Bold Building Moves

Bold Building Moves

A president's perspective on continuing to build during tough economic times

Seizing opportunity in a time of crisis can be risky, but in the depths of the recent recession, Muhlenberg College (Pa.) made a bold move, launching three very ambitious construction projects with the potential to strengthen the college's competitive position swiftly and dramatically. The project's an addition to our student union, a music/dance rehearsal space, and a multipurpose addition to our Hillel House that included new offices for our sociology/anthropology department - totaled more than $27 million. But built on institutional strengths, the finished facilities will greatly enrich the student experience.

Our student union, built in 1964, had much of the original mechanical and electrical infrastructure still in place. The kitchen and servery were designed for 1,000 students, not 2,200. Even without a major addition, we would have needed to spend several million bringing the building up to code.

We deemed it urgent and wise to provide a great new student dining hall and a beautiful servery, and to add a full kosher kitchen so that would be an option for students. This will continue to make Muhlenberg a very attractive option for Jewish students across the country. The old dining room and servery will become meeting, performance, and program space, enlivening an already busy student union. Below the new dining hall, we're creating offices for student organizations, an expanded bookstore, and renovated facilities for campus media. Seegers Union, costing $20 million, will open in August 2010 - and student buzz is highly positive.

The past decade has witnessed dramatic growth in Muhlenberg's nationally distinguished theatre, dance, and music programs. While the Philip Johnson-designed Center for the Arts is still a hub for classes and performances, student enrollments have far outstripped the existing facility's capacity for individual lessons, practice, and rehearsals.

Muhlenberg responded to these challenges by acquiring an abandoned fraternity house, gutting it, and redesigning it with a suite of faculty offices and practice rooms, an electronic music studio, rehearsal space, and an acting studio. The $2.8 million facility, designed with collaboration from faculty, is nearing completion.

Although Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college affiliated with the Lutheran Church, it's ranked fifth in the nation in percentage of Jewish students. It was the first liberal arts college to gain "foundation status" from Hillel International, and Jewish life is thriving. The College's Hillel building, a student hangout and destination for Friday night Shabbat dinners, is beloved to students, but no longer able to seat the more than 200 students who show up for a weekly communal meal. After cramming dining tables into every room (including basement, attic, and laundry room), we knew something had to give.

We deemed it urgent and wise to provide a great new student dining hall.

By combining the Hillel House with the house next door and building a major extension, we will create an adequate dining room for Shabbat that could also be used as program and classroom space during other times of the week. The lower level would also provide much needed space for our successful Sociology and Anthropology department, with its needs for dedicated classroom and laboratory space, as well as more faculty offices. The anticipated completion date for this $4.3 million project is January 2011.

These facilities were certainly needed, yet the decision to move forward with these projects was the result of a very long, thorough, and inclusive strategic plan. The planning process, started back in 2003, included students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees.

The final decision to move forward and finance the projects rested with the trustees. While the economy and stock markets were not faring well, interest rates were extremely favorable. Both Moody's and Standard & Poor's reviewed the college's bond rating and, despite the economic and demographic challenges facing higher education, upheld their A+ / A1 ratings because of the college's careful planning and tight management. Our planning included a budget model that included construction capital and debt service, so we were able to move forward quickly and confidently to seize these opportunities.

A side benefit of these projects is the economic impact on Lehigh Valley. The major construction work, in addition to renovations, provided jobs for many people at a time when the construction industry was seeing layoffs and the overall economy was at its lowest point in decades.

Peyton R. Helm has been president of Muhlenberg College (Pa.) since 2003.


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