Munger Hall first pitched at CalTech, USC

The controversial dorm awaits changes at UCSB

Rendering of Munger Hall courtesy of UCSB.

By: Leo Herbstman and Mark Alfred

May 18, 2023 at 12:30 pm

Before pitching the concept of a massive, largely-windowless student dormitory at UC Santa Barbara in the mid-2010s, billionaire philanthropist Charles Munger sought to build similar dorms with the same architect at the University of Southern California and the California Institute of Technology, financial records and sources at both campuses show.

Members of the Munger Hall project team believe both universities are interested in the project as of late and wish to convince Munger to build the dormitory at their respective campuses, a UCSB employee familiar with the team’s thinking told the Nexus on the condition of anonymity.

This comes as UCSB’s plans for Munger Hall are effectively in stasis as the design team awaits updates from the billionaire while he reviews potential changes to the dorm’s proposed design, the source said. UCSB has been planning and revising Munger’s dorm for nearly a decade as the university struggles to house students amid record enrollment rates.

For over 20 years, Munger has retained the services of the architecture firm Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh (VTBS) in his endeavor to make the UCSB dorm, and other initiatives, a reality. Financial records show he paid VTBS and another firm, Gruen Associates, in 2010 as he sought to fund a dormitory at the USC Gould School of Law.

The law school’s dean at the time, Robert Rasmussen, confirmed to the Nexus that there were preliminary discussions for a dorm hall with Munger, but they did not lead to a final agreement. The discussions were not advanced, according to Rasmussen, who was unable to provide further details regarding the ultimately-scrapped USC dorm.

Through the Alfred C. Munger Foundation — a philanthropic organization of which Charles Munger is the CEO — Munger gifted over $130,000 to the USC Gould School of Law for the services of VTBS and Gruen Associates as a potential dormitory was explored.

VTBS Architects is the principal architectural company for the planned UCSB Munger Hall and has a longstanding relationship with Munger. Other than working with him on the UCSB, USC and Caltech projects, the firm worked with him on the Stanford Munger Graduate Residences that were completed in 2009.

After the USC dorm failed to make it past preliminary discussions, Munger took the project to Caltech, where he pitched a windowless dorm project, according to a source at Caltech who asked to remain anonymous.

Public tax filings for the Alfred C. Munger Foundation detail a number of donations between 2012 and 2014 to the Caltech Associates — the university’s donation vehicle — for a dorm project.

In 2012, the foundation donated to the Caltech Associates for the services of Navy Banvard, the principal architect, and one of the founders of VTBS Architects, according to public tax filings for the foundation. The amount totaled around $30,000.

Around $50,000 was further donated to the Caltech Associates in 2013 for VTBS Architects, Navy Banvard, “housing” and “dorms,” according to the filings. An additional $300,000 was donated to fund a mock-up of the dormitory, according to the filings.

The last donations for the Caltech dorm project through the foundation were made in 2014, valued at around $100,000, according to the filings. The donations went toward funding “dorms” and Navy Banvard.

The windowless dorm design at Caltech did not advance past a study and a dorm mock-up, according to the source at Caltech. The source said the fire marshal’s preliminary opinion on the design found it not acceptable. Munger refused to change the design so the project fell through, according to the source.

Around the same time, UCSB was preparing a series of traditional student apartments, dubbed Mesa Verde, planned to be constructed at the campus’s current facilities management site. To facilitate the relocation of operations at that site, UCSB purchased a sizable warehouse in Goleta for $12.5 million in 2013.

After UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang and Munger entered into talks to construct a student dormitory of his design in the mid-2010’s, plans for Mesa Verde were scrapped and the newly-purchased Goleta warehouse became a testbed for various designs of Munger Hall throughout the years, opening for student tours in June 2022.

Mesa Verde, or a similar project with traditional student apartments, is UCSB’s fallback option, should the Munger Hall project fall through, the UCSB source said.

Munger initially pitched the idea of two 6-story largely-windowless dormitories at the site of the Channel Island 5 residence halls and De La Guerra Dining Commons.

Schematics and physical models were made, and the idea was presented to the UC Regents on March 24, 2016.

Destroying the existing dorms would have lowered the number of campus bedspaces by over 2,700. Yang cautioned Munger against pursuing construction of the dorms at the proposed location, according to the UCSB source, convincing the billionaire that the project ought to be situated at the facilities management site once slated for Mesa Verde.

When the project was reintroduced in June 2021, it faced enormous public and private backlash centered around the dorm’s largely windowless design. The outcry prompted the creation of an Academic Senate panel, which outlined a number of changes it contended would be necessary for the project to move forward in a blistering report it issued nine months after its formation.

Now, members of the project team wait to hear what changes are to be approved by the 99-year-old billionaire, who continues to hold the ultimate say over the project’s design, the UCSB source said.

Yang told the Regents during a Jan. 18 meeting that UCSB will return over this summer with an updated dorm design that takes into account recommendations made by the Academic Senate panel.

A great deal of work needs to happen before then, with the project team still waiting to hear from the billionaire about what changes will or won’t be implemented, according to the source. Significant changes to the dorm are expected once that happens, furthering the already extensive delays the project has faced, both since its announcement seven years ago and its reintroduction in June 2021.

The impending rework effectively renders the multi-million dollar mock-up and accompanying building designs — both of which have been retrofitted a number of times over the years — outdated, the source said.

The latest iteration of the dorm was a 9-story structure that would house around 3,500 students. That design was ready to go pending approval from the California Coastal Commission in Fall Quarter 2022, but the panel’s recommendation has negated any planned starting dates, the source said.

Munger is also the designer of dorms at Stanford University and the University of Michigan, the latter of which features some windowless bedrooms. Munger told CNN in November 2021 that, while he expects the UCSB dorm design to be copied across the country, he doesn’t plan to bring his namesake residence hall to any other campuses.

“No, I won’t do it. I’m ready to die very shortly,” he told CNN.

UCSB’s central motivation behind the pursuit of Munger’s dorm over traditional housing is the significant gift the billionaire is expected to contribute, the source said.

The windfall is expected to be in the hundreds of millions, set to aid a campus lacking significant funding for new student housing.

Former Academic Senate Chair and economics professor Henning Bohn outlined the financial struggles the campus faces in constructing in the panel’s final report, lamenting the slow pace and rent increases the campus would need to facilitate further traditional housing.

Even as UCSB reports record income in recent years, the dorm is expected to cost more to construct than the university spends to fund the entire campus for a calendar year.

Although the $1.5 billion structure would cost significantly more per bedroom than the Mesa Verde traditional housing project, Munger’s donation is expected to offset the difference to the extent that it is in the campus’ fiscal interest to pursue the controversial project, the UCSB source said.

Munger Hall remains deeply unpopular with students who continue to protest the project even as updates from UCSB have been scant in recent months.

A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the May 18, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Mark Alfred
Mark Alfred (he/him) was the University News Editor for the 2022-23 school year.