Sam's House in the News Again

The front page story in yesterday’s Ann Arbor News was about the EMU Regents conducting their own investigation about the various rumors and reports about the spending on the new University House, better known to folks on campus here as “Sam’s House” since it is the home of EMU’s president Sam Kirkpatrick. Here’s a link to yesterday’s article, and here’s a link to an article that ran in late August about the same issue. And just to share what the administration has to say about the house controversy, here’s a link to a bad picture of the house while it was under construction (you can still get a sense of how enormous this thing is), and here’s a link to a “Q & A” about the house from the administration’s point of view.

In the nutshell, one of Kirkpatrick’s fist actions when he came to EMU was to insist that the university build a new president’s house that would be more appropriate for entertaining and fund raising. I was in the old president’s house once when I came to EMU, and Kirkpatrick’s argument does make a certain amount of sense. It was indeed a dated, small, old house, probably fine for a normal family in the 1950s, but not the sort of thing that looks very “presidential,” even for the president of EMU. But instead of making a modest upgrade, Kirkpatrick decided to go “big time” and built a house/facility that is 10,000 square feet and is probably one of the biggest, grandest, and (in my opinion) ugliest houses in the county. It’s a monstrosity built on a plot of land that faces a Walgreens and an auto supply store on Washtenaw Avenue, which is one of the main drags for fast food places and such through Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. Sure, it’s near the EMU Convocation Center and football stadium, which was the reasoning for putting it over there instead of closer to campus in the first place. But despite what the official university documents say, it’s probably more accurate to describe the Convocation Center and football stadium as being around the corner and out of view from the house. Right off the front yard are the back ends of Walgreens and the Washtenaw strip.

The current controversy is about how the house was paid for and how much it cost. Kirkpatrick et al have always said that the house was paid for NOT with tuition, but with donations from individuals and corporations. But this is a bit of a dodge since money that comes from these sorts of sources could just as easily gone into the endowment or some other operating fund. In other words, even if the actual dollars didn’t come from tuition or state appropriations, the money that was used to pay for the house obviously could have been used to pay for other things– faculty, books, etc. And even if the administration wants to argue that the donors specifically said that they wanted the money to go to the house, clearly Kirkpatrick and the rest of the administration made an argument to donors that they needed the money for the new presidential mansion and not for other things.

The potentially more problematic charge for Kirkpatrick is the different reports about the final cost of the project. The administration said that it cost about $3.5 million; rumors abound that it is closer to twice that amount. I don’t really know who to believe, but one rumor was that the house cost $3.5 million, but the extensive landscaping and other things around the house cost another $1.5 million (give or take), and those expenses came not from these donations but the university operating funds. Like I said, I don’t know if these rumors or true or not; just what I’ve heard.

If nothing else, Sam’s house and the controversy around it seems to me to be the most obvious of a series of examples of what must be Kirkpatrick’s “vision” for EMU, and it strikes me as a remarkably destructive vision. While tenure-track faculty numbers have decreased, administrative lines have increased. EMU is still attracting lots of students despite tuition hikes, and to teach the additional classes, the administration has hired more and more part-time and non-tenure-track full-time faculty. Plans to refurbish woefully inadequate academic buildings like the one I teach in have been put on hold because of funding issues, and yet we’re moving full-steam ahead to build a new student union that no one on campus really seems to want. And just to add insult to injury, the plan for the old student union is to convert most of it into administrative office space.

Well, I wish the regents luck. I hope they do a real audit, I hope they hire an outside firm, and for once, I hope that the rumors of how things have been going turn out to be false. One way or the other though, I know the entire EMU community will be following this story closely…

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