Rebuilding From Quakes, New Zealand University Takes the Opportunity to Upgrade

Chronicle photo by Paul Basken

Scaffolding surrounds the U. of Canterbury's James Hight building, where workers are installing new energy-efficient windows.
January 11, 2012

After four significant earthquakes and an untold number of aftershocks in the Christchurch area in less than two years, the University of Canterbury is still struggling to regain its footing.

Student enrollment appears down for the coming academic year, a series of key buildings remain unavailable or wrapped in scaffolding, and the government isn't providing the public institution any additional money.

And yet Rod Carr, who as vice chancellor is the University of Canterbury's chief executive, still finds plenty of things to brag about to visitors.

Not only will the university be fully operational when the new academic year begins at the end of February, but it will feature a series of upgrades, some pushed forward and even financed by the quakes.

Changes already made at the university include new online course offerings, a new computerized class-scheduling system, a new public-service program for students, and a new system for tracking library books.

Improvements under way include the construction of student meeting facilities, complete with restaurants and bars, and the installation of energy-efficient windows in the library building. And changes still to come include the creation of some completely new buildings for faculty offices.

"We did some cool stuff" as a result of the quakes, Mr. Carr said this week in his office in Okeover House in the middle of the Canterbury campus, about three miles west of downtown Christchurch.

Still, it's hard to ignore the tough overall reality. The first of the recent Christchurch quakes struck in September 2010, damaging buildings and knocking out power in New Zealand's second largest city. The most damaging quake hit in February 2011, killing at least 181 people, almost all downtown and none on the university campus. Other significant quakes or aftershocks were registered in December 2010, June 2011, and this past December.

At least 15 square blocks in downtown Christchurch—the bulk of the central business district—remain blocked off with barricades at least through April to allow for repairs, leaving much of the city feeling like a ghost town.

By that measure, the University of Canterbury, with only 14 of its 240 buildings still closed, has fared pretty well. Still, after the February 2011 quake, which hit on the second day of classes for the year, the university lost about 30 percent of its 1,200 international students, costing it about $5-million to $6-million (U.S.) in revenue. The university also lost about a quarter of its 3,000 first-year students, mostly those from outside the area who lacked local roots. The net loss was about 13 percent of the undergraduate student body.

The numbers are still running behind as Mr. Carr counts acceptances toward a hoped-for class of 3,000 new freshmen. So far he can count only 2,905 students for the coming semester, down about 225 from the same time last year, he said.

But insurance is helping. The university's policy is covering two years of lost student enrollments, plus most of the building repair work. Still the university will have to pay about $8-million out of pocket for repairs, while its insurance deductibles and premiums have risen into the millions, from a few hundred thousand dollars before the first quake hit.

Open for Business

Those are big numbers for a university with only $240-million in annual revenue and already facing demands from government officials to trim costs at a time of economic stress.

At the University of Canterbury, that means scrutinizing administrative costs, reviewing the necessity of course offerings, finding ways of making teaching time more effective, and showing results for research dollars, Mr. Carr said. "All of that was on the agenda, with or without an earthquake, and it continues to be on the agenda," he said.

And it's happening. A prime example is the university's central library inside the 11-story James Hight building, the tallest structure on campus. The Hight building is open for business yet wrapped in scaffolding. Because the university was required to pull out and inspect all 800 of Hight's windows, officials decided to take the opportunity to install higher-efficiency replacements.

And before the September 2010 quake, the university had been procrastinating on a project to replace all the bar codes in the library books with a system that would speed the checkout process by allowing each book to be tracked by an attached computer chip, known as an RFID. Officials had been warned the work could take two years. But when all the books fell off the library shelves in September 2010, "we took the opportunity when we were picking them up at the insurer's expense to put the RFID chips in them," Mr. Carr said. And the job took only four months.

The need to teach students remotely during building closures led the university to boost its offerings of online courses, Mr. Carr said. That also led to the elimination of printed books of course offerings, saving students up to $80 a semester, he said.

And the quake prompted the university to create a service-learning program modeled on the work of Tulane University after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Carr said. It's a two-part program, with both academic study of community engagement and a service component. About 50 students enrolled in the first semester of 2011, and about 60 participated in the second semester. After Hurricane Irene hit the northeastern United States last August, the University of Vermont adapted up the program for its own use, he said.

As he tries to rebuild overall enrollment, Mr. Carr may be worried as much about image as any actual problems on campus. After pleading for no more newspaper depictions of his campus in scaffolding, he acknowledged that the Hight building would continue to be photographed during the yearlong process of window replacement. "So as long as you remind them," he said, referring to newspaper readers, "that the buildings have scaffolding because we're making them green, we're saving energy."


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