At California University of Pennsylvania, where faculty complain that basics like classroom lab chemicals and toner cartridges sometimes run short, the university spent $428,000 on a spiral "light ribbon" for its new convocation center.
The electronic graphics and message board, purchased in 2009, is attached to an 80-foot tower that rises above the just-opened $59 million center that houses an arena for 6,000 people.
Records show CalU also spent $172,000 last year for an aerial camera system known as a "Wavecam" to be installed in the center, and it's not the only such device on campus. The school in 2009 bought another cable-guided Wavecam costing $175,000 for the stadium where its Division II football team plays, the same year CalU installed a video and audio upgrade to the stadium's scoreboard and message board at a cost of $239,000.
These expenditures, the costs for which were obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through a state Right-to-Know Law request, are among tens of millions of dollars in classroom, student life and athletic enhancements made over the years under CalU president Angelo Armenti Jr., spending he and others say helped transform CalU and boost enrollment.
But of late, some of that spending has become part of a debate about campus priorities and mounting debt, a debate made louder in recent months by course cuts, staff reductions and possible faculty reductions starting in 2013.
On Thursday, a group representing academic department chairs across the 9,500-student campus wrote to State System of Higher Education leaders, saying CalU's spending priorities are taking a toll on academic and student support.
The letter cited nonclassroom infrastructure spending as one of the problems.
"We understand that physical amenities are important to attracting potential students," wrote Thomas Wickham, chair of the 29-member Chairs Forum at CalU. "We are alarmed, however, about the perceived prioritization of nonacademic enhancements over academic quality."
Mr. Armenti was off campus Monday and not available for comment.
However, CalU spokeswoman Christine Kindl, when asked about the Wavecams, the light ribbon and the scoreboard upgrade, said "all decisions were made through the appropriate channels, after careful consideration and with the best interest of the university in mind."
She said the tower, visible across campus, includes a video screen purchased separately and that digital messaging on the structure "is a powerful tool for announcing upcoming events, displaying important messages to the entire campus community and guiding visitors to the center."
The center's Wavecam is intended to give overhead views of basketball and other arena events "as well as crowd reaction shots that add to the experience of the game," she said.
"It was purchased to enhance CalU's ability to market the convocation center for championships, tournaments and other high-profile events, including national contests where this capability would be expected and/or required in a modern arena," she added.
Ms. Kindl said she did not have information necessary to discuss the scoreboard or stadium Wavecam.
In recent months, complaints, mostly anonymous, about campus spending led the State System in February to conduct an audit at CalU. Results have not yet been released.
For much of the previous decade, CalU's enrollment increased by 45 percent, fastest among the State System's 14 universities. Even some now critical of the school's recent spending decisions acknowledge the transformation under Mr. Armenti, president since 1992, the longest tenure among sitting State System presidents.
A school once so worried about enrollment losses that it pondered a name change in 2001 invested $125 million to replace its aging dormitories with suite-style apartments and gained a marketing advantage as the first of the State System universities to do so.
The campus also has been transformed through a variety of other investments from smart classrooms to new parking facilities.
But now the school is struggling through the economic downturn. This year, CalU and the rest of the State System absorbed a nearly 20 percent cut in their state appropriation, and next year's state budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett would slash another 20 percent, though the Senate last week moved to undo that cut.
CalU has said the aid reductions contributed to an operating loss last fiscal year totaling $4.3 million, and a 2 percent dip in spring enrollment has not helped the school's budget. Neither has rising debt load.
CalU, with a $120 million operating budget, has seen a five-fold increase in yearly debt obligations in 10 years. Its annual debt service during the period grew to $7 million from $1.5 million, the university said.
Its total capital debt of $97.2 million as of March is the second largest among the State System universities behind only Kutztown, and it is up from $12.7 million in 2002, according to State System data.
Debt service on the new $59 million convocation center and $20 million parking improvements by themselves exceed $4 million a year, CalU has said.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, or 412-263-1977. First Published May 15, 2012 4:00 AM