The Future of O&M (Illegitimi Non Carborundum)

Dear senior-level administrators: This is an open letter directed at you.

Higher education is at a crossroads not seen in 50 years. We recognize that you know this as well as anyone. Nevertheless, we are concerned that you may not be equally aware of the perilous future of the assets that we manage on your behalf. It is not that you don’t care, and certainly that we don’t. Possibly we have not effectively communicated with you, perhaps for fear of making ourselves look incompetent.

Well, now it’s time to get past that. An increasing number of our buildings and systems have reached or outlived their projected life expectancies. We have long been crying that we need more dollars to deal with the exponentially growing backlog of capital needs, whether upgrades or renewals. You have done for us as much as circumstances allowed — never enough, but always appreciated. Today, however, we (and that includes you) are up to our armpits in facility-related challenges.

We have all heard the parable about draining the swamp or about the frog in a pot of boiling water. The phrase that is much more applicable today is: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” (from Dante’s Divine Comedy). This is a word of advice we are tempted to pass along to anyone considering entering into our profession. More profoundly, it might apply to our buildings as well.

O&M budgets have been slashed left and right, typically unfavorably out of proportion to reductions imposed on other endeavors on our campuses. We have generally understood the reasoning behind those decisions, and have supported those decisions as we presented them to our staff and customers. However, we are rapidly reaching the point where our best efforts can no longer assure that facilities and systems on campus will be able to serve either the short- or long-term missions of the institution.

Our depleted staff have done remarkably well in their efforts to produce at a higher level, actually improving their output. A pyrrhic success, this may be the result of their own commitment to the institution, supported by an increased investment in advanced technologies in the tools that you allowed us to acquire for them. They are now working at a level that we cannot expect to continue indefinitely. Training opportunities and recognition programs have been slashed. The level of preventive maintenance, in all its forms, is generally lower now than it has been for many years. We are putting out fires, and are in danger of reverting to a “duct tape and baling wire” maintenance program. We are at risk of facing increasing numbers of destructive service interruptions. Our ability to provide facilities and systems that will continue to attract students and competent faculty is reaching its limit. We are concerned (frightened?) that our good people will leave or start suffering detrimental health problems.

There are institutions where reductions in utility budgets have had to be absorbed by annually provided O&M budgets. This makes no sense: those bills are not going away! We are aware of institutions where aggressive pursuit of energy conservation and cost-avoidance programs that often impose increased responsibilities on the O&M department have not resulted in a shift of budget dollars from the utility budgets to the maintenance budgets, in spite of an increased burden on the latter. We are aware of institutions where custodial standards have been reduced to the point where wear and tear on floor surfaces will accelerate their projected replacement schedules.

There’s an irony in the paradoxical reality that we continue to build new, complex buildings with little or no thought being given to how to maintain them, or to fixing up the ones we have. Sadly, we will continue to use those older, embarrassing, and/or unsafe buildings, frequently for purposes hardly consistent with their design or condition.

We care about our institutions, at least as much as anyone in the administration. This is not a case of crying wolf or that the sky is falling. We are intensely hopeful that we (including you) will find the time and desire to discuss and objectively assess the situation on our campuses, and find a way to fold facilities needs into our institutions’ strategic plans — something that is barely addressed in current academic planning. Surely, you and other senior-level administrators recognize that the best strategic academic plans cannot succeed if the appropriate supporting infrastructure does not exist.

An inscription above a portal on a very busy street by the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reads “Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum.” Let’s work together to insure that we in higher education avoid such a misstep!

Thank you.