I stood on the fourth floor of Lorch Hall a few days back and stared out a window, transfixed by the demolition next door. Over and over, a great mechanical claw thrust out over the remains of the west half of the business campus, ripping another chunk out of Davidson Hall. Light fixtures dangled on their still-intact wiring, swinging through the swirling dust over the piles of rubble below waiting to be hauled off to a landfill. The scene was captivating and almost beautiful, in that train wreck sort of way.

Angela Cesere

Understandably, there’s been little criticism of Stephen Ross’s extraordinary donation to his alma mater, newly re-christened the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. It’s not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one worth $100 million. And yet it’s difficult to walk past the construction site at Hill and Tappan streets and not see something terribly wasteful.

If there’s a serious argument that the School of Business desperately needed new facilities to replace an ancient, collapsing infrastructure, I haven’t heard it. Davidson Hall, built in 1948, might not have been the newest structure on campus, but it’s the only one of the three business school buildings being torn down that might remotely deserve its fate. I went to see Sen. Carl Levin speak in Assembly Hall several months back, and I didn’t exactly walk away with plaster flakes in my hair from a crumbling ceiling. And the Patton Accounting Center, barely 30 years old, was hardly decrepit.

Neither does there appear to be a real argument that business students were facing a pedagogical predicament in their old digs. To accommodate the collaborative projects that characterize many classes in the business school, the new classrooms will include small rooms for group work. As one student told a Michigan Daily reporter when the plans were announced, “It’s really annoying when you’re doing group work and you hear other groups talking.” Clearly, this is a problem in need of a $145 million solution.

The main reason for putting up a brand-new structure in the business school, it seems, is simply to have a brand-new structure. Image counts for a lot in business, and that goes for business schools as well. If the University wants to attract top students and faculty to the Ross School, it needs a shiny new building. After all, the Wharton School of Business built a new high-profile structure a couple years back; how else are we to compete with them? Aging, if perfectly adequate, buildings might remind visitors of the collapse of Michigan’s manufacturing base. A new building paid for largely by a wealthy alum says that the Ross School and its graduates are awash in post-industrial prosperity, even if those old auto firms (and who needs them, anyway?) do go belly-up.

I’m not sure exactly what the great reverence with which members of our nation’s business class regard mere image says about their priorities and values, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t anything good. Superficial business luxuries are nice – but aren’t they also, in a strict economic sense, an inefficient misallocation of resources? Expense accounts, Armani suits, airplane seats with actual legroom and, above all, executive compensation packages that seem to bear no relation either to a company’s performance or to the amount of money a reasonable person could spend in a lifetime – yep, the market is unforgiving, and the competition sure is cut-throat.

Never mind that the old buildings in the way of the Ross School’s future could have been put to any number of good uses, or the fact that unnecessarily tearing down completely usable buildings makes the University’s case that cuts in state appropriations over the past five years have hurt it look silly.

Projecting an image of prosperity is apparently a key component of a top-notch business program; I suppose in another 30 years, the buildings that $75 million of Ross’s gift are earmarked for will become an embarrassment and an new alum will have to step up to give the business school another makeover. That might strike me as frivolous, absurd and wasteful – but, hey, I never had a head for business.

Zbrozek is a fall/winter editorial page editor. He can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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