Getting Buy-in for Addressing Deferred Maintenance

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Earlier this month, we surveyed the institutions planning to attend an Academic Impressions webcast on rethinking and prioritizing physical campus improvements. We asked questions about their balance of new capital projects and replacement and renewal, how they were handling issues with limited space capacity, and their level of commitment to addressing the deferred maintenance backlog. Of the facilities managers surveyed, 75 percent noted that addressing the deferred maintenance backlog was either a “high” or “highest” priority for the next 12 months.

What’s interesting is that when we asked facilities managers the same question at the end of January this year, the percentage who assigned a high priority to deferred maintenance was 68 percent. While in the past the deferred maintenance backlog has been a perennially neglected issue, it is now rising steadily in its importance to an institution’s planning around physical campus improvements.


For the findings from the January – February 2012 deferred maintenance survey, read our recent article “Benchmarking Deferred Maintenance.”

In response to these findings, we asked Kambiz Khalili, the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and the executive director of housing and dining services at the University of Colorado Boulder; Dan King, the assistant vice president for facilities at Auburn University; and Kathie Shafer, vice president for operations at Messiah College, for their tips for generating buy-in for prioritizing and spending on reduction of the deferred maintenance backlog. Here is what they said.

Making the Case

“This is like maintenance on your car,” Dan King notes. “You can put in more money or less money, but as the impact is long-term rather than immediate, it’s difficult to compete for the money.” King emphasizes the importance of doing all you can to quantify the impact of deferring maintenance too long –- and to present that data in a very succinct way.

What you have to do is tell a compelling story, through numbers:

  • Provide the provost and the CFO with as accurate a picture of facilities condition as possible (backlog numbers, facilities condition index, long-term maintenance plan). List the problems and their likely impact in specific terms. When quantifying the impact of ignored maintenance, note life safety issues.
  • Make both the risk and the opportunity tangible. King notes: “You need to be able to say, ‘If you give me $X, this is what I will do with it, specifically.’”
  • Create illustrated Top 10 lists that help to tell the story of the need, and provide these lists to the provost, the chief financial officer, and other key decision-makers. For example, you could assemble a list of the Top 10 Worst Roofs on Campus, or the Top 10 Air Handling Units that Will Fail in the Next 10 Years, or the Top 10 Buildings Struggling with Moisture Issues.
  • Take your president or chancellor and your provost on a tour of the facilities before the start of each term, so that they can see the facilities condition first-hand. Kambiz Khalili provides such a tour at the University of Colorado Boulder, and knows of a few other institutions that do.


Our recent article “How Do You Make the Case for Funding Maintenance and Renewal for Campus Facilities” offers additional ways to open a structured and informed dialogue around the deferred maintenance backlog.

Prioritizing Deferred Maintenance Spending

King stresses the importance of developing an open and transparent process for prioritizing maintenance needs. “If everyone has the opportunity to provide input to the plan, and if the criteria are clear and transparent,” he notes, “this builds buy-in.”

He recommends establishing a process in which:

  • Academic deans and division heads submit their project needs to facilities management on an annual basis
  • Facilities management adds urgent projects they are aware of to the list
  • The facilities manager meets with the provost to discuss the list
  • The provost prioritizes the list
  • The facilities manager and the provost create a plan for execution

That execution plan is then made available for others on campus to read. This type of process demystifies the decision making process, builds trust in facilities management, and provides clear steps that stakeholders across campus can pursue when they have urgent maintenance needs.

Offering a small-campus perspective, Shafer describes Messiah College’s approach. Rather than developing a system for evaluating annual proposals or requests, Messiah College established and approved a 10-year master list of maintenance needs. Facilities management then created annual and three-year maintenance plans, based on that list. What is especially interesting about Messiah’s approach is that after establishing senior-leadership support for the 10-year list, this institution added a deferred maintenance budget as a line item. With a static annual budget for maintenance, facilities management developed the annual and three-year plan intentionally to allow for savings on the budget each year; these savings over a period of years then fund larger replaement needs.

Again, the key step to getting there: transparency and a clear message around both the facilities condition and the impact (in specific numbers) of ignoring it.


Read our article “Proactive Approaches to Deferred Maintenance” to learn more about Messiah College’s model for prioritizing and budgeting maintenance projects and to read about the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s innovative CURB (Concentrated Upgrade and Repair of Buildings) project, which leverages energy savings to fund maintenance and renewal projects in a systematic and strategic manner.