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The University's Board of Trustees approved $16.4 million worth of long-awaited renovations to Bennett Hall at its fall meeting on Friday.

Home to the English and African-American Studies departments, the nearly 80-year-old building has not undergone a significant renovation since 1966. The project will "upgrade the infrastructure components of the entire building... and fully renovate spaces throughout," according to the resolution passed by the trustees approving the renovations.

The project makes good on Chairman of the Board James Riepe's commitment stated at the trustee meetings last November to prioritize renovations to College buildings in general and Bennett Hall in particular.

Originally estimated at $18 million by School of Arts and Sciences officials, the Bennett Hall project -- initially outlined in the School of Arts and Sciences' Agenda for Excellence in 1995 and then stalled after financial obstacles -- is slated to begin next summer. The work will equip the building at Walnut and 34th streets with new wiring, bathrooms and windows, along with fire alarm, ventilation and security systems.

The $16.4 million will be provided by SAS bank funds, gifts and an internal loan.

The trustees also allocated just over $2 million toward the design and construction of a "learning resource center" in Stouffer College House, in the basement area that once housed a dining hall.

The center is to provide "a centralized office and the opportunity to expand the staff, programs and activities... to assist the increasing number of students with physical, learning and psychiatric disabilities."

And just in time for winter, Penn managed to successfully hedge its heating costs, which might have risen substantially, as increases in the cost of natural gas are passed directly to Penn through Trigen, the company that provides the University's heat.

The meeting also reviewed the University's endowment for fiscal year 2003, which ended in June. Treasurer and Senior Vice President for Finance Craig Carnaroli said Penn's financial performance was marked by stability and "substantial growth."

The market value of the total endowment as of June 30 was $3.5 billion. The "consolidated University," including both the Health System and the academic component, concluded with net assets of $5.3 billion.

The first quarter of the fiscal year 2004 ended on Sept. 30, but Carnaroli said that numbers from that three-month period are not yet available.

The Health System is "quite healthy," according to its Chief Executive Officer Ralph Muller. Once a gaping hole on Penn's balance sheet, the Health System generated income from operations for the third year in a row.

The Health System is continuing to increase its regional market share, Muller said, weathering the state's malpractice crisis as other Pennsylvania hospitals and health systems close down programs they can no longer afford to provide. He added that Penn's Health System might get a boost from President Bush's health care plan, which includes increases in funding for hospitals through Medicare.

Meanwhile, Muller also reported that the Health System, retaining the services of executive search firm Spencer Stuart, is continuing to look for a new chief financial officer, having found no candidates up to the job.

Carnaroli said Penn would be fortunate to have the years ahead be as stable as its recent financial history has been.

"As we look ahead, we see a much more challenging environment, for a number of reasons," Carnaroli said, noting that a poor economy could increase pressure on the University for providing student aid while decreasing the funding and philanthropy Penn currently enjoys.

But the Board of Trustees continues to expect further success. Muller's success, for example, drew friendly jibes from trustees insisting that he keep the system in the black anywhere from three to 30 quarters into the future.

"When I used to get a 97, my father would always ask what happened to the other three points, so I know how that feels," outgoing University President Judith Rodin said, drawing more laughs as she commiserated with Muller.

In the spring, the trustees will review initiatives such as Hamilton Square, Wharton West and the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, comparing their business plans to their actual performance.

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