Faulty financials could leave construction project’s future in flux

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • November 20, 2014

At issue: Construction projects planned to improve dorms again delayed.

Our take: Students should hold the school accountable for the latest plan's funding.

More delayed, underfunded Emerson construction projects.

Sure, that’s not the way the school pitches the planned Boylston Place dorm and Little Building renovation. And a good chunk of our student body might not have noticed, considering this most of this year’s freshman class was probably in middle school when the college first promised renovations that would rid the corner of Boylston and Tremont of its unsightly scaffolding.

But documentation of the administration’s ever-prolonged plans for the Boston campus traces back long before this current crop of students ever inhabited the building. And the administration needs to be held accountable. Instead of glossing over the perpetual postponements and still-undecided plan for funding the estimated $175 million bill, it owes the student body forthrightness.

Emerson students deserve to know what they’re paying for. For example, the scaffolding that’s now become a vital organ of the Little Building’s structural health costs the college some $10,000 in city fees every year, the Beacon reported in 2012.

But more importantly, Emerson students deserve to hear a full and unqualified plan for the proposed changes to the campus that will affect not only themselves, but also their future peers.

Margaret A. Ings, associate vice president of government and community relations, told the Beacon, “I think the community is going to be shocked when they don’t have any scaffolding to walk under.”

Probably. But only because students have long been well aware of the dire need for repairs on campus, especially in the Little Building, and have largely lost faith that the scaffolding will ever disappear. So really, navigating around an unburdened corner of Boylston Street and Tremont Street will bring a sense of relief.

This is, after all, not the first time Emerson has decided to delay the Little Building’s repairs, and thus prolong the scaffolding’s existence. In 2012, Emerson said plans for the building, including a “finalized blueprint,” would be made public between 2013 and 2014, and that construction would begin in 2014. Yet as we approach the end of 2014, the college has only just publicized rough outlines and vague intentions for Little Building that, now, won’t start until at least 2017.

Similarly, last year, the planned Boylston Place dorm was approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. At the time, school officials said construction would start this year. Now they say it won’t start until next year.

In 2012, Andrew Tiedemann, the vice president for communications and marketing, said the delay to the Little Building’s repairs was a case of bad timing. With the $90 million Los Angeles campus underway, he said at the time that the college didn’t have the funds to squeeze in another $70 million construction venture. 

Yet the college did have the funds to purchase President M. Lee Pelton’s $4.925 million mansion the year before. The 7,300 square foot, four-story manor is “too grandiose” for the man who lives in it, Pelton said in an interview at the time.

This gets at the deeper problem—one that inescapably underlies most of Emerson’s endeavors. How can Emerson, which already has well-known funding challenges, foot the bill for such an expensive undertaking? The school’s less-than-stellar track record when it comes to fundraising extends far beyond Emerson Los Angeles—in the first year of a three-year ELA campaign, the college only raised $2.8 million of its $20 million goal, most of which is going to paying off debts from the building’s construction. Just this week, Maureen Murphy, the vice president for administration and finance, told the Student Government Association that the college got 96 percent of its revenue from tuition last year.

In an interview this week with the Beacon, Pelton spoke about the lack of a definitive plan for these costs, but said taking on debt is currently the college’s leading option. So ironically, it won’t only be the students at Emerson seeking out loans to pay for their time on the Boston campus, but the administration as well.

And there’s another thing: “We’re looking at how to fund the project and so that’s still in the planning stage,” said Pelton, “but it will have no impact on students who are currently enrolled.”

Yet even if the tuition price for current students does not change, his comment does not preclude cost increases for future students, making this an issue of financial concern today. After all, we can’t indefinitely keep passing the buck. The school must get serious about raising money—not depending on tuition—to pay for these expensive, but increasingly necessary, construction projects.