Get Universities Back On The Dean's List

The research university is one of America's great strengths, a bastion of cutting-edge science andtop-notch education. But these exalted institutions arefalling on tough times. And because many of their prob-lems are of their own making, it's hard to muster much sympathy.

The sad story goes something like this: For the past decade or so, Uncle Sam has been particularly generous to university science, giving away $8.5 billion in 1989 alone. Research universities grew like weeds, spending federal dollars to add more scientists and build new laboratories. But since each new researcher attracts graduate students, each of whom begins to clamor for grants, the process can't continue indefinitely. Now we have the sorry spectacle of eminent scientists complaining about a crisis in funding at a time when support actually continues to increase. They don't seem to realize that neither they nor their acolytes have an inalienable right to dine from the federal trough.

That's not all. During this period of growth, universities have tended to neglect basic maintenance and renovation of existing labs, creating a real crisis in facilities. In the past year, two additional blows have hurt the universities' credibility. The notorious case of Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who co-authored a paper shown to be based on false data, has starkly highlighted the failure to adequately prevent misconduct and misuse of federal research dollars. So has the scandal of indirect costs. In most cases, universities haven't done anything illegal. But they should know better than to bill Uncle Sam for parties, plane rides, or the lobbying costs of the Baltimore case.

It's time for universities to reenter the real world. They can no longer assume that taxpayers will foot the bill for endless expansion, more empire building, or lavish perks. It's time for more accountability and a return to basics. In most cases, that probably means pruning some departments in order to concentrate on areas of strength. And it means putting the university's primary mission--education--ahead of devoting increasing shares of resources to federally funded research. We have some of the world's best universities--let's keep it that way.

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