$90,000 for carpet at Iowa State is overboard


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Three subjects continue to make headlines everywhere, though especially in Iowa, it seems: The economy remains in a constant slump, college tuition keeps rising, and public officials continue to be invest money inefficiently.

Last week, the state Board of Regents approved $375,000 — covered by private donations to the independent Iowa State University Foundation — in renovations for Iowa State University's president's house; $90,000 of that money will be spent on replacing the first-floor carpet.

The amount of money set aside for the carpet is undoubtedly exorbitant. While state and university officials continue to cut budget across all sectors, the size of this investment represents the same thinking of many careless expenditures and oversights that contributed to today's unfortunate fiscal climate.

The reasoning behind the investment was not the issue as much as the price tag.

University presidents' houses, as a whole, do serve a financial purpose (along with its symbolic purpose). The 12,000-square-foot University of Iowa President's Residence, for example, hosts more than 100 events each year. Many of these events are held to solicit fundraising from alumni and others — and they seem to work. ISU raises more than $100 million in donations on an annual basis.

ISU Vice President Warren Madden defended the investment, estimating that more than 5,000 people walk on the floor each year. He reasoned that the expensive wool carpet is necessary because the same material is used at other prestigious public buildings, such as the state Capitol and the governor's mansion.

The DI Editorial Board sought price quotes for carpets of equal size and value.

"I would say the range [for replacing 4,400 square feet of high-quality carpeting] is probably $20,000 to maybe as much as $35,000," said Steve Moellers, a sales representative at Randy's Carpet & Interiors in Coralville.

When asked to what degree carpeting could improve if the cost was doubled, Moellers said, "You can't improve that much, probably."

Moellers noted that wool, the material of ISU's carpet, can be more expensive than other carpeting. He said that wool is more environmentally friendly and durable than other products, but he thought the benefits likely wouldn't outweigh the costs.

"A natural fiber is very 'green,' but they're certainly a lot of money," he said. "You could do a synthetic — it'd be a polyester or a nylon — and their product could be recycled. If they chose wool because it's a natural product, it is going to be very expensive and durable, but I would be surprised if there would be enough difference to warrant that additional expense."

The purpose of the $90,000 investment was not to improve the property's resale value. It was to improve the aesthetics of the university's social gatherings. If the new carpet could conceivably translate to more donations than its half-price counterpart, the investment may be worth the money — but that is not the case.

Maintaining a multimillion-dollar estate will generate criticism for any public institution stressing fiscal responsibility. Controversy over his residence's renovations prompted former North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman to resign in 2009. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, he emphasized the importance of public disclosure.

"… it's really important to understand the politics of whatever setting you're in," he said. "It's very important for other presidents to realize that [houses] create an opportunity for others to go after you."

That the regents failed to take either the inevitable criticism or the rather high carpet price into consideration is more than concerning — though Regent Bruce Rastetter doesn't seem to think so, according to reports by Radio Iowa.

"It's kind of interesting to me that we spend the time and the debate on $90,000 of carpet when we have $14 billion worth of facilities at the universities," he said.

It's this class of thought that continues to raise concerns. While it's better for the university to use private donations for such a project rather than tuition or tax money, the fact remains taht any for-profit establishment would likely not spend $45,000 more than what is necessary, even in the case of a billion-dollar corporation. Savings of that magnitude could put one Iowa resident through four years of higher education.

Providing education should be at the forefront of the regents' agenda, not slightly more prestigious-looking carpeting, or anything else.

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