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Proposed Luskin Conference Center eats up funds that can go to students more directly

By mary clark

April 3, 2012 12:53 a.m.

The concept of a building in which visiting scholars, professors, world-class researchers and other academics can stay, meet and hold conferences on UCLA’s campus is undeniably appealing. But is that really how the proposed UCLA hotel, the Luskin Conference and Guest Center, would function?

Presented to the UC Board of Regents as a potential academic asset to the entire UCLA community, the proposed Luskin Center is essentially just a hotel with extra meeting rooms ““ nothing particularly novel or essential.

While the creation of a central location for visiting speakers, guests, students, alumni and faculty to convene is not in itself a bad idea, the center is not necessary and would be wasteful considering the university’s fiscal situation.

The proposal, which was considered at last week’s regents meeting, was met with skepticism. Regents posed questions regarding the hotel’s feasibility and necessity, suggesting that UCLA could simply buy an existing hotel in the area at a lower cost.

Chancellor Gene Block said in last week’s regents meeting that the hotel would be both a sound investment and an academic asset to the entire UCLA community.

But it cannot be assumed that the $152 million project would really have a considerable effect on academic life for students at UCLA, or that building a 250-room guesthouse would affect the academic experience of individual students.

The Luskins have pledged $40 million for the building itself and an additional $10 million gift to subsidize academic conferences to be held in the new facility. If the building project is not approved, the $40 million intended for the center could be used, with the permission of the donors, to host conferences in UCLA’s existing facilities without an additional price tag of $112 million that the hotel requires.

Even though the reputation of the school and its ability to compete with other universities in terms of state-of-the-art facilities are important, the reality of the university’s financial situation cannot be ignored.

According to the proposal, the additional $112 million needed to build the center would come from external financing. The debt would be covered by revenue from the conference center. But the possibility that the hotel will eat up millions of dollars with no return is a considerable risk ““ one the university can’t afford to take.

This is not to say the conference center is entirely unreasonable.

In better financial times, the combination of a state-of-the-art conference facility and guest center could be an asset to the university, but now is not the time, and the university shouldn’t be stretching itself thin with nonessential building projects.

The regents will put the proposed project to a vote later in the year when the committee decides to present it again, said UC spokeswoman Diane Klein. Right now, the vote could go either way, she added, depending on when and how the proposal is presented again.

Another concern voiced during the regents meeting was whether the facility would even serve its stated purpose. It is easy to imagine the hotel being used mostly by alumni, parents and other guests for weekend visits. While there is nothing wrong with having additional lodging for those purposes, it is by no means necessary.

The proposal stresses the positive effect the conference center could have on UCLA students’ academic lives. This certainly wouldn’t be the case if the guest center turned into a meeting place for alumni attending football games or parents visiting their sons and daughters for a weekend.

If the school wants to use $40 million to boost students’ academic lives at UCLA, it could do so directly rather than building a hotel, hoping it attracts world-class scholars, and hoping those scholars have a significant impact on students.

Proponents of the UCLA hotel say they have students in mind, but as a student I would rather see $40 million used to make my classes smaller, my tuition lower or my housing more affordable than to build a 250-room guesthouse the school can’t even afford.

Do you think the Luskin Conference Center is a good idea? Email Clark at [email protected]. Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion.

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