January 13, 2012

The Post’s story on plans to build a “14,000-square-foot on-campus mansion” for the president of the University of Maryland College Park [“As U-Md. cuts budget, it also builds a mansion,” front page, Jan. 9] sparked a lot of angry responses from apparently misled readers. Petula Dvorak then added fuel to the fire with a column on the subject full of incendiary rhetoric [“Appearances count, but U-Md. seems oblivious,” Metro, Jan. 10].

This portrayal has been unfair. As a major contributor to this project, a board member for the private foundation funding it and proud U-Md. alum, I take great exception to the characterization that we are building some presidential “mansion.” We are not, and certainly not one to occupy 14,000 square feet.

That description is off by about 70 percent. This is no baronial estate, but you had to read pretty far into the original article to figure that out — well past many readers’ apparent boiling points.

Here are the facts. We call this project “University House.” It will consist of a 10,000-square-foot Events Center — meeting facilities for the kind of official activities that occupy a significant portion of any public university president’s time — plus a 4,000-square-foot residence. This residence will be 30 percent smaller than its predecessor. Nearly three-fourths of the project’s cost will go to the Events Center.

No state money is being used to put up this building. About 30 private donors, including myself, are footing the bill. We see the need for the project and the appropriateness of the plans, so we’ve made a financial commitment.

There are many good reasons that state and private leaders endorsed this plan more than 18 months ago. It solved a pressing need at an opportune moment, and it took a modest approach.

The old presidential residence was built in 1956, had serious structural issues, did not meet code requirements and had long been inadequate. Holding major events — including the kind that help raise money for the university — often required renting expensive tents. All five firms that bid on the project recommended building from scratch rather than renovating. They said doing so would cost about the same, but would produce a facility much better suited to the fundraising and other official duties of a university president. A new building would also be more efficient to operate, saving money over the long haul.

When the plan was developed, President C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr. was about to retire from his 12-year term as U-Md. president, and a replacement had not been chosen. This provided a window of opportunity during which the project would cause minimal disruption. The decision to proceed had already been made by the time new president Wallace Loh was on board.

The new building will have major benefits for U-Md. Proper facilities are crucial to fundraising and community relations. As The Post’s article noted, other major universities — both public and private — have upgraded their presidential event facilities. Each year, this building will be used for more than 100 student, parent, faculty, staff, alumni and donor events. U-Md. represents a community of some 50,000 people, as well as 300,000 alumni — many of whom live and work in the region. Thousands will use this facility.

It is also important to put this $7.2 million project in perspective. The money for University House is part of our ambitious $1 billion capital campaign, and more than one-third of that money is going to endow student scholarships.

We continue to seek and raise funds for scholarships, academic programs, the arts and athletics at the rate of more than $100 million annually from some 35,000 contributors. Donors give to particular programs and projects that interest them; their giving is not a “zero-sum” game. The donors to University House support other parts of U-Md. and have made clear they will continue to do so. For example, with a recent private gift of $10 million, we hope to attract other contributions and state funding to build a new, decades-in-the-planning, $60 million educational and teaching center that will improve classroom facilities for every undergraduate on campus.

As private supporters of the University of Maryland, we understand that money is as tight as it can be — for the state, taxpayers, parents and students. The state of Maryland pays about 25 percent of our bills. The rest must be raised from other sources. Given these realities, we believe that University House is a wise investment that will pay for itself, while strengthening the University of Maryland’s mission of serving the citizens of our great state.

The writer chairs the University of Maryland College Park Foundation’s executive committee.