On the lawn outside UC Irvine's College of Medicine, steam and mud bubbled like a sulfur pit at Yellowstone. A mocking sign nearby read "Old Irvine," but it was no laughing matter.
A series of welds had burst again in an underground pipeline ferrying pressurized 380-degree water to the research lab. It forced a shutdown of vital heating water to the complex during repairs on the chronically leaky pipes last February.
Eight days and $300,000 later, the problem was fixed. But that meant $300,000 less for needed work on the campus' central heat and cooling plant, said Larry R. Givens, UCI's assistant vice chancellor for facilities management.
It's par for the course at UCI, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Cal State Fullerton--in fact at virtually all California public universities and community colleges. They are among hundreds of deteriorating campuses across the nation, which are faced with an estimated $60-billion to $70-billion backlog of repairs of everything from leaky roofs, woefully outdated heating plants and crumbling masonry to overloaded electrical systems and mandatory seismic and environmental upgrades.
At least $20 billion of that work is critical to maintaining the health, safety and educational mission at these schools, according to a national study for the Assn. of Physical Plant Administrators of Universities and Colleges.
These are the unglamorous expenses that, amid the current round of state budget slashing, are deferred for yet another year. But the problem can be ignored no longer, say APPA officials, who titled their 1989 joint study: "The Decaying American Campus: A Ticking Time Bomb."
"At some point, the bill has to be paid," said Jack Hug, assistant vice chancellor for physical plant services at UC San Diego and the immediate past president APPA.
Statewide, the price tag for maintenance postponed at public colleges and universities is estimated at $440 million. Some money is allocated by the state to address the need, but experts say it does not begin to keep pace with the demand.
This academic year, the nine-campus University of California system will get about $15 million to chip away at a maintenance backlog conservatively estimated at $265 million, although some put the figure closer to $500 million.
The 20-campus California State University system will get $6.7 million this year toward $150 million in needed projects. The state's 107 community colleges will split $8.7 million toward a backlog estimated at $71 million.
"You will never catch up, but our problem is that the numbers are getting bigger each year," said Charles D. Stevens, physical plant director at Cal State Fullerton, where needed repairs and replacement costs are pushing $12 million. Cal State Fullerton will get about $150,000 this year.
"With the money we have, we take care of those things that are necessary to provide teaching and maintain a healthy and safe environment," Stevens said. "You sweep everything else under the rug."
UC Berkeley, the oldest campus in the University of California system, has a backlog of at least $79.5 million of maintenance, nearly $21 million of it essential for the health and safety of faculty, students and staff. This year, UC Berkeley expects to receive only $3.7 million toward those projects.
Last fall, power was cut off to one-fifth of the Berkeley campus for most of a day because of a short circuit in a major electrical cable that had been targeted for eventual replacement.
"It failed sooner than we were able to address it," said Nadesan Permaul, an administrator for physical resources at the 117-year-old campus.
So far, none of the campus' many blackouts have hindered research, and the university is in the midst of a major expansion to triple the capacity of its electrical plant, he said.
But there is no money to replace a threadbare carpet in the foyer of Lawrence Hall, one of Berkeley's most prestigious science facilities. "It is really the public face of our research . . . (but) it would cost us $16,000. . . . We can't afford to do it."
Berkeley is not exactly poor. The university has raised more than $450 million for major capital construction and to endow 100 academic chairs in the coming years to attract the best minds in the next century. But these private donations are not aimed at maintenance and upgrades.
Explained Permaul: "Why would a major donor want to give money to build a utility system or replace electrical wiring, or pave campus walkways? Those are not the kinds of gifts most people are interested in giving."
At UCLA, a main cooling unit at the medical center gave out during a heat wave a few weeks ago.