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Editorial: Critics of new Medical School are off base

It is, perhaps, normal – certainly not uncommon – for the beneficiaries of high-dollar investments to draw critical reviews from their envious peers. So it is as classes begin at the University at Buffalo’s new Jacobs School of Medicine. Professors from other departments are complaining that money spent on the Medical School is doing nothing for them.

Oh, well.

The expense is certainly doing something for the Medical School, for the future health professionals it is training and, not insignificantly, for all of Western New York. This was a wise investment, and if it takes some time for the university’s finances to stabilize, that’s both acceptable and predictable for a project as far-reaching as this one. As long as the university plans carefully to manage whatever turbulence buffets the university’s finances, no one has cause to complain.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from complaining, anyway. UB law professor Martha McCluskey links the Medical School’s “wonderful, beautiful, glossy downtown building” with “teachers in poverty and departments not able to offer high-quality programs.” English professor James Holstun protests that while “enrollment has grown and tuition has gone up,” there has been no “corresponding increase in the number of tenured faculty at UB.”

Both professors may have legitimate issues for the university to consider. But any implication that the university made poor use of its resources by improving its Medical School and moving it to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is not only off base, but out of the game.

Indeed, as UB President Satish K. Tripathi observed, the university is also investing in improvements at both the North and South campuses. Graduation rates are rising, as well, he said, as a result of strategic hiring of new faculty across the university.

Still, there is no doubt the construction of the new Medical School has taken a toll on UB’s finances. The $375 million project, largest in the university’s history, has added at least $10.3 million in annual debt payments to the Medical School’s balance sheet. It drained an unrestricted $25 million endowment that was generating $1.3 million in annual revenue. It pinched.

The university “loaned” $36 million from its reserves to ease the problem. The institution’s leaders are also seeking state help in relieving some or all of the costs of paying down $215 million in remaining debt on the building.

The costs were anticipated, Tripathi said, and the university planned for them through the internal loan, which the university’s vice president of finance and administration described as commonplace. “There isn’t a school or college that we haven’t done this with,” said Laura Hubbard. “It’s like an internal bank.”

Instead of complaining about money poured into the Medical School, other departments should be planning their own improvements. As Howard Zemsky, head of Empire State Development, observes in a letter on the opposite page, the Law School, in particular, should be working on its own plan to address declining enrollment.

None of this is to say that the university hasn’t set itself up for a challenging time. It clearly has. The real question is whether it will be worth the trouble. There is every reason to believe it will be.

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