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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 01/10/2012

The bottom line on the $7.2 million house for UMD president

The University of Maryland at College Park is about to rip down the house that is intended for its president and erect a $7.2 million “University House” to replace it.

The old house, among other problems is filled with asbestos and is not fully accessible for the disabled. And, not unimportant in this context, it has long been deemed too small for the fund-raising duties of the modern college president.

University of Maryland president’s house to be demolished and a mansion will be built nearby in College Park. (Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
But many on the flagship campus are asking whether this project makes sense in an era when money is so tight that, as my colleague Jenna Johnson wrote in this story, donors are being asked to pay student tuition and six varsity teams are being cut.

Actually, it makes more sense than it seems. Elegant presidents’residences are common on college campuses, and the head of a university does need a facility to host donors with fat wallets.

Yet still, the scale of the project seems way too large and expensive for these times, and it is fair to ask whether a top-notch fund raiser needs a 14,000-square-foot mansion with gardens and a big parking lot for valeted cars to get the job done. I’ll answer my own question: No.

University officials are defending the project by noting that the cost is being paid for with private funds (though the university will bear the cost of maintaining the property).

And it is true that donors get to decide how their money will be spent (with some limits) — not the receiving institution. A school can’t redirect money without permission.

But a school could decide that it doesn’t want to use the money the way a donor wants and either reject or return the money.

Officials could conclude that a project of this scale — with a 10,000-square-foot “events center” and a large hall that can seat 125 people — isn’t a good idea at a time when donors are also being asked to help keep needy students in school.

It could say that a big mansion sends the wrong signal at this time and that it has enough faith in its president to woo big donors with fancy dinners and elegant parties in a lovely but less expensive space.

It’s too bad that school officials didn’t say that.


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By  |  08:00 AM ET, 01/10/2012

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