Board approves $10M for science center

The Board of Trustees has authorized the University to spend $10 million this year on initial planning for a proposed Science and Engineering Complex, marking the first major step in a project that would drastically shift GW’s academic focus and likely cost about $300 million.

Faculty and University officials have discussed the building for many years as a replacement for GW’s ailing science facilities. Though it is widely supported among the top administration, some faculty members have recently voiced concern about how the building will be funded – as it would be the most expensive construction project in University history.

At a Student Association town hall on Monday, University President Steven Knapp said the construction would likely be funded from government grants, fundraising and rent from the unfinished Square 54 complex. He was unsure what percentage each would eventually contribute.

The lease at Square 54 nets $9 million a year for the University’s endowment – a fund that pays out about 4 percent each year. Additionally, the University garners an average of less than $100 million every year in fundraising.

The vote to approve the $10 million, which took place at the Board’s February meeting, was conducted in a private session – and neither its occurrence nor its outcome were mentioned in public packets or post-meeting interviews. Knapp said Monday that he was unsure why that happened, adding “There is nothing private about rationale for the $10 million.”

Lou Katz, executive vice president and treasurer, said the Board’s approval of the $10 million in planning was not a go-ahead for the entire project. A good deal of the money is expected to be devoted to architectural planning, Knapp said.

“The simple purpose is to move forward on planning,” Katz said. “Keep in mind that the Board has not approved construction, just planning for it. We are keeping our options open.”

Katz, who said the earliest construction could begin would be early 2011, called the Science and Engineering Complex a high priority and rejected the suggestion that renovating the current facilities would be adequate.

“To be the University we are and the University we want to be, we need to leap from where we’ve been for science and engineering,” Katz said. Two years ago, the science center was approved as the top priority for academic construction by the Faculty Senate.

Don Parsons, economics professor and member of the Faculty Senate Committee on the Science and Engineering Complex, has been one of the most outspoken faculty members about his concerns with the proposed building.

“As an economist, more sincerely, the objective that it is the monolithic center or nothing at all does not make sense. They aren’t considering the alternatives,” Parsons said. “This is just irrational from an economist’s perspective.”

Parsons added that he feels the Board has been lacking in transparency with the project.

“It has been a relatively secretive operation,” he said. “It has been too closely held.”

But Allan From, chair of the Board of Trustees Committee on Student Affairs, said at a meeting in February that the majority of the Faculty Senate “continues to support the advancement of the science and engineering building.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman said the University’s lack of space to expand means the Science and Engineering Complex is even more necessary. He listed a number of reasons why the complex would be beneficial not only to the science and engineering departments, but the University as a whole.

“The complex will enhance GW’s ability to recruit science, technology, mathematics, engineering, undergraduate and graduate students. It will provide as a great recruitment tool to bring world-class faculty,” he said. “It will also support the University’s strategic plan for academic excellence.”

“Not only is it a priority of the University, but the growth of science and engineering is a national priority,” Lehman said. “President Obama urged the restoration of science. Our faculty wants to be a part of that to address the national priority.”

Lehman added that the next step is for the plans to be approved by the Board of Trustees, which he predicts will be in May 2010.

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