The Central District was originally intended to be a beacon to attract high-achieving students from around the world who, as KU saw it, were looking for high-quality science and engineering facilities.
The project was part of a strategic plan introduced by then-Provost Jeffrey Vitter in 2011 called “Bold Aspirations,” which sought to transform the University into a “top-tier public international research university.” Some of KU’s older STEM facilities were sometimes unsafe, and threatened the University’s accreditation, according to Vitter.
The University touted its new buildings in press releases, calling them “a crown jewel that attracts innovators and collaborators from the Midwest and beyond.” Chancellor Douglas Girod recently commended the Integrated Science Building as “a giant leap forward” for the University.
“We believed the Central District to be a vital and important update to the KU campus, and it realized substantial savings by consolidating the needed improvements into one coherent project,” Vitter said recently in an email with the Kansan.
Even now, with the $20 million cut lingering, Interim Provost Carl Lejuez believes the choices to update the Central District were still the in the best interest of the University.
“There’s lots of way you can do this job. I am a cautious person when it comes to budget and money, and I am a bit less flashy in the way I think about what things are most important to the University right now,” Lejuez said. “It’s not productive to say it’s anyone’s fault. I can put myself in [previous administrators’] shoes; they cared about KU.”
But the crown jewels came at a cost — about $21 million a year, according to the bond agreement with Wisconsin’s Public Finance Authority, which issued the money for the Central District. With Kansas continuing to cut back its funding for higher education, the University, led by then-Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, had to look elsewhere to pay back its debt.
Gray-Little did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Integrated Science Building cost an estimated $117 million, according to documents obtained by the Kansan, and is the only building the University is paying for directly, according to Lejuez. The other components of the Central District Project — the new parking garage, Stouffer Place apartments, and Downs Residence Hall — are funded by different entities on campus, such as KU Housing and KU Parking, according to Lejuez, and don’t require payment from general funds.
Funding for the Central District was expected to come from a number of sources annually. Housing would provide about $8 million, parking would provide $1.5 million, $1.2 million would come from the Burge Union, $7 million from Changing for Excellence (another initiative by Vitter designed to streamline administrative processes), and $6.5 million would come from international and out-of-state student tuition.
“The choice we had was to allow KU to decay or to invest in facilities that would move the institution forward,” Vitter said. “I firmly believe we made the right choice, and the funding plan was sound.”