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Open the books

April 12, 2005 Dr. Tallman Trask, Executive Vice President Dr. Larry Moneta, Vice President for Student Affairs Mr. Eddie Hull, Dean of Residence Life

To Whom it May Concern:

There is a widespread impression among students that prices for on-campus housing are inflated and have reached unreasonable levels. Prices for room and board have been steadily rising and are now considerably higher than at many of our peer institutions. The few students who are allowed to live off campus generally manage to pay far less than those who are forced to live on-campus, and still have many times more space.

Therefore, in an attempt to discover why housing is so expensive, I have been seeking budgetary information that would provide detailed breakdowns on how students’ room and board money is spent. I came across several budget documents from 1998-2000 that provide significant insight into why Duke charges so much and suggest that the price of housing is not directly tied to the costs Duke incurs while housing a student.

These documents indicate that in the 1999-2000 academic year, Residence Life and Housing Services (then a division of Auxiliary Services) was operating at a surplus of $3 million on total revenue of $23.98 million. This represented more than $500 surplus per undergraduate living on campus.

The documents also indicate that after already spending $3.24 million on renovations and routine maintenance, Duke put an additional $4.23 million into reserve funds for future maintenance, renovations and building projects. This $3 million surplus existed even after all of the money was fed into the reserve funds and after an additional $4.18 million was used to pay debts on various construction projects. The surpluses and reserves together constitute almost $1,500 per undergraduate.

Larry Moneta indicated that housing runs surpluses some years and deficits other years based on what renovations are being undertaken at a given time. RLHS attempts to adjust costs as to not “surprise” future student populations. However, financial records and records of past housing rates indicate that rates have risen along with the always present operating surplus of RLHS. Publicly available summary reports (mandated under State and Federal law) of Duke’s budget from 1993-2003 indicate that RLHS has consistently operated with a surplus, and that surplus has increased from $365,000 in 1993 to levels in the millions of dollars—the most being $3.65 million in 2000-2001. While the institutional framework of “housing” has changed significantly since 1993, Duke still defines it as having operated with a surplus in all of its available data.

I eagerly await a response to the questions that arise from these internal documents and the publicly available financial statements. Having already quietly appealed to almost every division that is connected to housing, I would like more than a simple referral to another budget officer or another division. On behalf of myself and every other undergraduate at Duke, I am now publicly appealing directly to the top—I am asking a direct question and I would like a direct answer: Exactly where and how is our housing money spent? Exactly where do these surpluses go?

While an explanation would be helpful, given all of the ambiguity in answers from Duke officials, I would most like to see the University respond by making its books and other detailed budgetary information for recent years publicly available. The documents that originally spurred my inquiries have been passworded by the University since I began investigating them, but I have copies. There is no doubt that the documents I am seeking do exist in accessible formats (many are already online, but access is restricted), and there is no reason why they should not be subject to scrutiny by The Chronicle or by the rest of the Duke community.

When students are paying up to $7,600 per year for a 100-odd-square-foot room, they have a right to know what that money is actually paying for. Duke holds an absolute monopoly on housing for freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and it is completely improper to abuse that power, especially in the ways that are suggested by some of some of these financial statements.

I eagerly await your response.

Elliott Wolf is a Pratt freshman. His column appears every other Tuesday.

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