The University of Akron already has plowed more than $600 million into transforming its campus. On Wednesday, the university board of trustees approved a new master guide plan that aims to build on the success, calling for an additional investment of roughly $400 million. In all, the sum exceeds the amount spent rebuilding the city’s public schools. The effort reflects the importance of the university to the region, not just as a place for higher learning but as a catalyst for the local economy, whether in its links to businesses or its role in the University Park Alliance, the ambitious plan to remake 50 blocks of the city.
Sasaki Associates of Boston set the template in 1999 for the makeover of the campus. The firm returned a year ago to look for ways to add texture and depth. Among other things, that has resulted in a proposed Academic Way, recasting the center of the campus that once was Buchtel Avenue. Most striking are plans to build a glass atrium for the Beirce Library, in combination with green space and an extended canopy of trees bringing a greater and attractive sense of place.
All of this would include enhancing and updating academic buildings, the university already with $16 million in capital funds from the state to renovate Zook Hall. Worth noting is that Sasaki tracked various traffic patterns of the campus, where people connect and gather as part of putting together the guide plan.
What university officials stress is that the plan is a “guide,” a direction, details flexible in the moment. More, this isn’t something that will be accomplished in one push. Luis Proenza, the university president, talks about investing $20 million or $40 million at a time.
Sasaki included a discussion of an arena, noodling a site downtown or on campus. Both have advocates, downtown with an edge. Either location would benefit the city.
Why spend the money at all? University officials argue they find themselves in a competition for students who expect such a setting. What they must not miss is the potential for something of a bubble, chasing an illusive enrollment number, lacking the foundation to cover its costs.
Would it be better to route the money to students, Ohio already expensive when it comes to attending a public university? The problem isn’t so much wasteful or excessive spending on campus. State Higher Education Officers, a national organization, recently plotted university finances from 1996 to 2011, finding Ohio among the states with tuition increases and state appropriations below the national average.
The appropriation figure is especially eye-catching, the state trailing the national average by more than 30 percent. An Ohio determined to make college more affordable must mobilize to increase the public investment.