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To all new and returning students: Welcome to Penn, where life moves at a decidedly different pace. Members of the freshman class will soon think they know what that means. Between going to class, finding that one life-absorbing extracurricular activity and puking in most every bathroom in the Quad, they'll say that there aren't enough hours in the day. But they'll be wrong. The secret is that at Penn, events progress much more slowly, not more quickly, than those in the outside world. Consider the current round of campus construction. Most upperclassmen have never seen the inside of Houston Hall, whose renovation serves as the centerpiece of the $87.5 million Perelman Quadrangle project. And now open for business -- well, most of it, anyway -- the nation's oldest student union looks absolutely spectacular. That's a sentiment that I'm sure would be shared by thousands of members of the recently departed Class of 2000, too, had the center opened on time. In December 1999. Indeed, on a campus whose recent history has been defined by the bleating of jackhammers and the steady rumble of bulldozers, the words "on time" have been heard about as frequently as "under budget." The University's much-vaunted $300 million -- er, $378.5 million -- dorm and dining overhaul plan was reduced in scale and spread out over a longer period of time almost as soon as it was announced. This was supposed to be the year when construction began on new student housing in Hamilton Village and Class of 1920 Commons underwent renovation and expansion. I will be long gone from campus before shovel meets dirt on either project. On 40th Street, the Sundance Cinemas and projects, once described on this page as "glass-and-steel monuments to the future," now stand before you as glass-and-steel monuments to, well, a more distant future. You see, the future was supposed to come last spring, with both enterprises opening before Commencement. Now while it appears that the grocery store will open sometime this fall, I don't expect to see Robert Redford cut the ribbon on his flagship movie theater until a big-budget remake of The Natural hits the big screen. And as for the process of gentrification that Sundance was supposed to unleash on the 40th Street corridor, the proprietors of Nancy's Nails and S&M; Grocery shouldn't lose any sleep at night. Elsewhere on campus, the now-defunct Eat at Joe's diner opened in July 1998, more than six months behind schedule; the Walnut West branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is still in its "temporary" location more than six months after its occupancy of 3927 Walnut Street was to have ended; and when Irvine Auditorium opened a year ago, it did so a hefty nine months overtime. The moral isn't that the University is incompetent or even perpetually behind schedule when it comes to completing the Next Big Thing. Sometimes shipments of Italian marble get delayed on their transatlantic voyages. Sometimes unforeseen weather and labor problems stall projects. And sometimes -- proving that we'll believe just about anything administrators say -- minor design changes can idle a construction site for semesters on end. Rather, administrators can and should do a better job of setting realistic expectations for capital projects. (They've already learned this lesson when it comes to filling major administrative vacancies. After a string of searches that should have taken six months but lasted 15, getting an official to concede to the most vague timetable for filling an open slot has become like pulling teeth.) And more importantly, students should have a healthy skepticism of any promises emanating from College Hall or the Franklin Building. Don't set your watches by the timetables they set, because with so much to do -- classes, clubs, puking in the Quad -- you don't want to be late

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