying for a football stadium?

The folks at Temple think of a stadium as a point of pride for students and alumni and are interested in the stadium drawing alumni back to the campus. That will never happen. Nearly twenty years ago Temple opened its Liacouras Center, a basketball arena and multi-purpose facility, in the heart of its campus. The facility is fairly successful, but the parking situation is bad, the surrounding neighborhood is worse, and even though Temple has a competitive college basketball program – urban basketball programs have a better chance of succeeding, although still on a limited scale, than urban football programs – only about half of the 10,000 seats are filled most nights when Temple plays basketball there. That does not bode well for predictions that a football stadium will lure alumni back to their alma mater.

It was only two years ago that Temple dropped five sports programs – baseball, softball, men’s gymnastics, men’s indoor track and field, and men’s outdoor track and field – so it could save $3 million a year; The Curmudgeon wrote about it at the time (although when the plan was still to drop seven sports, not three). Now it wants to spend $100 million for football? And $20 million of it with public money? You don’t need to be a math major to realize this just doesn’t add up.

For much of its history, Temple primarily served local residents of limited means – kids from low-income, working-class, and middle-class families. The Curmudgeon almost went there and regrets that, if he had to attend college at all, he didn’t choose Temple. The school really has improved in recent years – its campus, its programs, and its academic reputation – but as a state school, it needs to remain true to its mission. A $100 million football stadium doesn’t help with that. Spending $100 million on a football stadium doesn’t improve a school’s course offerings. It doesn’t improve libraries or laboratories. It doesn’t improve research facilities. It doesn’t help make more financial aid available to bright, hard-working kids whose only sin was being born into a family that can’t afford college. And it doesn’t help a faculty that’s not terribly well paid – and Temple is one of the biggest users and abusers of adjunct faculty members, a practice The Curmudgeon wrote about yesterday.

But the big muckety-mucks want a new football stadium and now that the seed of the idea has been planted they’re probably not going to rest until they get one. Temple’s president, Neil Theobald, recently took to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s op-ed page to make his case for a new stadium, and a sad case it was. He cited the university’s “momentum,” he mentioned its “dynamic young coach” – who will be gone in a few years for the millions of reasons cited above (even as The Curmudgeon was working on this piece, published reports suggested that the coach was being wooed by a school that would be a professional and financial step upward for him and Temple responded by signing the coach to a six-year contract; you can be sure he will be gone long before that contract expires) – and he mentioned the jobs such a project would create, as if that alone is reason to move ahead with a stadium. If you want to employ lots of people in construction, Professor Theobald, they’d be better employed fixing roads and bridges and turning the thousands of abandoned houses within a mile of Temple’s campus into habitable dwellings. Theobald also cited what he called the “game-day experience,” as if there’s nothing inherently wrong with spending $100 million, including $20 million in public money and more in student tuition money, to pay for that good time.

It’s a bad idea and a great example of an edifice complex. Unless Temple is able to raise all $100 million from private sources, it’s an idea that should be allowed to die a quiet death.

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