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Trustees Seed Plant Sciences Facility

September meetings focus on capital projects and borrowing strategy

By The View Staff Article published September 11, 2007

Trustees Plant Sciences
The new 96,000 square-foot Plant Sciences Facility is scheduled to be completed by March of 2010.

A unanimous decision by the Board of Trustees at its Sept. 8-10 meeting paved the way for construction to start next June on a $55.7 million Plant Science Facility. The 96,000 square-foot building is scheduled for completion in March 2010. It is designed to support a number of priorities, most crucially housing the College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences' plant biology and plant and soil science departments.

The board’s Educational Policy and Institutional Resources Committee gave step-one approval for an extensive "green" renovation of the Aiken Building and construction of 35,000 square feet of new office space in the courtyard of the Given Building. Under the board’s new format, the Budget, Finance and Investment Committee will now consider the projects before they go up for final approval.

Building long in the works
After more than a decade of planning, the Plant Sciences Facility will open in about 29 months. The building itself will cost $50.4 million, with another $5.3 million devoted to constructing a chilled-water plant. The new building will replace the outdated Joseph E. Hills Agricultural Science Building and foster intellectual collaboration by consolidating labs, offices and classrooms.

The facility is designed to provide a better “first impression” of the campus for people approaching the university from the east on Main Street. The complex will complement the structural elements of nearby buildings, as well as provide good connections for moving plants and materials to the Stafford greenhouses. The building is designed to meet LEED-NC (v.2.2) Silver Level criteria while using sustainable design guidelines consistent with UVM’s “Environmental Design in New and Renovated Buildings” policy.

The Plant Sciences Facility was the university's highest-ranked capital project; it received a near-perfect score under a new evaluation system for projects that assesses costs and benefits in 12 critical areas. (Business students and faculty collaborated with administrators to develop the model system; the view will discuss the effort in a future issue.)

Debt debate picks up
The decision to allocate funds for a large new project brought the university right up to a 5 percent debt ratio limit set by trustees in 2003, spurring debate about the policy and future projects.

The rule was designed to establish internal limits and provide a framework for evaluating debt capacity and affordability. For the third consecutive meeting, Budget, Finance and Investment Committee members discussed the limit, which will hamstring future projects unless the acceptable debt ratio is increased or funds from the private sector or state increase dramatically. At their November meetings, trustees will consider high-priority projects, including the $5.5 million Colchester Research Facility, in the context of prudent debt limits. UVM's current debt ratio is lower than many similarly structured institutions.

Budget, Finance and Investment Committee Chair Deborah McAneny said she was initially hesitant about loosening the ratio, but now thinks changing it is crucial to the university’s “invest and grow” strategy, which she supports. Trustee Susan Hudson-Wilson has urged the board to take advantage of good interest rates and push forward with key projects.

Trustees also received results of a stress test that examined the impact of a worst-case enrollment scenario on university finances. If future enrollment plummeted at the same rate as the steepest decline in UVM history (a 10-year, 10 percent fall that began in 1987) for six years, the university's debt ratio would only rise to 7 percent.

Other business in brief
Strong savings: The university’s endowment is at an all-time high of $339 million. The overall financial performance of university investments remains good despite recent market volatility.

College accountability: President Daniel Mark Fogel gave a presentation on “Accountability in Higher Education” that discussed how Congress and the U.S. Education Department are considering mandating colleges to publish more performance-based information. He then detailed a self-reporting plan, “Voluntary System of Accountability,” being developed by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. Fogel is leading the NASULCG/AASCU panel considering how the accountability system should approach core educational outcomes.

Greening Aiken: Don DeHayes, dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, presented an overview of the pressing need for renovation in Aiken and the promise of this long-planned “greening” of the building. Aiken's population has doubled since it was built, and there are significant heating and ventilation problems as well as $6.7 million in deferred maintenance. A renovated Aiken, DeHayes said, could fix the problems and become a "green beacon" for the environmental university. The project's cost is estimated at $13 million; outside supporters have already pledged a significant percentage of that total. The dean said additional support could come from the federal government if scientists from the U.S. Forest Service offices on Spear Street relocate to Aiken. Trustees unanimously agreed that the project should move to the next step in the approval process.

Filling Given: Once an outdoor courtyard, then a temporary haven for the Dana Medical Library, the space at the heart of the Given Building is now envisioned as a multi-story, $14.5 million home for a university-wide Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences. Dr. Rick Morin, new dean of the College of Medicine, described the center as a place to move “research from the bench to the bedside to the community.” In presenting the project, Morin and Russell Tracy, associate dean of medicine, emphasized the renovation’s importance to securing National Institutes of Health funding for translational science.

“We need to put our money on the table in terms of showing our ability to do the science,” Tracy said, comparing the heated competition for research dollars to high-stakes poker. The four-story “addition” would be built ship-in-a-bottle style in the atrium, creating enough space for 150 more people. Robert Vaughan, director of capital planning and management, noted that the novel plan would lower costs and preserve campus green space. The committee voted to move the proposal to the next level of trustee approval.