Oxy's Honey-Do List

When something needs fixing at home, my years of academic training are of little use. If it can't be fixed with duct tape or WD-40, then it's time to pretend I didn't notice the problem or to call in an expert. Unfortunately, when I'm in the president's office I can't pretend not to notice the substantial backlog of deferred maintenance that exists at Oxy—a $120-million challenge over the next decade that goes well beyond the healing powers of WD-40.

One of the glories of Occidental is the beauty of the campus—the product of the distinctive architectural vision of Myron Hunt, accented by the sophisticated landscaping of Beatrix Farrand. It's what we can't see that poses the problem. When Farrand re-landscaped the Quad in the late 1930s, the first concrete steam tunnel was installed underneath it. Today, there is almost one mile of tunnels running underneath the campus, together with more than three miles of steam and chilled water pipes and similar quantities of water, sewer, and irrigation lines. Typically, no one pays attention to them until they fail—as the 100-year-old sewer line serving Johnson Hall and other central campus buildings did earlier this spring—and suddenly there's no priority more important than getting them fixed. Add to this Oxy's roughly 1.2 million square feet of buildings and acres of roof, sidewalk, and streets, and you begin to get an idea of the magnitude of the issue.

That's not to say that the College has been ignoring the problem. Occidental's spending on physical maintenance of the campus is comparable to that of our peer institutions. But because the overall age of Oxy's buildings is greater, the costs involved are significantly higher. Each year we need to spend roughly $7.5 million on maintenance and repair. Major projects like the renovation and expansion of Swan Hall, the creation of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs in Johnson Hall, and the Rose Hills Student Activities Center in Johnson Student Center have helped reduce the backlog. Even so, over the last five years we have met little more than a third of the overall need. As one of our consultants recently pointed out, "Scarce resources have prevented adequate preventive and predictive maintenance from being performed at Occidental. … This is as much of a financial issue as managing the endowment portfolio." Waiting until emergency repairs or replacement are necessary is far more expensive than a program of regular maintenance. Case in point: Our steam and chilled water systems currently need an estimated $2.7 million in repairs. Total current replacement cost of all the systems involved is $13.5 million.

While the centennial of the opening of Oxy's Eagle Rock campus is cause for celebration this year, it is also the cause of sober reflection on how to keep the physical fabric of the campus functioning for another 100 years. That's why we have launched a comprehensive inventory of all of the campus needs and the development of a multi-year strategy to meet those needs. I believe Oxy's tradition of renovating and repurposing existing buildings whenever possible continues to be a sound practice, one that is more sustainable than new construction and allows us to design creative, flexible solutions to meet future needs and preserve the beauty of Hunt's designs. Now that the McKinnon Center has been completed, the Academic Commons at the Clapp Library will be our next major project—one that will help us meet both the academic needs of our students and faculty as well as the demands of a structure whose original wing dates back to 1924. In contrast, 84-year-old Taylor Pool simply isn't adequate by today's standards. But when we finally build a new aquatic ­center, you can be sure that we will come up with some creative new role for Taylor Pool and the beautiful structure that houses it.

The Oxy campus is full of buildings named for generous donors whose gifts made them possible over the last century. What helps keep me awake at night is how to persuade donors that it is just as important to deal with rusty pipes or cracked concrete. What gives me hope is the example of Dave Berkus '62, the veteran trustee who seven years ago made a $1.25-million gift to create Oxy's first endowment for building maintenance. My job is to persuade others like Dave that we need more than duct tape and WD-40 to keep Occidental in good repair.

Jonathan Veitch, President
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