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Questions remain at Donaldson Hall


Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson

A Thursday afternoon view of Donaldson Hall at the Montana State University-Northern campus.

Since Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian announced he would recommend the Board of Regents reject a plan to lease Donaldson Hall to the Bullhook Community Health Center, questions about the rejection have been circulating and some faculty are unsatisfied by the answers they've received.

No matter how unsatisfied people are, Commissioner Christian and Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Jim Limbaugh maintain that the answer is simple and has already been spelled out.

"The grant proposal suggests that the university would dedicate Donaldson Hall for a non-university purpose for at least 20 years with the potential to renew for another 20 years, " Christian said in his June 1 letter. "Notwithstanding the serious consideration we must give to tying the hands of our successors to this extent, it appears the proposed duration of the lease would leave the university with a totally depreciated asset up the expiration of the lease. "

Since arriving six months ago, Limbaugh has been laying groundwork for a campus-wide plan that incorporates all aspects of the university, from academics to infrastructure, starting with three-month visioning process.

The goal now is to have that plan prepared by August 2013, with changes to curriculum and building use, including a plan for preserving and preparing Donaldson Hall for eventual reintegration into campus use.

"The future of Donaldson Hall is a central part of that planning, " Christian said in his letter. "The university and the regents would be remiss in committing Donaldson Hall to a 20-year non-campus use without first considering the future needs of the campus itself. "

Associate Commissioner for Communications & Human Resources Kevin McRae said the grant proposal was so unexpected, its announcement surprised many of the commissioner's staff and the regents.

He said that the main concern was simply the idea of selling off "a historic university building and removing it from consideration for any student use or academic use for 40 years to forever. "

Aside from being worrying in itself, McRae said it would have sent the wrong message to the legislature, to have a university selling off parts of its campus while the commissioner's office asks for campus expansions.

He also explained the commissioner's secondary concerns with a number of questionable clauses in the grant application.

One part said the university would use state appropriations to pay for energy efficiency upgrades in the new health center.

Another clause required the university to add or set aside 70 parking spaces on campus.

The last and largest, was an issue with a "federal interest" in the property that would extend beyond the end of the lease and would, after 40 years, require Northern to buy its own building back from the federal government by paying the interest on all the money the federal government would have put into the building.

John Snider, the president of Northern's faculty union, has been leading the charge with questions.

Snider said he suspects Northern Montana Hospital CEO Dave Henry was involved in shooting down the the plan, or that "people were worried about the presence of so many poor patients on campus. "

Limbaugh replied to the first accusation, saying "Mr. Henry was not in any way involved in any discussions between the University, Bullhook Clinic, and the commissioner's office before the announcement of the grant award or in any meeting subsequent to said announcement. "

Local Regent Paul Tuss said in an email to Tom Burgess of MEA-MFT, that included Snider, Limbaugh and McRae, that Snider's "uninformed statement" could actually harm efforts towards Snider's own priority, increased faculty salaries.

"In the political environment in which we work, I know full-well that we will need every single person we can muster to support our ambitious goal of moving the (Montana University System) forward and with a fair degree of dispatch, including faculty salaries, " Tuss' email said. "This communication to the hospital CEO did not help that effort. "

Limbaugh said he was ashamed of the second hypothesis.

"Such a rumor is an insult to Bullhook Clinic, the University, the Commissioner's Office, and the population that Bullhook is committed to serving, " Limbaugh said.

Snider said he has received more pushback on these inquiries than any other issue he's attempted to uncover before, which he takes as evidence of the size of the secret he believes he is about to uncover.


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