Billionaires are a plague on the planet

Yet another example of why I despise billionaires: they see our underfunded universities as a playground for their vanity projects, which our administrators will gratefully accept without regard for the purpose of their institution. Just look at UC Santa Barbara. It’s got one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere, and one asshole with money beyond sense has decided to build a prison for students as an experiment.

Charles Munger left $200 million to the university on the condition that they must build a mega-dorm exactly as his blueprints dictate. There’s a problem right there: it’s very nice of rich people to give money to universities, but donors should respect the fact that the university is supposed to know what they’re doing and that rigid demands from inflexible outsiders are not helpful. The university should have just said “NO!” early in the planning stages of the donation. Now they’re stuck with it.

The idea was conceived by 97-year-old billionaire-investor turned amateur-architect Charles Munger, who donated $200 million toward the project with the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly. Munger maintains the small living quarters would coax residents out of their rooms and into larger common areas, where they could interact and collaborate. He also argues the off-site prefabrication of standardized building elements ― the nine residential levels feature identical floor plans ― would save on cost. The entire proposal, which comes as UCSB desperately attempts to add to its overstretched housing stock, is budgeted somewhere in the range of $1.5 billion.

You read that right. Charles Munger donated $200 million in such a way as to force the university to spend another $1,300 million on this boondoggle. His design is a nightmare. It’s a collection of uncomfortably tiny, windowless sleeping rooms surrounding a common area, with the intent that students will be forced to interact in the shared space, especially since they’ll be deprived of views of the beaches or ocean. Those are terrible distractions, you know.

If I were a shiny new high school graduate considering UCSB, the environment would be a major part of the appeal, and telling me I’d be living in a sealed box with artificial lighting, only two exits from the building, and 7 strangers elbow-to-elbow would send me running elsewhere. That sounds more like a penitentiary or worse, the premise for a reality TV show. The architects hired to implement the design have already resigned (but who needs them anyway? Munger provided the blueprints, that job is done.)

One of the architects explains why it is a bad design.

McFadden draws striking comparisons between Munger Hall and other large structures to illustrate its colossal footprint. Currently, he said, the largest single dormitory in the world is Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, which houses 4,000 students and is composed of multiple wings wrapped around numerous courtyards with over 25 entrances.

“Munger Hall, in comparison, is a single block housing 4,500 students with two entrances,” McFadden said, and would qualify as the eighth densest neighborhood on the planet, falling just short of Dhaka, Bangladesh. It would be able to house Princeton University’s entire undergraduate population, or all five Claremont Colleges. “The project is essentially the student life portion of a mid-sized university campus in a box,” he said.

The project is utterly detached from its physical setting, McFadden goes on, and has no relationship to UCSB’s “spectacular coastal location.” It is also out of place with the scale and texture of the rest of campus, he said, “an alien world parked at the corner of the campus, not an integrally related extension of it.” Even the rooftop courtyard looks inward and “may as well be on the ground in the desert as on the eleventh floor on the coast of California,” he said.

Oh, but of course it’s going to be named Munger Hall. Munger is a college dropout turned lawyer and investment banker, so it’s perfectly normal that he gets his name splattered on buildings in campuses all across the nation.


  1. says

    Coincidentally, I just received a notice that thanks to a water mains problem, one of the dorms on my campus is without water today. Aren’t single points of failure fun?

  2. drew says

    Isn’t the UC system a financial institution that just has academics for show anyway? I thought that was one of St. Reagan’s miracles.

  3. says

    I don’t know the details of Munger’s blueprints, but the description sounds like the Grad Center residences at Brown University, which were kind of horrible. I had a friend who lived there in 1988 or so; she moved out as quickly as she could — into a rental house.

    I can only guess at what ideological nonsense is driving the belief that this kind of design is somehow good.

  4. says

    It’s a collection of uncomfortably tiny, windowless sleeping rooms surrounding a common area, with the intent that students will be forced to interact in the shared space.

    And I’m sure Munger himself has a huge mansion that doesn’t force him to interact in common areas (iow, out in public). Because being a hypocrite is fundamental to the definition of a billionaire, right?

  5. nomuse says

    Oh, yeah, his name will go down in history, all right.
    4,500 students and two doors? “Munger Hall” will be there in the books right under “Triangle Shirtwaist.”

  6. johnson catman says

    re GiantPanda @5: My thought exactly. With 4500 people in a building with only two exits seems woefully inadequate and immensely dangerous.

  7. says

    Munger is a college dropout

    In fairness this time, the Wikipedia article you link says that was during WWII and it is claimed he did drop out to serve in the military. I think he should get a pass on this one. It’s also noted he did go back to grad school and did get his law degree.
    That said, I still stick to my suspicions in my earlier comment that he is likely a hypocrite in regards to socializing. Though maybe he hung around common folk when he was one of us, I doubt he’s done so anytime recently.

  8. dianne says

    GiantPanda & Johson Catman @5 and 7: My thoughts exactly. This is going to go up in flames some day and there will be a bunch of unnecessary deaths. Or there will be an earthquake. Either way, with two exits, even if the building stands and is relatively safe, people will be trampled in the panic to get out. Especially since there appear to be no windows. (A room with no windows cannot be a bedroom in New York. I guess California has different rules?)

  9. raven says

    You read that right. Charles Munger donated $200 million in such a way as to force the university to spend another $1,300 million on this boondoggle.

    I would just walk away.

    Munger isn’t even funding this monstrosity of a building.
    He is funding less than 1/7 of it.

    Spending $1.5 billion on a building that no one wants to live in, isn’t a good idea.
    It reminds me of the high rise concrete housing projects that many cities put up in the mid 20th century, such as Chicago. They weren’t very livable and ended up being demolished in favor of better ideas.

  10. dianne says

    timgueguen @12: I thought it was to give the newly adult 18 year olds a chance to, as my daughter says, “try out the free version of adulthood without all the features before buying the full version”. That is, to give them some support during the transition. Or to make money for the university. Or both.

  11. raven says

    There is something else wrong with this whole idea.
    It’s treating thousands of young students as experimental subjects for someone’s unusual ideas.
    Humans aren’t lab rats, literally any way.

    If Munger wants to experiment with architecture as a social engineering tool, he should just buy a bunch of real rats and design whatever housing arrangements for them that he can imagine.

  12. PaulBC says

    living in a sealed box with artificial lighting,

    That reminds me of a casino. Shut out the outside world so people lose track of what time of day it is. It’s a strange choice for dorm building. I thought campus residences were being made more like normal apartments these days. I lived in a traditional dorm with tiny rooms and a shared bathroom. It was fine, but I would have gone nuts if I had to stay in that building most of the time.

  13. rjlangley says

    It’s even worse than PZ states above: a $200 million dollar donation towards a $1.5 BILLION dollar project.

    What exactly is even in this for the University?

  14. Doc Bill says

    I seem to recall that John Purdue who founded Purdue University stipulated that all buildings would be made of red brick and that there would be no Music Hall. There is, however, a Hall of Music.

  15. cartomancer says

    Hey, the guy is 97. Just take the money then spin him a yarn for a few years about how the application for planning permission is being held up in bureaucracy until he gets his own single-occupancy windowless wooden domicile.

  16. kome says

    It’ll help train students to learn to accept the cramped tiny houses of Elon Musk, which have less square footage than my first studio apartment. This is furthering the goal of billionaires to normalize treating humans – especially poor humans – as domesticated cattle. The university should have said no, but university administrations, even out here in super “liberal” California, are predominantly if not exclusively pieces of shit that do not mind constantly exploiting and abusing the student body.

  17. Artor says

    That ‘only 2 exits” feature can’t possibly be legal and consistent with the fire code. I hope once it’s built, someone goes through and cuts new doorways and windows into the place.

  18. PaulBC says

    only two exits from the building

    One thing I remember from living in a traditional dorm is what a bottleneck the elevators could be. I would routinely walk down seven floors, and occasionally even walk up just to save time. Creating intentional bottlenecks makes no sense at all. These are students with scheduled classes and probably dining hall hours. They will be leaving in large numbers at specific times. I am not sure if it is standard to run a dynamic simulation for large residential structures, but it would be straightforward and could rule out some of these ridiculous plans before breaking ground.

    What will actually happen if this monstrosity gets built is that people will begin to notice that it doesn’t work like a normal building, and it will gradually be retrofitted to lose most of these “innovative” features, though it’ll always be worse.

    Plus, yeah, UCSB is one of the top UC schools (not Berkeley or UCLA but very competitive) and aside from the academic reputation, the coastal setting is a big part of the attraction. This is a really stupid idea. Maybe this guy should just build a whole new university in the desert if he wants to carry out a social experiment.

  19. pgator says

    Even though overall, it’s horrible … PART of this I like.

    I DO think they need to re-think college housing with individual bedrooms in mind. This idea that we’re just slapping two random adults together to share a bedroom is kind of odd.

  20. says

    Speaking of only two exits, it’s not just a problem for accidents or fires. It also makes it a perfect target for terrorist attacks. You can’t even try a desperate jump out of the window of your dorm room, because there isn’t one.

  21. says

    Munger maintains the small living quarters would coax residents out of their rooms and into larger common areas, where they could interact and collaborate.

    Yeah, because the old-style traditional two-person dorm room I lived in at UVa was absolutely HUGE and I never felt any need to leave the room to talk to anyone else.

    And the college are required to pay MORE to build this thing than the total amount of the “gift?” Why would any university official say anything other than “hell no” to such an asinine idea? Seriously, that doesn’t even merit a “we’ll think about it” or a “we’ll do a cost-benefit study and get back to you.” If the U. are required to pay for the building, then it’s not a “gift” or a “donation,” even if the cost is less than the total amount of the “gift.” It’s still much less of a “gift” than its face value.

    I really hope someone contests that will on mental-health grounds — this really doesn’t sound at all like someone thinking clearly or operating in good faith; especially the “as is, no modifications” part. It sounds like a hateful senile old fool carrying out an old grudge and using his money to induce a university to shaft both itself and its students.

    In fact, this old hater reminds me of the rich guy in a “Twilight Zone” episode, whose will required his widow to minister to a robot if she wanted to inherit any of the money she’d married him for. Does this Munger guy always drink his morning coffee out of a bone-china cup?

  22. says

    BTW, is that illustration a drawing of the proposed building? If so, it has windows on it, so who gets to live in rooms with windows? Students who pay more, or students who earn favor some other way?

  23. cartomancer says

    I mean, to be fair my rooms at university were early 17th Century wood panelled affairs off a grand staircase in a Jacobean quad, with a view of gardens laid out by Sir Christopher Wren. I did indeed spend all my time there cooped up indoors, speaking to no-one.

    This was entirely due to the architecture, clearly, and the fact I was a terrified, maladjusted social wreck had nothing to do with it.

  24. stroppy says

    Overtones of military homogenization.

    Or they could go with those Japanese hotel capsule things. Better yet, get a train load of medieval style box beds, throw in some straw, stack ’em up, and cram them with humans.

    BTW, I was wondering about the windows in the picture as well.

  25. davidc1 says

    First I have heard of this bloke ,I had to look him on the interweb .
    He looks like that mitch mcconnell git .Sorry ,but part of my unique use of the English language is I refuse to use capital letters for the names of people I don’t like ,call me Mr picky .
    Anyway ,I was expecting to see someone like the guy Anna Nicole Smith married .
    Back to munger towers ,that’s a classic White Elephant if ever I saw One .

  26. Michael says

    I saw the drawing of a suite in the link, whoever designed this has not met, much less lived with, an 18 year old recently.

  27. dali70 says

    If this billionaires dorm tuns into a disaster they can just follow the path of other billionaires and rename the shit show into something cool and exciting like Meta Hall! Problem solved!

  28. birgerjohansson says

    Insure the rubble pile for a lot of money, then- before anyone moves in- give Al Quaeda a hint of where the most fire-prone parts of the house are, and the code for the doors.
    Oops! Someone burned the place down. How tragic.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    Is the Munger bloke related to Bergholt Stuttley Johnson aka “bloody stupid Johnson” whose legacy lives on in parts of Unseen University, Ankh-Morpork?

  30. PaulBC says

    If Elon Musk was funding this thing, at least it would be able to blast off into space, or have cool tunnels… or something. Munger: Worst. Billionaire. Ever.

  31. PaulBC says

    Letting my mind wander a bit… but as terrible as this place sounds as a dorm, it might be a really good setting for yet another dystopian movie where teenagers are forced to fight to the death. (Train of thought: billionaire… Elon Musk… everybody gets a flamethrower… right, now they just need to compete for something.)

  32. robnyny says

    It divides out to $333,000 per bed. I would think that you could buy or build rather nice apartments at that price.

  33. says

    It’s all about him, isn’t it? Not satisfied with having a ridiculous amount of money he wants people to be impressed by him and his architectural brilliance and his good taste.

  34. says

    On the other hand, if I were a billionaire, it would be fun to gift a dick-shaped library of evolutionary biology and Marxist economics books to Liberry U. Because it’d be all about me!

  35. says

    (Train of thought: billionaire… Elon Musk… everybody gets a flamethrower… right, now they just need to compete for something.)

    A room with a window for the rest of the year? Or just make it so that enough students die each year that there’s enough dorms with windows for all the survivors…?

  36. says

    Another problem here is that if the dorm building costs $1.5B, and Munger, or his estate, is only coughing up $200M, then the Munger estate is a MINORITY SHAREHOLDER in this enterprise; so there’s absolutely no way it’s fair that the estate gets to dictate everything with no say from the people paying MORE THAN HALF of the total cost. That’s something any rich tw*t with even half a brain (and even the most desperate university fundraiser) should be able to understand.

  37. John Morales says

    Raging Bee @46, and yet you fail to understand that if the $200M is contingent on his plans being followed, then if they’re not followed there is no $200M.

    (Apparently, they wanted that $200M)

  38. rrhain says

    OK…I’m sensing a bit of irony here. The architect quoted mentions “or all five Claremont Colleges.”

    Has he bothered to look at the dorms at Harvey Mudd, one of those Claremont Colleges?

    When I was there, there were six dorms: North, South, East, West, New, and New II. East, West, and North are pretty much the same in construction. Most suites are two large rooms intended to house two students in each room with a sink in each room and a shared toilet/shower that separates the two rooms and serves as the connection between them. There are some single suites that have the same structure but in half the size: Two rooms intended to house one student in each room with a sink in each room and a shared toilet/shower. The dorm then had a common area and a courtyard.

    South was built with a new concept in mind: Three- and four-person suites. Each suite had individual bedrooms that shared a small living space and a bathroom. The individual rooms were smaller than what you’d get if you were in a single in one of the other dorms, but South was one of the more popular dorms to draw into for precisely that reason: You have a room to yourself. If you can’t draw into a single in North, East, or West or if you didn’t like the dorm cultures for those dorms, or if you had some buddies to room with, South was quite a popular dorm. Due to a quirk in the way it was constructed, the suites that were next to the stairs for the second floor had one of the rooms have its closet built under the stairs, which meant it was huge. At least one student put his bed in there so that he essentially had the foyer of the common room, his bedroom which now became his study, and a sleeping chamber.

    New dorm (officially Atwood) made the concept a little bigger. Each corner of the floor was it’s own suite consisting of a common area with two bathrooms and individual bedrooms off it of both single and double-occupancy sizes. Again, this was one of the more popular dorms to draw into because you got a single room. Even having the corner bedroom was a good thing because even though it was for double-occupancy, it was wrapped around the corner so your side was essentially your “wing” of the room and you had privacy. I think it was a total of 7 bedrooms per suite, if I recall correctly.

    During room draw, groups of students would specifically group together to draw into the suite. There was Women’s Suite (all women) and Brain Dead Suite. They tended to survive over classes: As the Seniors graduated, new students with the right personality for that suite would be added in.

    New II (officially Case) went even further: The entire floor was divvied up into sleeping quarters, single- and double-occupancy, sharing two bathrooms (multiple stalls and showers per bathroom) and a large common room.

    One of the newer dorms since I left, Drinkward, continues the concept like South but a little bigger: The communal room has a kitchen. Four bedrooms pull off the common room and a communal bathroom. It’s pretty much exactly like the mockup of the proposed UCSB dorm but with four bedrooms instead of eight.

    Drinkward is the hot dorm that everybody wants to get into even though it’s the furthest from classes.

    So I don’t actually think the general concept of this dorm is all that bad. The idea of a common room that has bedrooms off it as a suite is actually quite functional and amenable to engendering camaraderie with your fellow students. When I was a sophomore, I managed to become friends with a senior who needed a third in order to pull into South and so I got to have my own room. And because I had my own common room (though only about big enough for a couch and a chair), it was the place that I and my friends gathered to do homework together since it wasn’t a bedroom. The dorm rooms in North, East, and West were just an open room so anybody coming to your room would see everything you and your roommate had that was out. By having a suite with a common room and a separate bedroom, you could “entertain,” as it were.

    While freshman year will be a bit of a mish-mash, the upper classes will most likely turn the suites into themed suites: Friends will pull into the suite together with combined interests, and it will have the potential to create legacy suites.

    If I were to have any problems with this, it would be the size of the bedrooms. The drawing from the link does show clerestory windows in the bedrooms, so there is natural light, but the size of the bedrooms looks a bit cramped: If the chair is pulled out from the desk, there is literally no space in the room other than to be in the bed. If the rooms were a little bigger with perhaps the bed/desk being a loft/underdesk situation, that could help matters since there would be an open space in the room, though there would be ADA concerns if all the beds were like that so there would have to be larger sleeping rooms.

    It needs work, but it’s not a bad concept.

  39. Ed Seedhouse says

    As I was reading these comments MSNBC started a segment on this monstrosity during the Chris Hayes program. Does Chris read your blog?

  40. PaulBC says

    oddie@51 What’d they do? They only architectural atrocity that comes to mind is the Hoover tower.

  41. says

    @48: Yeah, that was kinda my point in my first comment: Munglebungle’s idea of keeping students in small rooms wasn’t at all original or even unusual — it’s already been done before a zillion times, so no one needs his rigid unchangeable plans when there’s already plenty of experience to work from.

    @47: Yeah, I understand that — a rich delusional buffoon wants majority power without majority investment or responsibility. The U. would be idiots to go anywhere near that “gift.” It doesn’t even make a sensible bribe.

  42. wzrd1 says

    @PZ, if the single point of failure is entertaining, note a single entry and single exit on his excellent deathtrap plan.
    Frankly, I’d rather build a house on a WWII blockbuster bomb. Vaporized beats incinerated alive any day.
    Frankly, the fucking place sounds like the world’s largest roach motel to me..

  43. Walter Solomon says

    This is probably one of the dumbest fucking decisions made by an institute of higher learning I’ve read about. And this place calls itself a “university”?

    The building sounds like it belongs in Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. A real-life dystopian nightmare.

    In the 80s, Paul Fussel wrote about all of the crappy public universities in the US. I’m not sure if this one was on his list but it should’ve been.

    Even if the donation covered the entire cost of the monstrosity, what would be in it for the university if, I’m assuming, they didn’t really want a building like this?

    The fact that the donation only covers a seventh of the cost is incomprehensibly stupid.

  44. stroppy says

    @ 57

    I think there was a campus housing shortage or something.

    Genuflection to the 97 year old crank with money.

  45. unclefrogy says

    total amount of money $1,500,000,000.00 that is a lot of money. Munger’s bequest or donation is $200,000,000 not a small amount to me but clearly not an overwhelming fraction of the total either.
    If the regents do not like the plans which his money is contingent on they still have generated a sizable amount to build some modification of those plans or have new ones made, though the plan and design approval process for a new design or a redesign would take some additional time. I would think there are by now enough data on college dorms and how they function in the real world of campus life to make some very nice designs. $1,300,00,00.00 would build a building that would serve with distinction I would imagine.
    this is California, I do not see as presented here how that large building for that many occupants could possibly pass the building codes with only 2 entries? there would have to be engineering features that are not indicated to make it safe for human occupancy.

  46. leemaynor says

    For the last couple of years when I hear “billionaire”, I think of Jeffrey Epstein. I dont know why…

  47. PaulBC says

    Raging Bee@45 It even comes with a catchy title The Munger Games. (How did I miss that the first time around.)

  48. says

    [Munger] wanted the dorm rooms to be tiny and windowless to encourage residents to spend more time outside in the common areas, meeting other students.

    WHAT “common areas?” The little common rooms with the eight-seat tables (and nothing else) in each suite? Those are the only “common areas” I see in the drawings, and they’re just as cramped and windowless as the little cells around each one.

    It’s absolutely appalling that the university are simply going ahead with this with no question at all. Are they really both that incompetent and that desperate for a sugar-daddy to help them out?

  49. PaulBC says

    When I first moved to the SF Bay Area, one of the things that took some getting used to was the tendency of buildings not to be enclosed. E.g. schools have classroom doors facing outside instead of to a hallway. The second floor, if there is one, may be reached by an outside staircase. The high-end Stanford Shopping Center is mostly not an enclosed mall. The houses are often weak on insulation, and some designs like Eichler houses are very explicitly open. At first it felt a little shoddy to me, but then I realized it was the appropriate architecture for a mild climate with relatively little rain and almost no sub-freezing days.

    I’m not as attuned to the climate in Santa Barbara. It’s coastal and it’s been foggy when I’ve visited. But I think it shares the mild temperature range. Why would you want to build an enclosed box in an environment where you could practically live in a tent year-round without too much discomfort. Did this guy Munger ever visit the place where he proposed his long-term storage center for students? There is much cheaper land in the US than you’ll find in Santa Barbara. Why not build this in the desert or in North Dakota, or somewhere you really need solid shelter? I don’t get it.

  50. Trickster Goddess says

    Radio interview with Charles Munger [CBC] Starts at 9 minutes in, about 7 minutes duration.

    He dismisses the windowless complaints as “a bunch of crazy suppositions by an ignorant man” (the architect who resigned from the advisory committee.)

    The interviewer asks if he is an architect. Well, no but he has hired a lot of architects over the years.

    Has he ever lived in a windowless room? Yes, he once spent a 2 whole weeks on a cruise ship.

    This guy is a moron who is full of his own suppositions and ignorance.

  51. Wesley Sandel says

    University of Southern Mississippi, 1973, ended the ROTC requirement for all male freshmen. While the dorm room wasn’t bad – just designed to be exactly like a room in a military barracks – on every floor there was one giant bathroom/shower facility. Walk in the door and on the left was a row of sinks with a long mirror across the entire room/building, and on the right was a row of toilets on raised platforms, no doors or cubicles, just toilets raised on platforms that you sit on and stare into the faces of everyone using the sinks looking into the mirrors. You spend an entire semester holding it until you can get to the student center and realize that it might be time to leave Mississippi and head for civilization. I’m sure that dorm is still in use.

    University of Alabama Birmingham, 1987. Entire liberal arts school in one five-story building, designed specifically so that all classrooms open out to external, exposed walkways so that students can not engage in occupation of building for political protest. Fascist architecture as an academic norm.

    Munger – verb. To engage in bad cunnilingus.

  52. moioci says

    rrhain @ 48. I don’t think you’re grasping the scale of this monstrosity. It envisions 8 houses with 8 suites each with 8 students each on every floor. 8 cubed is 512, so the entire student body of Harvey Mudd would fit on less than 2 floors. I believe every dorm room at Harvey Mudd has a window. 94% of these would not.

  53. moioci says

    The UCSB Institutional Review Board (IRB), or whatever they call it, should declare this an institutional level sociology experiment and mandate that all participants sign informed consent and be compensated for their participation. Even without a fire or other emergency, SAD is a real thing, and people will likely die if forced to live in this prison.

  54. says

    Even without that torture chamber, billionaires “donating” to universities is a problem.

    The big lie is, “rich people donate the most money, billions for public good!” But most of that money goes to universities where it will benefit white people. They’re protecting systems of white power, building monuments to themselves and getting a tax deduction along with it. They’re not doing anything that would improve the lives of the average or poor (e.g. affordable housing, food banks in food deserts, etc.).