Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “juxtaposition” as “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side.” On January 27, an interesting one occurred at a University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees meeting.
The trustees were led on a tour of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hospital campus in Little Rock. While parts are new and gleaming, what once was the main hospital needs $13 million just to become fire code-compliant, and even then it would be badly outdated and inefficient. UAMS would like $97 million to spruce up that building and other facilities, all for administrative space. Tearing the building down and replacing it would cost $250 million.
Board members later heard from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Students there enjoy a new science and technology building and a new fitness center, but in the middle of campus is an unused old multistory facility with weeds growing from the roof, and not as part of a science experiment. The campus security headquarters is an aging house, which can’t be reassuring to parents, and after a good rain, parts of the campus are underwater. UAPB would like money, too.
Then came the University of Arkansas Athletic Department, which seeks a $160 million expansion of its football stadium that would include 3,200 premium seats along with other amenities, such as a video board. The project would be funded through $40 million in donations and a $120 million bond issue repaid through higher ticket prices, paid mostly by fans not sitting in those 3,200 premium seats.
The trustees gave Athletic Director Jeff Long their blessing to continue gathering information, but not before former Sen. David Pryor had questions and abstained from voting. He said he was not necessarily opposed, but priorities should be discussed. This would be, he said, “the largest single bond issue in the history of higher education in the state of Arkansas.” He asked who would benefit, and how much of the costs students would bear.
“A bond issue is a debt of the University of Arkansas,” he said. “It is a debt of the people of Arkansas, and ultimately if something goes wrong, who’s responsible? And that’s the people.”
This is where the columnist perches in his ivory white tower and wags his finger at the trustees, right? Well, not necessarily. Pryor had it right. A discussion is needed.
True, it was quite a juxtaposition to see the state’s teaching hospital and one of its universities asking for money that’s currently not available for boring but necessary stuff like medical administration and drainage, which was then followed by a mostly celebrated $160 million request for football seats used six or seven times a year by rich people, along with other amenities.
However, the needs UAMS and UAPB are seeking to fill would be met partly by tax dollars that haven’t yet come from the Legislature. Moreover, it should never be assumed that public entities are spending the money they already have as efficiently as can be expected (or that they’re not).
Long, in contrast, was asking to pursue money paid voluntarily by donors and fans who, if they don’t like the higher ticket prices, could choose to watch the games on TV, which is what I do. The UA Athletic Department is one of the nation’s few big time college programs that turns a profit and is self-sustaining. In fact, it’s given money back to the university for academics for the newly built Champions Hall.
Finally, at what point do the Razorbacks add to the university, and at what point do they distract from it? The head football coach, Bret Bielema, is by far the highest paid state employee, including the doctors saving lives at UAMS. That seems like a misplaced priority. On the other hand, the Razorbacks are the university’s best marketing tool and a tie that binds the state together. And on the third hand, does all this send a message to young people that while we adults tell them to hit the books hard so they can become doctors, what we really value is how hard the Razorbacks hit the opposing players in the SEC?
It’s a complicated discussion, and it’s worth having before letting people spend $160 million of their own money on a football stadium, and making taxpayers responsible if something goes wrong.