Donald Parsons: Culture war in Rice Hall?

The Science and Engineering Complex is controversial among both faculty and administrators. Science and engineering faculty members are desperate for new facilities, which the faculty as a whole has endorsed. That said, many faculty were unhappy with the building emphasis of the Trachtenberg administration, which aggressively channeled student tuition dollars into “reserves” and ultimately into building projects that the past president found more interesting than education.

With key administrators remaining from that old guard, these faculty members looked on nervously as shadows of a massive science and engineering center began to flit by, in campus plans and elsewhere.

With his extraordinary academic record, President Knapp seemed the perfect leader to return GW to its core values of education and research, and he did not disappoint. When Arthur Wilmarth, chair of the Senate Executive Committee, approached the president last spring with the idea of creating a senate committee on the SEC to increase transparency, he willingly agreed.

At the committee’s first meeting, Knapp emphatically signaled the end of the Trachtenberg era with a declaration that SEC funding would not come from student tuition dollars, but entirely from new sources, including philanthropy, increased science and engineering indirect cost recoveries and some portion of the revenue from Square 54. The president’s pronouncement was much welcomed by faculty and reconfirmed as administration policy by Executive Vice President and University Treasurer Lou Katz at a full meeting of the Senate.

Of course a presidential pronouncement does not insure compliance and there are strong indications that a culture war over the SEC between educators and builders continues in the highest reaches of the administration. Indeed there is some reason to fear that the president has wearied in his struggles with the zealous champions of the grand edifice on the Board of Trustees and among remaining top administrators from the last administration.

The first sign of turmoil popped up in an unexpected place, a draft final report of the Faculty Senate SEC committee by Hermann Helgert, committee chair. To the consternation of other committee members, Helgert had excised the president’s promise to fund the SEC only through new sources and substituted the standard Trachtenberg plan, which includes a generous helping of “reserves,” the standard University conduit from student tuition payments to building projects, as well as debt, whose service is born by current students. All of this he initially attributed to the “administration,” though he later became vaguer.

Before the faculty even had a proper chance to gossip about the shadow figure in Rice Hall who might presume to overrule the president, the president himself stepped forward, seemingly announcing his surrender to the builders (“University to take on more debt to build SEC,” April 16, p. 1). The recantation was curiously couched, however, including puzzling reassurances that he was going to get revenue from debt, while still promising not to raid student tuition monies.

The debt issue itself is a slippery one, because inflows and outflows might not exactly match and short-term debt might accumulate even under the original promise. In a direct quotation in the interview, however, the president seems to say that he had decided to float debt as an alternative to fundraising, “How much we need to borrow is dependent on how much we raise .” This could speak to timing – we have gifts coming in, but want to start work sooner – but that is not the most obvious interpretation. We are going to spend even if donors do not provide the resources, which means only one thing in a tuition-dependent university.

This announcement, obviously unsettling to educators on campus, was followed by an official statement a week later, (see clarification, April 23, p. 2) in which the president reaffirmed that the three original sources of money would repay the debt. Either the president never meant to recant on his pledge or decided to recant on his recantation.

At the moment, the president’s pledge not to raid student tuition payments, with its inevitable “retrenchment” of teaching and advising services, remains intact, but the events of recent weeks suggest that the president and his pledge may be less secure than “educators” on campus would like.

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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