In Focus: Over a year after University Commons reveal, administrators struggle to find funding

November 10, 2017

Northwestern attracts some of the wealthiest donors in the country. In the last six years alone, the University raised $3.57 billion in a fundraising campaign that helped launch the construction of world-class facilities like the Kellogg School of Management Global Hub and the Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center.

Since the “We Will” fundraising campaign began in 2011, Norris University Center has remained untouched on a hill by the lake. But in August 2016, NU administrators unveiled plans to replace the roughly 45-year-old student center by 2019. The new University Commons, initially estimated to cost $150 million, would include a black box theater, an auditorium with a large stage and a more open layout to ease access to University Library and the Arts Circle.

Over a year later, however, the building is still without a naming donor — something administrators say is not necessarily typical for these projects — and plans for construction. Administrators predict they will not know more about a start date until 2019.

It could be a year before student groups and various offices will need to begin moving out of the building, vice president for student affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin said.

Telles-Irvin and University President Morton Schapiro both say two factors are delaying the project: lack of both funding and a viable alternative space to accommodate the community when Norris is torn down.

Since receiving design approval from the Board of Trustees in summer 2016, University administrators and New York firm Ennead Architects have worked with students in the design development phase, which mostly took place during the 2016-17 academic year.

Jeremy Schenk, executive director of Norris, said the design development phase included meetings during which faculty, staff and students could voice their concerns to the Division of Student Affairs and Facilities Management. He said now that the design development phase is nearly complete, the University faces several challenges ahead.

Telles-Irvin said a contractor has not been selected because funds need to be raised before construction plans can be created. The last prediction for when student groups would need to move out of the existing Norris building was Fall Quarter 2018, but Telles-Irvin said that is no longer feasible.

“If I had my crystal ball, I would love it to be today,” she said.

Schenk said administrators will create a plan to relocate student groups and various offices after a construction timeline has been established.

Telles-Irvin said the University is focusing on finding sufficient funding. The Commons is projected to cost over $180 million, $30 million more than the original price, she said.

Schenk said he thinks construction could begin as late as summer 2019 or even 2020.

“At this point we’re kind of at a standstill,” he said.

No alternative

Schapiro said the original plan was to relocate most student groups and functions of Norris to the Donald P. Jacobs Center — which used to house the Kellogg School of Management — once construction on the Commons begins. After visiting the Jacobs Center, Schapiro said he was taken aback to see that the building was not a practical alternative because of its physical state.

“It turns out that Jacobs is not the building that many of us expected,” he told The Daily in an October interview. “When we got in there we saw that the systems are failing. The big surprise was that Jacobs couldn’t just be painted and moved into.”

He said upon realizing the Jacobs Center needed more than just cosmetic updates, the Board of Trustees developed a renovation plan for the building.

Bonnie Humphrey, director of design for Facilities Management, said administrators are preparing the Jacobs Center for possible renovations. She said remaining Kellogg offices are being consolidated into the north wing of the building to prepare for construction.

Humphrey said she does not know if Student Affairs will move temporary Norris functions into the Jacobs Center during construction of the Commons.

Schenk said he is not aware of concrete plans to use the Jacobs Center as a temporary location for Norris functions. But if Jacobs were to be used during the construction of the Commons, Schenk said he would know.

A possible renovation of the Jacobs Center further complicates the construction timeline for the Commons, Schapiro said.


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

To him, “the question” is in what order these projects will be completed. Schapiro said the Jacobs Center, a new residential hall or the Commons are all options for the next construction project. Ensuring there is a suitable replacement for Norris, Schapiro said, is a priority.

“We’re not going to touch Norris unless we have a fabulous alternative for two years. I’m not going to take two of those four years and say, ‘Sorry, bad timing, there’s no student center’,” Schapiro said. “I’m not going to do that, and Patricia (Telles-Irvin) wouldn’t do that either.”

NU executive vice president Nim Chinniah said the University is evaluating which Norris functions are essential and which can be relocated to a less central location in the two-year construction period.

“If you’re going to split up the Norris functions in two or three different places, you still need to think about what adjacencies are really important,” he said.

Schenk, who will become the executive director of the Commons, said he will need to find alternative spaces where students feel the sense of community they currently do in Norris.

Telles-Irvin said while “nothing has been determined” as to where students will be relocated, she wants the alternative to be “as convenient as possible” for students.

However, she said “some inconvenience might have to be tolerated” due to the size of the project. She said some Norris functions could be relocated to the Jacobs Center once it has been improved, but understands that not all offices, food retailers and student groups can fit into the Jacobs Center in its current layout.

Associated Student Government President Nehaarika Mulukutla said once Norris is eventually closed for construction, student groups may struggle to find space.

“The existing issue is that even though Norris provides space, there’s not enough space for student groups,” the Weinberg senior said. “When we’re working to fix that issue there are going to be a lot of student groups who will have less space than they previously did.”

Finding funding

Although Schapiro said a project of this size typically requires a “big name gift” that constitutes about half the total cost, the University does not have a naming donor for the Commons.

Telles-Irvin said she “cannot predict” when a naming donor will commit to funding the Commons, and it could be anywhere from days to months until one is secured.

“It’s just a matter of someone that can see what the vision is about and how it can really impact the whole campus,” she said.

Securing a naming donor “could help” move the Commons up in priority among other projects on campus, Telles-Irvin said.

“There have been other projects ahead in terms of getting a naming donor … but now I think we’re going to start focusing on it more,” she said. “We have to wait our turn.”

Schapiro said timing is important when trying to raise funds for a project like the Commons.

Once the University knows when it is going to break ground on the project, it will become “more of a priority” in terms of fundraising, he said.

“When you start getting gifts for something and then you don’t break ground for years, people aren’t that happy,” Schapiro said.

Schenk said the project’s timeline depends almost entirely on fundraising.

Bob McQuinn, vice president for alumni relations and development, told The Daily in an email that even though the construction start date has been pushed back, senior administration and the Board of Trustees recently approved estimates for fundraising.

“We have developed a fundraising plan that identified the building’s major naming opportunities (at $1 million and above) and matched those opportunities with prospective supporters with the philanthropic capacity and potential interest,” McQuinn said in the email.

NU is currently in the campaign’s “Quiet Phase,” in which the Office of Alumni Relations and Development talks “with prospective leadership donors with the goal of securing at least half the fundraising goal from a handful of benefactors,” he said.

Once the “Quiet Phase” is completed, McQuinn said, fundraising will enter the campaign’s “Public Phase” where administrators will market to a wider pool of donors. He said it is important to secure the lead gifts before “implementing the rest of the fundraising plan.”

However, no leadership gifts have been secured so far. McQuinn would not disclose information about “gifts under discussion” to protect the confidentiality of donors but said in general, a building’s naming amount is around 40 to 50 percent of the total fundraising need.

The Norris name will not be attached to the new building, he said.

“We have discussed with the Norris family that this will be an entirely new building,” McQuinn said. “They understand that although it will be built at the same location, a new naming donor will be needed to finance the project.”

There is no universal policy for all projects that states what percentage of funds needs to be raised before construction can begin, but rather Schapiro decides that number on a case-by-case basis, Chinniah said.

Chinniah added it is “not unusual” for a donor to commit to a certain amount and then back out.

“You can’t predict donor preferences or activities,” he said. “There’s a process that is run very thoughtfully in terms of when you ask donors, how you present the issue to donors and when you declare a project as ‘ready to go’.”

“In the dark”

Although Schenk said the University held several meetings with students to discuss progress and plans for the Commons, some students feel there has not been enough communication.

In January, associate vice president for student affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier presented to ASG, Schenk said.

“We went to the Senate and we explained where we were,” Telles-Irvin said of the January presentation. “Probably we’re due for another one of those because we haven’t moved as quickly as we’d like.”

Mulukutla said she hasn’t spoken to Telles-Irvin about the Commons in “upwards of a couple months.”

Due to the lack of a timeline, Schenk said he has made it clear to student groups that their space in Norris is determined on a quarter-by-quarter basis.

Student Organizations and Activities director Kourtney Gray said students were involved in conversations with architects in the beginning phases of the plan.

Gray said he predicts discussion about the transition will “rev up again” once the administration identifies a date for the groundbreaking.

Matt Burgess, one of the co-chairs of Northwestern Student Theatre Coalition, said he hasn’t been given any information about the transition process. Burgess also sits on the Norris Advisory Board.

StuCo, the administrative body that manages most student theater boards and some performance groups on campus, relies on Norris for performance space.

Burgess said he does not know where all of the theater boards’ offices will be relocated during construction or what other performance venues will be used.

“We just really haven’t been told anything,” the Communication senior said.

During construction, Burgess said he predicts StuCo will have to be more “deliberate” about the logistics of planning programing for the year. Closing two of their larger venues — the Louis Room and the McCormick Auditorium — will affect ticket sales, he said.

Despite not knowing the plans for construction, Burgess said StuCo is “extremely flexible” and willing to work “within just about anything.”

“The minute that we know about new policies and procedures for the University Commons and how this transition is going to work, we’re going to work really hard to make sure that we get up to speed,” he said.

Burgess said the Norris Advisory Board hasn’t heard an update on the Commons since May 5.

Northwestern University Model United Nations president Sumaia Masoom said Norris is “fundamental” to hosting a conference for about 650 high school students and 50 advisers each year.

The SESP senior, a former Daily columnist, said NUMUN also has 98 staffers the building needs to accommodate.

Masoom said she also has not received any communication from the administration regarding when NUMUN will need to move out or what the transition process will look like.

“We have been looking for alternative options with the impending plans to close Norris, but we really haven’t found anything that would suit our needs,” she said. “That’s a major concern for us going forward.”

NUMUN has been looking for off-campus locations for the conference while Norris is under construction because there is no on-campus space large enough to accommodate the group, Masoom said.

One option is to relocate the entire conference to the Hilton Orrington in downtown Evanston, but Masoom said the expenses associated with doing so could financially “cripple” NUMUN.

Telles-Irvin said she understands students have concerns about a lack of communication, but “there’s not a lot to share” due to the stalling of the project.

“Maybe that is why we’ve not been actively communicating; because we are on hold,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t notify students that we’re on hold, and we can surely correct that.”

She said she thinks presenting to ASG is an effective way to disseminate information to students because Senate members are responsible for notifying their constituents. However, she said, she is currently looking for different ways to notify students about the progress of the Commons.

Schenk said once his office knows more about the project he will communicate that information to students.

“At this point there is no timeline, so I could understand how people could feel like they’re in the dark on this project,” he said.

Tracey Gibson-Jackson, associate director of Student Organizations and Activities, said she is confident the University will develop a comprehensive strategy before beginning construction.

“We can’t not have something in place,” she said. “Be patient, don’t fret. We will have something in place for the students because it’s an integral part of the student experience … it’s too important to not.”

Looking back

Originally intended to unite student groups, Norris has become a meeting space for everyone on campus.

“We’re really excited about the fact that we’ve been here for 45 years helping build community and impact student lives,” Schenk said. “When we get to the University Commons, that’s the next chapter.”

The original building cost $8.8 million to complete, $2.5 million of which was donated by the Norris family in the late 60s — half of the originally projected $5 million that it would cost to build the center. Lester Norris, Jr., a former board member and alumnus who graduated in 1950, died in 1967.

More than 730 alumni donated more than $2 million toward the construction of the building. After fundraising, construction began with a July 1970 groundbreaking ceremony, and the project was completed two years later in time for the 1972-73 academic year.

Bob Furey, chairman of the Student Advisory Board of Norris at the time, spoke at the dedication about what Norris meant to the student body.

“For years, all segments of the University called for the erection of a center for all University activities — a center for communication — a place where the barriers of classroom, office, and dorm could be overcome,” Furey said at the 1973 dedication.

Thirty-four years later, Norris struggled to keep up with other universities’ student unions. The addition of a Starbucks to the first floor of the center was an improvement, but then-executive director of Norris Rick Thomas said the University didn’t “have the resources” for a renovation or expansion.

Source: NU Archives

The design of the building — solid concrete walls and no central staircase — makes it difficult to renovate, an administrator told The Daily at the time.

University Archivist Kevin Leonard said fundraising for Norris was part of the University’s “First Plan for the Seventies,” similar to NU’s current “We Will” campaign.

“In the post-war years, you have administrators who are trying to develop plans that will guide the institution,” Leonard said. “Ultimately, the University decided to expand its campus by building out into the lake.”

Lasting impact

Recent construction and planned projects can have adverse impacts on the community, Chinniah said. The recently completed Sheridan Road bike lane construction, for example, was “disruptive” to the campus community, he said.

Chinniah said he considers how students will be affected by numerous construction projects, and cites that as one of the reasons the Commons has been delayed.

“If we take on this project, that means for at least two years we’re going have to function without Norris,” Chinniah said. “It’s right in the heart of our campus, so there are a lot of issues that go into thinking through the impact on campus life before we launch one of these projects.”

Schenk said he doesn’t want students to feel as though “everywhere they look or everywhere they turn is construction.”

He said he knows there is no ideal alternative space to use while the Commons is being built, so Norris services and functions are going to need to become more “mobile” during the transition periods.

The project’s start date will also affect what spaces are available for a temporary location, he said. He added that once it comes time to orchestrate a transition for student groups and other functions within Norris, he wants to make sure the University doesn’t “lose the community feel that we have here.”

“We will work hard to make sure that our students are impacted by that as little as possible,” he said. “Acknowledging the fact that when you take the building away, it’s going to be hard, but we’re going to work really hard to make sure that it’s as successful as it can be during that interim.”

Schenk said he does not know what will happen to employees who work for the food retail locations managed by Sodexo or the bookstore managed by Barnes & Noble. Both companies’ contracts with the University expire before the beginning of Fall Quarter 2018, Schenk said.

He added that there are other locations for these employees to work on campus while Norris is closed for construction.

“All of this is hitting at a time where there’s lots of change and transition happening with the building and these two (contract) processes going on, but … we’re going to figure out a way to make sure that those employees are kept safe or utilized somewhere on campus,” Schenk said.

In terms of Norris staff aside from Sodexo or Barnes & Noble employees, Schenk said there are still other “satellite spaces” that Norris manages. He said his team will be kept “very busy” with event planning and production elsewhere on campus.

Chinniah said while the “negative impact” of living through a two-year construction period will be felt by everyone, the University as a whole will also benefit from the completed facility.

“(The Commons) will really help us in our ongoing journey to build and sustain a vibrant campus community,” he said. “Its location, its purpose, the very artful design, the programming that’s gone on — it’s been a very thoughtful process.”

Even though Mulukutla, the Weinberg senior, won’t be here for the completion of the project, the ASG president said she looks forward to a more accessible building.

“Both from a perspective of equity of facilities and resources for all student groups … the other is plain and simple … the physical accessibility of it,” she said.

Gray and Schenk said the new Commons will have more communal spaces and resources that encourage collaboration, something they have found a need for in the student body.

Telles-Irvin said she most looks forward to the sense of community the new Commons will create.

“I never say never, I’m very optimistic,” she said. “I always want to see the glass half full because I really do think this building will make a difference in this place.”

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