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Presidential palaces?

The homes of college chiefs come in various conditions and sizes

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Former Salt Lake Community College President Frank Budd was known to be an outspoken leader. But about the home near campus that the college provided for him during his administration, Budd kept quiet.

"I've been overly conservative and cautious about expenditures on that house," the departing Budd told trustees at his last meeting in June. "When I came almost 10 years ago, there was great sensitivity to (expenses), and so we have lived in a house that needs a lot done."

The garage doors on the 17-year-old home are broken. The toilet in the guest bathroom overflows. Plumbing in the kitchen has burst twice. Patio rafters have begun to rot. The wallpaper is peeling.

"Since we've been at this college, we've had more than 10,000 people walk on the carpet, spill their drinks and smash grapes in it," Budd said.

After hearing Budd's description of the home, the trustees quickly approved $50,000 in repairs, and workers have been busy completing renovations before the new president and his wife move in.

President Lynn Cundiff won't officially assume his position as head of the college for a few more days. His wife has arrived early to survey the five-bedroom, 8,343-square-foot house.

And if Glenda Cundiff is aghast at the home's condition, she doesn't make that known. Instead her reaction is one of gratitude and surprise.

"It's quite accommodating," she said cheerfully while taking careful note of the particular shade of beige carpet in the basement. "We feel really honored that the whole state would do this for us." The Cundiffs owned their own home in Rome, Ga., where he led Floyd College, a two-year school nestled in the state's northwestern hills. The couple will be living alone in Utah; their children are grown.

"It's all new to me," she said. "This is a rarity really."

Equitable policy?

Most colleges in Georgia — and most smaller schools throughout the country — do not provide on-campus residences for their presidents.

And perhaps, says one Utah lawmaker, neither should most schools in Utah.

"I'm not sure whether it's necessary to provide housing for presidents of small colleges in order to be competitive and to attract the most qualified persons to those positions," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, co-chairman of the committee that sets school and college budgets and president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. "It's something that bears closer legislative scrutiny."

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In accordance with regent policy, every school is required to provide an "institutional residence . . . on or near the respective campuses, appropriate for the functions of the presidential office and the residential requirements of the presidents."

That rule translates into a wide array of living conditions for the CEOs of Utah's colleges and universities.

At one end of the housing spectrum, Snow College President Gerald Day lives in a 5,000-square-foot home in Ephraim, built in 1978, with an estimated value of $185,000.

University of Utah President Bernie Machen, on the other hand, resides at 1480 Military Way, a 9,452-square-foot home in the prestigious Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City, worth more than $750,000.

Machen's senior vice president of health sciences, Lorris Betz, also enjoys the perk of free housing. He lives just off the northeast edge of campus in a home donated last year by the Eccles Foundation.

The U. pays for the operation and maintenance costs of both homes.

At LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, the past two presidents have asked to live in the private homes in Provo they already owned. Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins would not say, however, whether the school pays its president a mortgage allowance.

Before state-owned institutions had suitable residences on-campus, the Board of Regents did just that.

The 12-year-old policy to require the schools to own their president's home was an attempt to make the benefit more equitable.

But Higher Education Commissioner Cecelia Foxley admits all institutions' residences are not alike.

"They vary in size, because different types of institutions have different sizes of constituent groups," she said. "The purpose is the same, to support the mission and role of the institution."

Lightning rod

Presidential accommodations have been a lightning rod for controversy on nearly every campus in the state for over a decade.

The "sensitivity to cost," that kept Budd from reporting broken pipes and peeling wallpaper to SLCC officials stems from a lingering criticism that college presidents — all making six-figure incomes — don't need the added luxury of mortgage-free living.

In 1991, then-Utah Valley Community College officials underestimated the cost of the president's new on-campus house by more than $89,000. The home eventually cost more than $400,000.

In 1993, a citizens advisory committee rejected a Utah State University trustees proposal to build a new presidential home at the top of Old Main Hill.

Critics said it was the only pristine area left on campus.

In a staff newsletter, instructional technology professor Nick Eastmond questioned the need for a presidential residence "at a time when higher education is underfunded and social services in the state are going begging."

Presidential homes hark back to a tradition of royalty, he said.

Today, Eastmond has a more tempered opinion.

"Presidents at universities have a ceremonial function as well as an administrative function," he said. "I guess it's nice to have a president's home, but problematic. It's one size fits all."

Presidential families are as varied as the homes they live in. Some have young children at home. Others are couples living alone.

All use their residences as a school reception facility.

"In my opinion (the homes) are justified," said Wendy Johanson, president-elect of the SLCC Staff Association. "If it was his personal home, there would be a lot of wear and tear on the accommodations, and having to maintain all of that . . . would be a large financial burden to bear."

"They do entertain here," said Stanley Kane, USU's assistant director of campus planning, of President George Emert's off-campus residence. "They have to haul all the furniture out into the garage and bring in tables. It's quite a miserable effort, a lot of work. But his wife is quite gracious."

But a president is a school's primary ambassador, a responsibility that has both advantages and headaches.

"Any time one of these is built, there is always accompanying criticism," said Neal Cox, assistant to the president at Southern Utah University. "It seems these presidents really do live in glass houses."

E-mail: mtitze@desnews.com