Sunday, May 19

Editorial: Donor-funded construction projects should consider impact on students


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On Wednesday, a University of California Regents committee approved the Anderson School of Management’s expansion, fully funded by donors. But like many donor projects before it, a campus service fell casualty to the expansion – this time, 60 parking spots in Parking Structure 5.

Sacrificing existing resources, particularly student services, in favor of donor-funded expansion is a disturbing pattern at UCLA. To ensure student interests are prioritized, the UCLA Foundation, which collects and oversees contributions from donors, should form a student advisory board to consult on capital projects and assess the impact these developments will have on student services. But, more than that, the foundation needs to have the guts to deny donors’ requests if they come at too great a cost to students.

This isn’t to say donor-funded projects inherently exclude students, but UCLA’s planning efforts of late sorely lack student input. After all, the UCLA Foundation’s Board of Directors is composed of donor-volunteers. These multimillionaires hardly have to deal with the day-to-day realities students and staff members face. At best, their decisions indicate a disconnect with the campus community; at worst, donors can seem overly concerned with optics over impact.

Take, for example, David Geffen’s $100 million donation to create a private middle and high school in Westwood. Geffen himself said the school’s purpose was to make the Geffen School of Medicine compete with the likes of Johns Hopkins and Harvard. In other words, the UCLA Foundation approved a capital project to build up the reputation of Geffen’s namesake medicine school. And that constitutes the foundation’s concept of improving UCLA – a concept that will remain intangible to graduate students, whose gym was swept aside by the ambitions of a billionaire.

When it comes to donations like these, the university is essentially selling campus space to donors. The UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center construction required the demolition of an entire parking structure for what amounts to a glorified hotel and event space. But space is precious on a small and already-dense campus like UCLA’s, and allowing donors to determine how this space is allocated is simply irresponsible.

Oversight to determine whether infrastructure projects should be greenlit exists, but in the form of the even more distant UC Regents. At a hearing to approve the Anderson expansion, the regents’ concern regarding the parking lot did not go beyond structural integrity – the last thing UCLA students and faculty will care about once 60 parking spots are taken away.

It’s clear a glaring blind spot exists in the way the UCLA Foundation chooses capital projects, even with all its bureaucracy. One way to rectify this would be to bring students into the process through an advisory board. While this board needn’t have the ability to decide the fate of donor-funded projects, it could convey the impact capital projects would have on the student body. And with that information, the UCLA Foundation should have the ability to say no to a project that takes away from student services – except in the rare case when it’s worth the loss.

As cash-strapped as UCLA is, these kinds of capital projects hurt more than they help the school’s main constituency – students and staff. And a system that encourages multimillionaires to fund expansions at the cost of that constituency is untenable.

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