Lyndsey Wajert: Checking the state of the Pequod

GW’s “Great White Whale” has resurfaced.

Professor Donald Parsons was right when he compared the University’s pursuit of a significant new science and engineering complex to Captain Ahab’s tragic hunting of the elusive white whale (“GW’s Great White Whale,” May 19, p. 4) – and before the ship embarks on another phase of its pursuit of the big fish, the captain and crew should realize that they face harsh winds.

Given the turbulent economic seas battering all colleges, GW’s Board of Trustees, administration and faculty should be sure all the important questions have been fully considered before going through with the plan to build a new science and engineering center.

The University has for some time been exploring the construction of the science center. According to The Hatchet, members of the faculty and administration are discussing various cost estimates, ranging up to $350 million, with a projected construction start date falling sometime between 2011 and 2014 (“Faculty discuss science center,” Nov. 17, p. 1).

Proponents of the project point to several potential benefits. According to professor Hermann Helgert, member of the Faculty Senate Special Committee for the Science and Engineering Complex, “From the University’s point of view,” the new complex “would increase the amount of research being conducted in the fields of science and engineering, thus increasing the school’s national standing in a very prominent way.”

David Dolling, dean for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, agreed in an interview this week, saying that with a new facility, his school “can address pressing issues of national concern, from renewable energy sources to sustainability to innovations in medical technologies, all of which involve not only technology and science but policy, economics, business, law and other disciplines . In everyday language, all boats will be lifted by a rising tide.”

Those goals are laudable. Even before University President Steven Knapp’s inauguration in 2007, GW officials have considered moving the University in a new and necessary direction by expanding research and learning opportunities in the engineering and science fields.

The science department has been a casualty of the University’s notable advancement in other academic realms, such as political science and international affairs. Because many of the labs on campus are in a regrettable state, I applaud the University for considering significant steps to elevate the sciences at GW.

The issue of money cannot be ignored on a venture of this magnitude, however. Will donations, indirect returns on research projects and other planned sources provide enough for the University to complete this facet of its 20-year Campus Plan? Do projections of giving made even a year ago still seem valid? And will the effort to raise funds for this one project soak up all the potential donations for other aspects of planned University growth? Do cost considerations outweigh the benefits of expanding the sciences?

It would be unfortunate if the project affected tuition in any way, though administrators say this will not be the case. Current students should not have to put $52,000 a year toward a new building that today’s Colonials will never use. But how can the University make substantial and timely progress if it merely pays as it goes?

I worry that this is not an economically appropriate time for the University to funnel money into a project that may or may not require additional funds in the future. Costs for maintenance, lab and research equipment and, most importantly, the faculty to staff this top-notch facility will be significant. Other universities are scaling back on large projects as endowment levels drop and private donors reassess their giving.

For example, our neighbors at Georgetown have reportedly halted construction of their own science center, set to be completed by 2011 and estimated to cost over $100 million. According to The Hoya, the project’s funding “has been based on both philanthropy and borrowing.” However, Georgetown officials decided that “given the economic volatility, the significant debt the university would incur through borrowing is considered too significant a risk.”

GW likely faces a similar problem. “The economic climate affects endowment, and the willingness of some donors to give money may fall as their financial situations tighten,” Helgert said. “But ultimately we have to monitor the current situation.”

Therefore, while not proposing that the University “abandon ship” in regard to the science center concept, I urge those involved to carefully reassess their answers to the key questions of sources of funding and overall impact of the project.

GW, keep a weather eye on the horizon.

The writer, a freshman majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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