Radford’s $100 Million Boondoggle

by James A. Bacon

Governor Ralph Northam has allocated nearly $101 million in the next biennial budget to build the “Center for Adaptive Innovation and Creativity” at Radford University. If approved by the General Assembly, the allocation would represent the largest capital construction project in the history of Radford University, both in terms of total funding and square footage.

According to the Roanoke Times, the facility will include classrooms, studios and exhibition spaces, clinical research and laboratory space, and multi-use environments such as maker spaces, computer centers, and simulation and virtual/augmented reality labs.

That’s an eclectic mix of facilities. What, exactly, will the Center for Adaptive Innovation and Creativity do? According to a Radford University document, the Center will advance an inter-disciplinary approach to health and the arts. As an example of the kind of activity that would take place there, the document says that nursing students could interact with actors trained to simulate patients.

Perhaps I’m being uncharitable here, but this sounds like the kind of project that gets funded when the thinking in the governor’s office goes something like this: “Well, we’re giving money to everyone else in higher ed, and it’s been a while since we’ve tossed Radford a bone, and this is at the top of their wish list, so…”

When first announced in January 2018, the Center was expected to cost about $79 million. Now, for reasons not specified in the Roanoke Times article, the price tag has grown to nearly $101 million. But the Radford administration is pitching the project as a money saver. It will replace two older buildings, McGuffey and Porterfield halls, where the state had spent $8 million in recent years to replace failing infrastructure. The buildings are anticipated to cost another $6 million to $8 million in the next five years.

Radford describes the center as a facility that “will provide space for a radically different approach to health education and interdisciplinary research, featuring creativity at the center of the learning process.” Apparently, interdisciplinary health/art initiatives are occurring in other states. For example, the University of Michigan Medical Arts Program “aims to enhance medical students’ ability to provide high quality, humanistic clinical care through experiences and analysis of the musical, theatrical, literary and visual arts.”

Radford sees four areas of potential collaboration:

Clinical simulation training. By interacting with trained actors, nursing students could work on their communication skills, relationship building, information-extraction, and clinical reasoning. “Trained theater students” could participate as well in “counseling simulations” in the Department of Communications Sciences and Disorders.

Physical therapy. Physical therapists can apply their skills to “the prevention and treatment of injury associated with performance art.” Examples include “postural intervention” for those who perform in Studio Art; ergonomic assessment and intervention for those in Studio Art and Graphic Design; and movement assessment and treatment for those in Dance, Music, Theatre & Cinema.”

Speech language therapy & music therapy. The idea is to incorporate therapy into the treatment of children and accident victims with language disabilities.

Autism services. Students and faculty could use art and theater for autism therapy, with a focus on nonverbal communication.

Bacon’s bottom line: I imagine that some of these potential collaborations have value, but a number of them sound pretty loosey-goosey to me. Moreoever, I fail to find any justification in the Radford material that these experimental collaborations require a $101 million, state-of-the-art facility with maker spaces and artificial reality labs. It sounds to me as if Radford said, “Let’s load up this puppy with everything we can think of. Let’s ask for waaay more than we think we can possibly get, and see what we the moneybags in Richmond to give us.” And rather than negotiate for something reasonable, the Northam administration just decided to give Radford everything it asked for.

You know you’re reaching a peak in the economic cycle when state government can throw money on an extravagance like this. Funding the Center for Adaptive Innovation is a sure sign that the Northam administration has abandoned any pretense to cost-benefit objectivity, and has nothing more in mind than placating special interests.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


14 responses to “Radford’s $100 Million Boondoggle”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    A second tier school searches for a marketing niche…..For this they refused to return the state revenue windfall created by federal tax reform? This is their justification for continuing to apply income tax to minimum wage earners? Shameful.

  2. Conservatives/libertarians seem to have (sadly) lost the fight over privatizing ABC in Virginia.

    But…if there’s one position statement from any candidate that would win my vote in 2021, it’s this: Abolish Radford University.

    Most Virginians do not realize that Radford is located in the same county as Virginia Tech. That’s right, Virginia has 2 4-year residential colleges in the same county. And no, we’re not talking Fairfax. We’re talking Montgomery County (population less than 100K).

    How are we paying for these facilities, faculties, and administration in this day and age? Why isn’t the state mandating that Radford consolidate with Virginia Tech?

    Remember, this Center for Adaptive Innovation and Creativity is $100 million of your tax dollars going to liberal arts college located in the same county as the state’s engineering school. On what planet does this make sense?

    1. Excellent points. Can the case be made that Radford serves a different demographic or provides a distinctive curriculum? My sense is that VT, with a heavy commuting contingent, overlaps Radford entirely.

      1. Lifelong (not counting a short interlude in my early 20’s) Montgomery County resident here.

        Radford University got its start as a college to train teachers. It is still known for being very good at this job. It also boasts a reputable nursing program, which I don’t this is offered at VT. I am not sure how much overlap there is between VT and RU in terms of programs as neither my husband or I attended there. Our two oldest sons never considered RU as they landed in VT’s College of Ag & Life Sciences and College of Architecture, neither of which has a counterpart at RU.

        There are differences, generally speaking, between RU and VT students. I tread lightly here because I live amongst a good number of successful Radford University graduates, so I don’t want to sound disparaging. One of my fellow soccer carpool drivers from back in the days when our sons played together is an RU professor (whose children did not attend RU). In her words, she was adamant that the best Radford students were the New River Valley and Southwest Virginia students. The rest, she contended, were largely average students who could not get into VT, JMU, etc. and whose parents wanted them out of their hair. I feel confident that the average GPA and test scores of incoming VT students are higher than their RU peers. Anecdotally, one of my oldest son’s high school friends applied (and later attended) RU. This young man’s high school grades and test scores were not as high as our son’s; not bad, just not anything particularly special. He was offered a sizable scholarship to attend RU while our son did not receive a comparable offer from VT. Similarly, several years later, son #2 has a friend also with lower grades / test scores being offered a substantial scholarship to attend RU. 4 different students. 4 different programs, but it appears the bar is higher to receive academic scholarships at VT.

        About a year ago, I heard one of our local legislators talk about expanding one of RU’s signature programs, nursing, Unlike today’s report, however, this expansion was predicated on using existing facilities. Best I recall, RU could increase the number of nurses it would be able to train by adding a “second shift” of classes in the classrooms and labs that ordinarily set empty during the evening and night hours. He added that it made sense for nursing students to get used to the idea of working evenings and nights because that was health care workers have to do. I don’t remember the price tag, but I know there was no construction involved in this program at all. As someone who drove past RU’s campus just last week, I wonder where they plan on placing this monstrous building.

      2. Thanks, SWVAG — this is the kind of input legislators ought to read. Hope they do.

  3. WOW — simulation patients for $101M!

    My wife does this at VT’s VCOM for $18 an hour… maybe the Gov and Radford could learn from the school just north of Radford.

    Maybe we shouldn’t be replicating something that already exists in SWVa.

    1. Thank you! So much common sense.

  4. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    Don’t forget about the “Name The Building Game”. I wonder how much it would cost to get this building named after somebody?

  5. If not for a benefactor, how about naming it the “Simulated Transparency” building?

  6. There is a lot of pork barrel spending in Virginia higher education capital projects. I doubt Radford is unique. If you look at capital spending, it has gone up faster than tuition and fees, I believe.

    There is a looming enrollment problem in U.S. higher education. It will probably hit the smaller, private, less prestigious liberal arts colleges hardest, but it would still benefit Virginia to look at consolidation and reform in its system. I always hate to comment on individual schools to avoid offending, but perhaps a two year feeder system (in addition to CCs and Richard Bland). This would help clarify the overlapping missions of some of the state schools.

  7. They’ve abandoned any pretense of logic, why is this a surprise?

  8. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    As one who was closely involved in the capital development process at DPB, I can say that Jim’s reactions are probably pretty much on the mark. There is a culture in administrations (all governors, not just this one) and the GA that all institutions of higher education should get “something” in each capital budget cycle. And, since the big four or five (Tech, W&M, UVa., JMU, and GMU) have gotten big projects lately and Radford has not gotten much lately, it is Radford’s turn this year.

    The descriptions of the project quoted is Jim’s post are a good example of higher ed gobbedly-gook speech, which, when deconstucted, has no meaning. The obvious question, as asked by several other commenters, is why these probably laudable activities cannot be carried out in existing buildings. (By the way, shiny new buildings are a recruiting tool for universities. Just look at Christopher Newport for the the prime example of this phenomenon.)

    As usual, everyone on this post is blaming the Northam administration. It deserves some credit/blame, depending on one’s perspective. However, this project predates this administration. It was requested, with an estimated cost of $79 million, by the university for the 2018-20 biennium budget, but the McAuliffe administration did not recommend it. However, the final 2018 Appropriation Act, drafted primarily by the House Appropriation Committee with a Republican majority, included authorization and appropriation for the university to proceed with “detailed planning” for the project. It is not unusual for the GA to add capital projects to a governor’s recommended budget. After all, GA members love to provide shiny projects to higher ed institutions. Higher ed institutions, even the smaller ones, have potent lobbying operations.

    A little explanation would be useful here. In the current capital budget process, “detailed planning” is the next step to authorization for construction. Getting into the “detailed planning” pipeline is almost guaranteed to get a project later authorization to go to the construction phase. A governor or General Assembly does not have to advance a project from “detailed planning” after it sees the new price tag emerging from the detailed planning process, but, in my experience, there have been only one or two projects that did not advance from the detailed planning phase.

    That is what has happened with this project. Radford got authorization to go forward with detailed planning in 2018. The detailed planning process produced a total cost estimate of $97.8 million (smaller schools often underestimate the cost of big projects). (I am not sure how the cost got from the $97.8 million requested to the reported cost of $101 million.) Because Radford had gotten authorization for detailed planning, and its hopes and expectations were, understandably, high that the project would be approved, the Northam administration has recommended that it go forward.

  9. Singling out Radford’s building as a boondoggle isn’t quite fair, is it? It is, as Dick describes, pork barrel politics, so it is endemic to Virginia, not specific to Radford. I suspect if you look at capital expenditures per student over time, Radford will be nowhere near the top. This type of fiscal behavior also hasn’t been restricted to the current administration.

    Jim did a post recently where he cited the general fund spending per student. Radford was nowhere near the top. After Virginia State and Norfolk State, UVA was highest followed by W&M and VT if I recall correctly. Those happen to be the three schools that get to keep operational surpluses (evidently even including hospital operations surpluses) through the restructuring act, supposedly for decreases in state funding. (I encounter UVA grads who seem to think the school gets nothing or little from the state.) It looks like these schools actually got to eat their cake and have it too. Radford didn’t.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      My opinion of Radford tracks that of Izzo’s. Indeed, I have long had a favorable impression of Radford, though I have not been there for two decades. I suspect Radford does a very good job for its students when all things are considered, and that it does not waste monies as so many other schools do. If so, that is extremely important, particularly for its locale, and population served.

      Plus we need all the good and real teachers and nurses that we can get into our secondary schools. That includes teachers who are not corrupted by Social Justice warrior professors which is obviously happening at UVa. in totally irresponsible and scandalous ways.

Leave a Reply