Prudent Planning

October 1, 2009
Illustration Christopher Zacharow / photo Duke Photography

Illustration Christopher Zacharow / photo Duke Photography

Faced with the repercussions of a down economy, senior university administrators decided this summer to reduce the size of Duke's work force and scale back an ambitious student-life building project.

In April, the university announced a retirement incentive plan for hourly employees meeting certain requirements. Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for human resources, says that 293 employees—about 35 percent of those eligible—accepted the incentive and will retire this year.

"These voluntary retirements will reduce our compensation expenses and related expenses, which will help limit the potential for involuntary layoffs later. The potential annual savings created by these retirements is at least $15 million," Cavanaugh says.

Administrators are also considering offering salaried employees a similar option in the coming months, though no final decisions have yet been made, Cavanaugh says. The university plans to cut $125 million from the operating budget over the next several years.

Another way that university officials plan to meet budgetary goals is by delaying major capital projects until funding can be secured. The most visible of these projects is the proposed New Campus, which remains in the planning stages. Administrators had sought to replace the aging Central Campus, which was completed in the early 1970s, but now are focusing on renovating student apartments and enhancing student-life options there.

Construction began this summer on a new restaurant that will take the place of Uncle Harry's grocery store, which was demolished in July. The new space will house a university-administered eatery that will serve beer and wine in the evenings. Three student apartments will be renovated as models of the work to come and used by students who will be solicited for feedback. During the school year, about 800 undergraduate and 200 graduate students live on Central Campus.

"New Campus will provide undergraduate residences that replace those on Central, but this will take time, and we have to begin improving the residential experience now," says Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education.

In order to build the student apartments nearly forty years ago, Duke razed dozens of houses once occupied by employees of the Erwin Mill. A series of remaining mill houses and other structures, including the defunct Garden Street Grocery (now used as a storage space by maintenance crews), will be renovated and turned into student meeting spaces, exercise facilities, and another grocery store.

"For many, it's just a bedroom community," Nowicki says. "We don't want just to improve the space but to encourage a livelier social scene."

Other immediate plans comprise major landscaping projects, including the addition of a multi-purpose athletic field, new bike paths, fencing, and better lighting.

Construction will continue into the school year. The cost, including an aggressive plan to begin renovating all student apartments starting next summer, is estimated at $12 million to $15 million, and will come from housing funds.