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An Interview with MIT President Charles M. Vest

From "A National Mission: A Special Report from the Office of MIT President Charles M. Vest," a supplement included with the December 10, 1997 issue of MIT Tech Talk.

Q: Why have you devoted so much of your time--and significant Institute resources--to MIT's Washington relationships?

A: Literally from the moment I came in the door of MIT, it was very clear that a highly productive 40-year partnership between U.S. research universities and the federal government was badly eroding. It seemed to me that the president of MIT not only had a bully pulpit to talk about the issue of research universities and their relation to the federal government, but that mending the relationship would be essential to our future.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about how that role has evolved?

A: First of all, I encouraged the Clinton administration to recreate PCAST [Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology]. That didn't mean that I wanted or intended to a member. But I was certainly very honored to be asked, together with Phil Sharp and Mario Molina from MIT. I am currently involved with Professor Jeff Tester in what I think may turn out to be the most important PCAST study to date, which is the study of the nation's research and development agenda in the field of energy.

Q: MIT was instrumental in establishing the Science Coalition in 1995. What messages has this new umbrella advocacy group delivered--and to what effect?

A: The Science Coalition, which grew out of an initial concept at Harvard and at MIT, has now grown to an informal group of about 60 research universities.

Our goal has been to more effectively promote the value of publicly-supported research at our universities, both to the Congress and to the general public. I think the most important outcome of that has been the formation of the Senate Science and Technology Caucus, which is led by Republicans Pete Domenici and Bill Frist, and Democrats Joe Lieberman and Jay Rockefeller.

The Coalition also has worked to place various editorials and op-ed pieces in newspapers around the country. The goal in this effort is to keep the importance of science and engineering research in front of people and remind the public of how research is publicly funded and where the work gets done.

Q: Some observers say that deficit control will mean major cuts in federal research grants over time--yet in the last few years research spending has held its own or even expanded. How bad--or good--is the actual situation?

A: I can see why there may be confusion--but it's very important to understand what didn't happen. For much of this decade, both Congressional and administration budget projections showed a decline in science and technology accounts of between 20 and 30 percent in real dollars. The real impact to date has been far less severe. Agency by agency, we frequently have lost a bit of ground, at least to inflation--but had it not been for the efforts we've made to educate people about the importance of science, technology and advanced education, those predictions very well might have come true. Of course, tax revenues have ended up being substantially higher than they were at the time these dire projections were made, and we are very close now to having a balanced budget. All that has been veryhelpful.

Nonetheless, the research budgets of the Department of Defense are under enormous stress--and they are extremely important because they support more than 40 percent of all federal funding for engineering schools across the country. So the threat was and is real.

The second thing that we at MIT must understand is the amount of real damage that is being done to us in the fine structure of how research funds are expended. The amount of administrative and other costs that we are reimbursed for in our research accounts has declined dramatically. Changes in what the federal government will pay for as necessary components of research activity are already costing MIT 20 million dollars per year--and that annual hit will increase to about 50 million dollars a year starting in fiscal '99. These are major stresses on MIT's overall budget.

The third problem is that the cost reimbursement rules--as well as a series of caps implemented by several agencies, particularly NIH--have greatly constrained the federal sources available for the support of graduate students. That has been and will continue to be a very major issue for us.

Q: Some observers assert that, in the current climate of cost shifting, chasing new federal dollars can actually drive up tuition. Is that happening here, or might it happen?

A: The term "cost shifting," as I use it, refers to those items in a university's budget that used to be reimbursed by the federal government but are no longer paid for by them. These costs--all of which are real and legitimate--must now be borne by the institution and, in a private university like MIT, we really have only two other sources of revenue. One is tuition and the other is private support: our endowment or annual flow of gifts. There is no question that we are in a period in which we are going to have to use those sources to fund about 35 million dollars a year that used to be paid for by the federal government.

The largest part of that derives from the fact that the federal government's Office of Management and Budget has decreed that, starting during the next fiscal year, we are no longer allowed to reimburse the tuition of our graduate research and teaching assistants from the employee benefit pool. These dollars simply have to be picked up somewhere else.

On the other hand, it is not fair to say that changes in federal policy have caused our tuition to rise faster. Every economic argument imaginable would indicate that we should raise tuition at a faster rate than we do. We have been restraining the growth of the cost of education--that is, tuition, room and board--to be within approximately one and a half percentage points of the consumer price index. We are trying to make up these other elements by gaining cost efficiencies through our reengineering process and through overt fund-raising activities to better support graduate education.

Q: You said in the past that this is one example of the way that some federal policies seem to be driving a wedge between research and education. Can you cite other examples?

A: The policies of several federal funding agencies--NIH in particular--indicate that getting the research done is the most important thing to them, and the educational component comes second. There appears to be more of a "research procurement" approach in a variety of the agencies. I think we have to keep fighting against this, because it has been this wonderful blending of research and education that has made American research universities the envy of the rest of the world.

Q: Do you see any serious problems in the area of federal tuition assistance, both for undergraduates and graduates?

A: I think, on the whole, we should be very pleased that the administration and the Congress have agreed on substantial increases--through both tax policy and scholarship programs--to financial aid at the undergraduate level.

Given the best of all possible worlds, I would make a few changes. I would place emphasis on increasing the amount of funding that goes into programs like Pell Grants, that purely and simply award funds to students who really cannot afford full tuition. I would also certainly continue to keep loan repayment interest rates as low as possible. And I would spread the financial aid a little less thinly across all income brackets.

In the research end of the graduate education domain, I would ideally like to see a return to the days in which the various federal agencies--NASA, the Departments of Energy, Defense, and so forth--made available a substantial number of outright fellowships which enabled the very best students in the country to attend the best university to which they could gain admission and which in turn paid the full costs of tuition and a reasonable stipend to those students. And, needless to say, I would try to see that the legitimate costs of research were fully funded.

Q: The recently-established Congressional Commission on the Cost of Higher Education says it wants to find out why the average college tuition has risen faster than inflation. What do you see as the key factors contributing to this trend?

A: Providing a first-class university education at a place like MIT is by definition a very people-intensive activity. One of the reasons one pays a high tuition here at the institute is to gain direct access to world-class scholars, to maintain a good infrastructure for learning, and to maintain low ratios of students to faculty. On the order of 75 percent of our budget goes to salaries, wages and benefits. So, if people's compensations are going to rise at a reasonable rate, and if we are going to continually maintain and upgrade the quality of our infrastructure and the services we provide, costs will simply continue to rise.

We also must recognize that, over the past two decades, we've seen substantial growth in the range, number and quality of services provided by American colleges and universities. Schools like MIT haveto provide a police force, maintain and expand housing, provide appropriate counseling, medical services--a whole range of things that go well beyond the classroom. And people have to recognize that there is a relationship between the comprehensiveness of what we have to provide to our students and our community and the attendant costs.

Q: When universities approach Congress and other agencies for new funding, they are often told to streamline their own budgets first. Do you think that's fair?

A: It 's a legitimate response. Universities are stewards of taxes paid by men and women all across the country, many of whom are not as privileged as those of us who live, work and study at MIT. I believe we have a deep responsibility to steward those funds. For example, as everyone here knows, we are totally reworking our financial systems, through the implementation of a commercially available financial package from SAP. This effort has been undertaken in an attempt--and one that I am absolutely confident will be successful--to operate in a much more efficient and cost effective manner.

We believe--and the federal auditors who have looked at what we are doing also believe--that, in the long run, this will be a substantial help in managing administrative costs at MIT. Together with the improvement of the quality of service, cost management has been the driving force behind all of our reengineering activities.

Q: What about the role for faculty and students in helping to mend fences in the federal relationship?

A: One of the reasons universities found themselves six or seven years ago in such difficulty was that we really had not devoted enough effort to explaining to the very people who support us--namely, the public and the government--what we do, why we do it, and why it's important. We did not humanize our science and our technology sufficiently. We did not articulate well enough why the humanities and the arts are so important to the life of the nation. And we paid a price for it.

Fortunately, during the last few years, more and more students and faculty have become aware of this--and there have been many more venues in which scientists, engineers, and other faculty members can go to the public and Congress to tell what they do.

It's clear to anyone who sees them in action that our students tell our story better than any of us. The year I spoke on this topic to the National Press Club, I took two of our students along. And my guess is that everybody long ago forgot what I said, but I'll bet they didn't forget the two students. Our students and their colleagues across the nation were all extremely effective this past summer in getting the House to reverse its initial intent to begin applying income tax to tuition that is remitted to our graduate students.

Q: The Washington office has now been in business for six years. Perhaps you can wrap up by talking what you think its major accomplishments have been in that time, and what you think the major challenges are likely to be in future.

A: It is difficult to quantify the value of the activities of our Washington office--Jack Crowley, Toby Smith and their colleagues. But my own view is that it's at least been worth its weight in platinum.

Many of the victories that have been won have been the things that didn't happen. Let me cite one specific example. The change in tuition remission policy for our graduate research and teaching assistants was delayed by nine years from the point at which it was first scheduled. That change alone saved MIT something on the order of 150 million dollars over that period.

I also believe that our office has clearly been the leader in building coalitions, in getting other universities across the contrary to interact more effectively with the government and particularly the Congress. Despite the fact that we still face problems and uncertainties, there is far more good will toward the universities in Washington today than was the case six or seven years ago. and I believe that the staff of the Washington office have been very major contributors to this growth in understanding and good will.

Looking ahead, I believe that the underlying importance of higher education, of science, of technology, of research and scholarship to our quality of life, to the strength of our economy, to our security in many dimensions will continue to be the most important message.

But in the end there is a very difficult balance to be struck. We must avoid presenting an image of universities that is so utilitarian that people begin to forget the still more important underlying value to society of our education of the next generation and in the exploration of the edges of scholarship. Over-reliance on strictly economic justifications has already begun to hurt the quality and range of education at every level of American life.

Public support for universities should properly be seen not only as an investment but also as an expression of faith in the value of knowledge and free inquiry. That's not a simple or easy message, and its successful delivery is, I think, one of the largest challenges we'll face in years ahead.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 10, 1997.

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