Donald Parsons: GW needs to reconsider expensive new center

Though few have read it, including apparently some top administrators, the University’s “Strategic Plan for Academic Excellence” is often held to be a guiding star for all University activity. If one regularly reads the output of Rice Hall, one might imagine that no leaf falls in Foggy Bottom that was not preordained by the Strategic Plan. That makes an actual reading of the Strategic Plan a bit of a disappointment, which in turn may explain why so few have done so.

Somewhat unfairly, I once derided the Strategic Plan in these pages as “innocent of content.” That is not quite the case. A critical reading of the Strategic Plan from a planning perspective reveals one principle: that the University is committed to building on strength, or “selective excellence” as the plan labels it. Of course, such an approach hardly provides the intellectual focus needed to lead a university to greatness, and I gave the framers of the plan correspondingly little credit.

As often happens in life, however, one begins to appreciate the little things when they are taken away. To appreciate even the simplest decision – like building on strength – one only has to face the alternative. In this case GW’s administration, with the zealous encouragement of the Board of Trustees, has decided that the cruelly underfunded science and engineering programs are to be provided with a grand Science and Engineering Complex. The SEC will loom over Foggy Bottom, loudly proclaiming GW’s rebirth as a science university, indeed the only one six blocks from the White House.

Given its current prominence, one might be surprised to find that there is no whisper of this grand project in the Strategic Plan. Indeed it is inconsistent with it. Perhaps one needs the coldness of an economist to observe that this project is building on weakness. As I have written earlier, the engineering school has survived, just barely, for decades on the largesse of tuition-paying students in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Elliott School of International Affairs and the Business School. The sciences have perhaps paid for themselves, but largely because they have been given so little. The surprise is that excellence occasionally blossomed despite the conditions. Indeed, I was for a day or two a star in my 11-year-old daughter’s eyes when she found I actually knew Alison Brooks, who teaches at GW and whose research was featured on PBS’s “The Human Spark.” That said, many science departments have had a good year when they graduate one or two Ph.D students.

This weakness is no reflection on science and engineering faculty members, whose commitment to educating GW students transcends their distress at working under lamentable lab conditions. And make no mistake, the present science labs are a disgrace, enough so that even the Faculty Senate has taken notice and called for better science facilities. The engineering faculty members in the Faculty Senate argued that it is similarly outdated, and it too was added to the Faculty Senate’s plea for better facilities. However, I suspect that few in the Faculty Senate imagined that this modest call for a facilities upgrade would morph into the massive Science and Engineering Complex.

One is reminded of this folly when reading that the administration intends to fund the SEC by dedicating the indirect cost reimbursements on science and engineering grants and contracts for the foreseeable future to the building fund. This financing model is an unlikely path to populating the SEC with researchers in whom the University can take pride. High-quality researchers expect a university to support them, not have them fund the university’s grand building dreams. One can predict that the SEC building funds the University is able to extract from its science and engineering researchers will be inversely related to the quality of their research. All research monies are not equal; the lower-end research needed to fund the monolith carries with it great risks to GW’s reputation and integrity.

GW now has in place a new president who in turn has a new provost, each fully capable of serious strategic planning. With the economy strained and fundraising for the SEC apparently dead in the water, does it not make sense to pause and have them carefully consider what the University does well, and how it might cleverly take its next steps? It might yet emerge that turning the Strategic Plan on its head makes sense, but it is unlikely.

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

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