This summer, the ground floor of Norris University Center will receive new furniture, video screens and lighting improvements. But a complete overhaul of the student center is currently out of the question because the University can’t afford it right now, officials said.
In response to Feb. 23 proposals from the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee asking the University to set aside additional money to make improvements to student life, administrators recently agreed to make a number of “incremental changes” to improve Norris, residential halls and other campus amenities. The promises were limited because of the University’s current financial situation, said William Banis, vice president for student affairs.
The administration will continue to fund the Saturday intercampus shuttle to downtown Chicago, as well as Be the Change grants, which student groups receive for projects to beautify campus or build community. The University has already improved lighting at five different campus locations; it will also continue installing air conditioning and start putting whiteboards in residential halls.
Within the context of across-the-board budget cutbacks at Northwestern, “these are nice little improvements,” Banis said.
But along with placing limits on an overhaul of Norris, the University has withdrawn funding for a Mid-Winter Event and will not provide money for late-night dining on North Campus, which was another UBPC request. The administration is hoping to further improve cell phone reception on campus, but has not yet found funding to do so.
“It’s a tradeoff. If you do A, then you can’t do B,” Banis said, “and somebody has to make those decisions.”
Associate Vice President for Budget and Planning Jim Hurley said that “we have very little, if any” money for new initiatives in the upcoming year. “Not just these, but the entire university’s budget as well,” he said.
The UBPC’s top four priorities, as outlined in the Feb. 23 letter, were the student center, lighting on campus, improvements to residential spaces, and late-night North Campus dining.
Weinberg senior Jonathan Kent, who was chair of UBPC when the committee made its proposals, said he was pleased with the administration’s answers. “We were kind of bracing for a limited number of positive responses,” he said, but “all of them except for one got some kind of positive response,” referring to the administration’s deferral of the late-night dining proposal.
Four of the committee’s requests followed up on proposals originally made last year: the funding of Saturday shuttles, the mid-winter event, the Be the Change grants, and cell phone signal improvements.
Sandeep Kini, the current UBPC chair, also said he was happy with the University’s response to the requests, particularly regarding Norris and the Saturday shuttle. “We were able to get a lot of the things that we asked for,” the Weinberg junior said.
A year-long process
Last fall, the UBPC polled students on NU Link and held an open forum to ask what they wanted to improve on campus. Committee members also asked for ideas from their friends. “From that we get a long list,” Kini said.
The committee — comprised of Kent, then-ASG President Neal Sales-Griffin and five others, including Kini — then trimmed the list to what they thought was realistic, and met with administrators in January and February to test the waters. After that “we had a pretty firm understanding” of what was feasible, Kent said.
The committee then drew up its proposal and made a PowerPoint presentation at a Feb. 23 meeting with university officials, including University President Henry Bienen and Provost Dan Linzer. In past years this meeting would have lasted an hour, but this year the committee had an hour and a half to make their case, Kent said.
Bienen “was especially candid with us this year,” perhaps because he is leaving at the end of the school year, Kent said.
Linzer and Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president for business and finance, then sent a letter, dated May 1, outlining the University’s response to each of the committee’s requests. Committee members received the letter Tuesday morning.
The UBPC considered Norris to be the most pressing issue — and decided to communicate that opinion — despite the administration’s budgetary limits.
“We decided to make that priority number one,” Sales-Griffin said, even though they knew that they wouldn’t get the money for a major renovation.
The committee made that clear in its proposal.
“The UBPC firmly believes that the best course of action is to start anew with the creation of a new student center,” the committee wrote. “What is unacceptable is to permit Norris, as it currently exists, to function as the student center over the long term.”
“With this said, we understand the financial situation of the university may not allow for such a bold course at this point,” the committee added in the proposal.
To accommodate that “financial situation,” the UBPC gave the University three recommendations with differing price levels: A new student center altogether, a renovation of the ground floor, or the addition of a Starbucks-level franchise to attract more students.
Committee members were satisfied with the university’s offer to replace furniture and add new video screens and lighting.
“I think any news for Norris is good news,” said Weinberg sophomore Jonathan Green**, who wrote the proposal for Norris.
SESP sophomore Meixi Ng, who also worked on the Norris proposal, said she that the furniture addition was a “pleasant surprise,” adding, “We thought that would happen three years down the road.”
Kent said the University’s answer on Norris was “pretty much what I was expecting.”
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
A complete overhaul of Norris is a long-term priority, Kini said, but “we obviously were not expecting an entire new student center” in the near future, especially since it would likely require the University to raise funds through a capital campaign.
Hurley said that the new furniture and TV screens on the ground floor would “make it more livable down there.”
The administration plans to re-evaluate long-term plans for Norris after this summer’s renovations, when Morton Schapiro becomes the new University president.
“We understand it’s a real high priority,” Hurley added.
“What we’re intending to do is make incremental improvements to Norris that will not leave us with a lot of sunk cost,” Banis said.
Banis added that major renovations to Norris would “require our taking the facility off line for a year, year-and-a-half.”
Sales-Griffin said that a new Norris is possible within the next five years. If there isn’t one within the next 10 years, “I’d be baffled,” he said.
An end to the mid-winter event
In February, after the university withdrew six-figure money for a mid-winter event, Banis said that future funding for it would depend on the economy.
In the May 1 letter, administrators said they were withdrawing funding for the mid-winter event next year — with the economy still weak, the letter said, it was hard to justify the spending.
“While it would be nice to do that it wasn’t a priority in relationship to other critical needs that we have,” Banis said Tuesday.
The UBPC proposal did ask for a renewed commitment to a winter event, and outlined the planning logistics for it.
“What the University lacks and what students want to see more of – and would benefit more from – is large-scale programming. In order for this level of programming to be realized, the University must be willing to provide significant funding and investment,” the UBPC wrote in the proposal.
But committee members weren’t taken aback by the University’s decision not to fund the event.
“That certainly wasn’t a surprise to us,” Kent said.
Kent said that the idea would have to wait until the University has more resources at its disposal.
Sales-Griffin said that he’s got another plan in the works that “that might even surpass the ambition of the mid-winter event.” He declined to go into detail, but said to look for it next year.
Saturday shuttle success
Committee members were particularly pleased that the administration agreed to keep funding the Saturday intercampus shuttle.
“We were really excited about that,” Kini said.
Banis also said that he was “very pleased” with this decision.
The University provided funding for a pilot program last year. The shuttle began running in October. About 245 riders use the shuttle to go to and from downtown Chicago on average each weekend, according to the UBPC proposal.
“Based on these numbers, ASG, the UBPC, and University Services conclude that the Chicago Express is an affordable and worthwhile institutional investment,” the committee wrote in the proposal.
Kini said that the University’s willingness to sponsor the shuttle for another year showed its commitment to students.
“They saw the success of it, and they continued it,” he said.
Keeping the economy in mind
The University’s monetary limitations came up in every step of the process.
The economy “was always on the back of our minds,” Ng said. “We had to be more frugal, and really creative with our proposals.”
Though Kini said the UBPC “still asked for the big-ticket things” such as improvements to Norris and the installation of air-conditioning units, he said the committee tried to frame its proposals so that they were flexible enough to match the University’s unstable budget. That’s why the committee made three separate proposals to change Norris, for example.
Committee members said they were pleased with administrators’ candor about Northwestern’s economic obstacles.
“We were able to have honest conversations with them,” Kini said.
For their part, Hurley and Banis said that the UBPC’s proposals were well-thought-out.
“They were very reasonable and, as usual, very well prepared,” Banis said.
Mike Elsen-Rooney contributed reporting.
**Disclosure: Jonathan Green wrote a few pre-election blog posts for North by Northwestern