The College Park Foundation, which solicited private donations to pay for the project, was well aware that the plan might look bad to some, said foundation President Brodie Remington.
Student leaders and alumni have expressed concerns about the flagship university's spending priorities.
"It bothers us," said John Tynan, an alumnus and father of a freshman on the swimming team, one of the eight varsity sports programs slated to be cut. "It all comes down to priorities and what they feel is important. If they were able to raise money for this, then they could have raised money for other things as well."
Tynan serves on the board of a nonprofit group that has raised about $1 million in hopes of saving the university's swimming and diving teams.
The new facility will include a four-bedroom residence and a party space for up to 350 people. The 4,000-square-foot residence is expected to cost about $2 million. The price exceeds that of a normal upscale home, Remington said, because the university opted for unusually durable materials, geothermal heat and other environmentally friendly features. "We're using nice materials but definitely nothing over-the-top," he said.
The 10,000-square-foot entertaining space will include a catering kitchen, room for a 125-person dining area (the old house could serve 48) and audiovisual capabilities for presentations.
The 55-year-old house had drafty windows and out-of-sync utility systems, was inaccessible to the disabled and was inadequate for entertaining potential donors, Remington said. He argued that the new facility will pay for itself many times over with the donations it will help attract.
He said the foundation easily found donors who were eager to fund a new presidential house on top of their gifts to other parts of the university. "They tend to see it as an investment that's going to pay dividends," he said.
The private funding helped the foundation win approval this month from the state Board of Public Works. But the lack of public cost was not enough to sway Comptroller Peter Franchot, who cast a dissenting vote. Franchot said the project seemed frivolous in light of the university's recent decision to cut sports teams to save $29 million over the next eight years.
"It doesn't look good," the comptroller said.
Presidential houses have prompted controversies at other state universities. Towson University President Mark L. Perkins stepped down in 2002 amid a furor over spending on a new presidential mansion.
Remington said that former College Park President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. never wanted the house replaced or refurbished on his watch because of the likely backlash.
Remington said the university has not received a large number of critical responses to the plan since recent news reports about the Board of Public Works vote.
He said the foundation could not use donations for the house to fund other programs, even if it wished to do so. He emphasized that the 20 donors promised that their gifts would not come at the expense of other contributions.
"They have chosen to make a special, above-and-beyond gift for University House," Remington wrote in an email last Tuesday, "and have indicated their intent to continue supporting their 'regular' causes on campus."
Crews demolished the house over a weekend in early January. Remington said the university hopes the new 14,000-square-foot facility will be ready to use by the beginning of the fall semester.
Remington said the foundation put out a request for proposals for the project, and the bids of all five finalists fell in a tight price range. He said Forrester Construction of Bethesda was chosen because the company did excellent work on the campus' health center and football field house.
University President Wallace D. Loh bought a house off-campus instead of living in the old residence. Remington said he assumes Loh will move into the new house, though he said the president has not been involved in planning the facility, which was conceived before his 2010 hiring. Loh could not be reached for comment last week.