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Vest, Wrighton outline state of research university, MIT

President Charles M. Vest and Provost Mark S. Wrighton outlined the state of the research university and MIT at a February 14 luncheon meeting of the Administrative Council.

Giving a quick summary of some highlights of the year, Dr. Vest said he was encouraged by the high interest in MIT by high school seniors. Applications overall to the Admissions Office are up about 25 percent and early-action applications are up 38 percent. The Nobel prize in physics to Professor Emeritus Clifford Shull, the long-term multimillion-dollar renewal grants to major MIT laboratories, and the public's interest in science generated by research scientist Heidi Hammel's televised reports on the comet crash into Jupiter--all of these were expressions of the vitality of MIT as a research university.

For all US research universities, "this is a time of expanding opportunity and eroding support," Dr. Vest said. The environment in which universities operate is changing rapidly, providing both great opportunities and great challenges.

Pollsters reviewing 60 public opinion polls from 1990 to 1993 concluded that "public support for universities is a mile wide, and an inch deep," Dr. Vest said.

Congressional priorities are changing and budget reductions may be very steep, he said. The external forces acting on research universities are profound: the end of the cold war, the globalization of everything and the resulting intense competitiveness, the ubiquitous and rapidly evolving role of information technology in the world, and the demographic changes in the US population.


The survey of polls, he said, gave this picture of American public opinion of universities:

There is considerable public good will toward higher education.

Americans think a college degree is as important as a high school diploma was a generation ago.

The public is committed to access for all needy students and to equity as a function of income.

"The good news of those points is that higher education is a winner in the minds of the American people," he said.

However, the public also believes:

Big-time college sports are sleazy.

When people think about what it costs to finance a college education, they are paralyzed by sticker shock.

Public support is a mile wide, but it is only an inch thick.

People value the credential, not the education.

Opinion leaders--politicians and journalists--are profoundly troubled about higher education.

Politically, higher education is in trouble.


Dr. Vest, who spends one day a month in Washington visiting members of Congress and government officials, then summarized "the issues of the 104th Congress:"

"Basic" research in universities is valued.

"Applied" research, such as the Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP) and the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) sponsored by the federal government, is not viewed favorably.

Academic earmarking is opposed. ("Earmarking" refers to funds appropriated for a specific university for a specific project that has not been subjected to peer review on its merits.)

Indirect research cost issues are still under discussion, and under duress.

The "Contract with America" (of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives) includes $42 billion of cuts in higher education support.

Balancing the budget by 2000 would require a 26 percent cumulative cut over five years.

Dr. Vest noted that discretionary spending in defense and domestic programs account for only 34 percent of the fiscal 1996 federal budget of $1.6 trillion. The non-mandatory domestic programs constitute 17 percent of the budget; defense is 16 percent, and international affairs is 1 percent. The remaining 66 percent is in mandated programs-Social Security account for 22 percent, Medicare and Medicaid 17 percent, interest on the national debt 16 percent, and "other entitlements" at 11 percent of the budget.


Dr. Wrighton then analyzed the MIT situation, commenting, "I'm not sure it's easier to balance the MIT budget."

He cited eight basic commitments: maintaining financial aid and admissions policies; moderating the rate of growth of tuition; hardening faculty salaries; compensating staff competitively; building the diversity of faculty, students and staff; improving the quality and efficiency of services; maintaining flexibility for new academic initiatives; and enhancing support for research and teaching assistants in fiscal 1999.

The financial objectives, he said, are to reduce operating expenses by $40 million (for a net reduction of $25 million) over the next several years. The current budget is $1.1 billion, with an operating gap of $16 million and a deficit of $9 million.

Reserve funds, Provost Wrighton said, are basically exhausted. Without additional funds, "the next step" if there are deficits "is to decapitalize the endowment." Research funding on campus has been more or less constant.

The provost said some academic departments are going through a process of downsizing: physics, nuclear engineering, ocean engineering, and several others.

Dr. Wrighton said programs that have been or are are being eliminated include the supercomputer facility, the Lowell Institute School (June 1996), and academic programs in Russian and in dance.

Other financial moves include tempered salary increases and three years of annual two percent reductions in academic and administrative support budgets.

Improvements in efficiency have been effected with computers, and a significant savings will begin this spring with the opening of the new cogeneration power plant.

A greater faculty commitment to teaching is developing. Faculty are teaching more in the Sloan School and the departments of biology, chemistry and chemical engineering.

Faculty members also are getting more involved in MIT's reengineering, Dr. Wrighton said, citing the work of Dr. Isaac Colbert, associate graduate school dean, in assisting communication with the faculty and enlisting their help on reengineering.

In response to a question about fund raising, Dr. Vest said that MIT had just received a pledge of $5 million for financial aid and that individual support was still growing.

Several members mentioned the need for simple descriptive summaries of MIT accomplishments and research in order to tell the Institute's story to various publics-the financial community, Washington, alumni/alumnae, students and their parents.

Dr. Vest referred to the cover story on "Reengineering MIT" in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine of Jan. 15, and noted that the Association of American Universities viewed it as the first article that has given "a positive view of reengineering" of all the articles about university reengineering in the US. He noted that a major review of MIT's external relations is currently being conducted.

At the close of the luncheon, Dr. Vest commented that the Institute is going through some tough times, but "we can take pride in the fact that MIT is still the primary institution of its kind in the world."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 1995.

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