Donald Parsons: S&E Complex will benefit the highest bidders

When the humble and the wealthy of Cologne contributed to their magnificent cathedral, there was little controversy over what activities would be conducted within – souls would be saved according to the guidelines of the Church. Such is not the case with GW’s cathedral (“Cologne Cathedral on 23rd Street?” Feb. 2, p. 4), otherwise known as the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC).

A fall semester “vision” statement on the SEC is as innocent of content as the University’s beloved Strategic Plan for Academic Excellence. As the Chair of the Faculty Senate SEC Committee Hermann Helgert wryly reported after one meeting, the only apparent consensus was that the scientists and engineers should have separate doors for entering the building. (Interdisciplinary research would apparently blossom post-entry.)

Make no mistake, there is a serious controversy underpinning this blurred public vision. The tension is driven by the resource stretch required to finance the building. A well-endowed university would no doubt design its primary science and engineering facility around the needs of students and faculty for lab facilities. A tuition-driven university with a modest tradition of alumni giving may have to stretch beyond the obvious. The GW administration, with its limited endowment and its taste for opulent buildings, is in just such a stretch situation.

The administration’s solution is to limit severely the space allocated to the educational mission of the University and to treat the building as an industrial park. Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman has not hesitated to declare that lab space in the new building will be allocated on a cash basis, with GW scientists, engineers and doctors free to compete for space. Student labs will be limited to one floor, apparently the first for visibility. When asked at a Senate meeting what percent of student labs would be accommodated in the new building, Lehman would only concede “a significant fraction.” He left unsaid whether a significant fraction of student labs would not be accommodated.

Faculty and departmental offices will invariably absorb some additional space, but the nonstudent lab space will be allocated to those with externally sponsored research. If one imagines a building awash with scientists and engineers holding NIH and NSF grants, that may sound perfectly reasonable, but it is important to remember that those grants are at the pinnacle of a funding pyramid, with the broad base composed of projects that assess the impact of cosmetics on the eyeballs of rabbits and similar low-level, but economically interesting activities.

Unfortunately for those who prefer the educational mission approach – with its primary focus on student and faculty lab space – at least one prominent member of the Board of Trustees, Nelson Carbonell, chair of the Board’s SEC Committee, enthusiastically embraces the “industrial park” model. In his meeting with the Faculty Senate SEC committee, he bluntly opined that the University owes science and engineering faculty only an office – lab space is for purchase. As I remarked after the session to one engineer, I can imagine a set of mobile carts, much like those at the Foggy Bottom Metro stop, lined up outside the doors of the SEC, with the less contract-fortunate faculty earnestly conducting their research while students look on. Perhaps an alumni fund could be developed to provide umbrellas for students involved in mobile cart projects.

I have from time to time criticized the current monolithic approach to the SEC structure – essentially finding the largest available space on campus and filling it – as unimaginative. The vision for the interior, an industrial park “six blocks from the White House,” rises to the level of strange. One can hear the splashing of drops into little rabbits’ eyes and the ringing of the University’s cash register – not the excited burble of faculty and student conversations at a major science and engineering intellectual center.

The writer is a professor of economics and a member of the Faculty Senate special committee on financial & operational planning for the Science & Engineering Complex.

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