Donald Parsons: GW’s Great White Whale

A university headed by an English professor needs no reminder that the Pequod and all but one on board were doomed by an obsession. The obsession in GW’s case is the inclusion of a massive, precariously funded science building in the Campus Plan.

The need for new science facilities is great. For decades the sciences at GW have suffered the indignities of the poor stepchild, with resource problems that extend well beyond physical facilities. Over the last decade, the Faculty Senate has on several occasions singled out new science facilities as the No. 1 building priority.

The question is one of balance. Is it reasonable to go from student laboratories inferior to those in many local high schools to the lumbering behemoth envisioned for 23rd and H streets? The University’s own planning model would say no. GW’s Strategic Plan for Academic Excellence states that the University will build on its strengths, which now include an excellent Law School, good medical and business schools, and a vibrant mix of undergraduate and graduate programs in the Elliott School and Columbian College, including notable, focused programs in evolution and biodiversity, environmental chemistry and low-energy physics.

Of course, further investments in the sciences will have to be made if we are not to be a Potomac/Political Science version of the London School of Economics. Nonetheless, it is odd that the one truly large academic investment in the Campus Plan is wholly inconsistent with its grand strategy of building on strength.

Theory aside, harpooning the White Whale, as Ahab found, is dangerous. The behemoth science center is a serious financial risk to the University. Budget estimates for the building alone of $240 million were floated in years past, with speculation that inflation might push that figure to $400 million. The cost of staffing the science center with a large number of additional high-quality scientists and engineers could easily exceed the center’s construction costs. This would be financially daunting at a top-ten university, much less a chronically cash-strapped GW.

So how would this project, the total of which is uncomfortably close to the University’s total endowment, be financed? Not much can come from the “usual suspects” – students and their tuition payments, which have already been squeezed to fund other building projects. Despite University President Steven Knapp’s obvious charm, it is unlikely to come from gifts. A large, comprehensive science and engineering building is not easy for a major donor to love.

Obsession, of course, frees planning from any serious connection to reality. The administration appears to believe that much of the money can come from externally funded research contracts, especially if one treats “indirect” contributions as free money. Across campus, faculty members “below deck” have heard Ahab’s excited stumping as the White Whale gets closer, with each thump the call for more externally funded research.

The administration also appears to believe that large numbers of extremely productive scientists and engineers can be recruited to GW cheaply, each of whom will bring with them more free money. These “plans” go one step beyond Ahab’s obsession. Ahab at least had a harpoon forged on board the Pequod. The administration is proposing that Moby Dick supply the weapon and harpoon itself. One need not be an economist to recognize that this is a risky business plan.

So what might Chief Mate Starbuck, the voice of reason, say at a GW planning meeting? He might argue for a rapid upgrade of the science facilities for current students and faculty in tandem with building a smaller, more targeted science building, one that extends the research capabilities of current students and faculty, and provides room for reasonable faculty expansion.

To give a concrete example of a smaller, targeted approach, Oregon State University recently completed a successful $80 million drive to fund a science building, the Linus Pauling Institute for nutritional research. This focused project builds on OSU’s special research strengths and offers a concrete, appealing concept to fundraisers.

I think Starbuck would urge GW to be similarly creative.

The writer is a professor of economics in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.