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Constructing a dynamic future

Marylhurst's current building program will transform the campus while maintaining its years of tradition
by: Vern Uyetake, 
Michael Lammers stands in front of the B.P. John Administration Building on the Marylhurst University campus. Marylhurst is undergoing an almost complete renovation that university officials hope will take the institution into the next generation of learning.

People driving by Marylhurst University for the past six months have had a disconcerting sight.

The venerable and beautiful old campus has been all torn up -tractors, bulldozers, trucks, piles of dirt, orange nettings and poles, signs directing you to detour through Mary's Woods next door.

'It's been hard to get used to,' admitted Michael Lammers, Marylhurst's vice president of finance and facilities. 'That's because nothing has been done in 70 years.'

Still, everyone can endure the detours and inconvenience for a while, because in a very short time Marylhurst University will enter the 21st century in a big way.

Oh, it will look very much the same, with the majestic old B.P. John Administration Building dominating the scene. It will still look like a classic, American university campus out of the 1930s, a place where Andy Hardy would have gone to college if he had ever gotten out of Carvel High School.

But Marylhurst will be very different and drastically improved in every way. Unlike many small colleges of its era that have crumbled away, Marylhurst will be ready to achieve its mission as never before - an adult-oriented university dedicated to helping highly motivated students achieve their goals.

A great part of this will be achieved through Marylhurst's booming - and groundbreaking - online program.

Yet Marylhurst will also continue to be what President Nancy Wilgenbusch calls 'a sacred place.'

A refuge for students. A place where the faculty contributes much more than it can be repaid in dollars. As Wilgenbusch likes to say, 'Students say they feel different when they come on this campus. If I heard it once I've heard it hundreds of times.'

Tradition can be overrated for colleges. Especially when it means a lot of decaying buildings that still stand because there isn't enough money to get rid of them.

Wilgenbusch cited statistics that show that a huge percentage of the assets of American colleges and universities suffer from deferred maintenance.

'That is a drag on our ability to deliver services,' Wilgenbusch said. 'It's eroding our ability to be effective in the future.'

There was no better example of that than Marylhurst when Wilgenbusch became president in 1984.

'I can remember it like it was yesterday,' she said. 'Every roof leaked, there were weeds all over the grass, there were lots of issues.'

The epitome of graciousness, Wilgenbusch can be downright steely when it comes to getting what she wants. Her very first project was Wiegand Recital Hall, then an unsightly theatre. Today it is a beautiful concert hall, with beautifully refurbished paintings and stunning stained glass windows. And one more thing.

'I promise you there is not a coffee stain in that place,' Wilgenbusch said. 'If there is, you tell me.'

That is the standard that has been set for the entire school, which is made clear on a campus tour guided by Lammers, a 10-year veteran of Marylhurst. It is a grand tour, not a whirlwind tour, because Lammers' enthusiasm for the entire project won't allow him to cut any corners, even when only talking about it.

'We've tried to retain all of the charm of this historic site,' Lammers said. 'And make it safer and a student experience that is very accommodating and appealing from a physical point of view.'

The big reason the campus is in a state of upheaval is that Lammers is rearranging roads and parking areas, not only for driving and parking but to restore the center of the campus as a pedestrian area with 'sort of a park atmosphere.'

There are big touches and smaller touches, such as the long, wide sidewalk leading toward the fountain in front of the B.P. John building. Lammers has lined it with lights that look like something out of the 1890s, with just the proper amount of illumination - not shopping mall bright but still facilitating safety.

Yet the major changes cannot be seen by those driving by. These are 'boiler room' changes, in which power and water facilities are updated, and also inside the classrooms and lounges, where up-to-date technology, sustainable features and comfort is being installed.

'The classrooms will have air conditioning and high technology,' Lammers said. 'Just what you would expect to find at any university.

'But our students will know they're not at the University of Phoenix, they're at Marylhurst University. We've kept our old chalkboards.'

And those chalkboards have never looked better.

The price tag on this transformation is $24 million, and David Dickson, vice president for campus development, is the man in charge of bringing the school's Renaissance Campaign down the home stretch. The effort is already pushing toward the $18 million mark.

'Our campaign committee has been extremely respectful of Nancy's financial concerns and being very fiscally responsible and sound,' Dickson said. 'When Nancy leaves here (she is set to retire in June of 2008) there will be no debt and Marylhurst will be in position to succeed for the next 80 years.'

Dickson attributes Wilgenbusch's conservative financial outlook to 'growing up as the daughter of a German father on a farm in Iowa.' Yet that outlook has served Marylhurst well, even if it goes against the grain of the way American universities usually conduct their building campaigns.

'You have to be smart on how you do your projects,' Wilgenbusch said. 'Don't be a hero and don't be slick. Be prudent, consistent, future oriented and pay as you go.

'This does take extra planning. You have to be strategic in your thinking so you don't create extra costs or put extra burdens on your students. None of our building campaign money is coming from student tuitions.'

Admittedly, Wilgenbusch has taken a difficult path of fundraising since 'it's easier to raise money for new buildings than to restore old buildings.' Also, because Wilgenbusch is in her last year as president, she said, 'It would be easy to say, 'Let's get 'em done on my watch.' Then my successor would have all the worry.'

But not this German father's daughter. She can now be satisfied, and maybe even a bit awed, by what's taking place just outside her office.

'We've worked so hard to raise the money,' Wilgenbusch said. 'Now all of a sudden it's all happening.'

A lot of big milestones will be happening at Marylhurst over the next year. The first one is coming today, Sept. 20, when the school re-opens its main drive. There will be a new southern road and parking lot.

When everything is complete, a major celebration will be in order.

'What we will have is a rebirth of this venerable, historic campus,' Lammers said. 'It will have an infrastructure that is modern, improved safety and security, and accommodations for the next 75 to 100 years.'

Dickson said, 'Fifty years from now, they are going to look back and say, 'Those people in the early 21st century did it right at Marylhurst University.''