Tuition, state dollars diverted to research As CSU beefs up research efforts and marketing, burden falls on struggling students, colleges

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Sep 232008
 

By Aaron Hedge and J. David McSwane

As CSU President Larry Penley continues to aggressively market and fundraise for research projects — catapulted by the new “Green University” campaign — university expenditure reports show the criticized efforts are pulling money from financially starved academic colleges.

The increased focus on competing for research dollars in the last five years, namely for the branded “Supercluster” technology transfer concepts, is costing students and the state more money each year, a Collegian investigation found.

Each year since Penley’s arrival in 2003, the university has increasingly pulled millions of dollars from institutional funds for research, leaving less for academic colleges and the library, which are for the first time in the school’s history, drawing less financial support than administration, according to annual university budget reports.

University officials defend the investment of student and taxpayer dollars on research as fulfilling the mission of a 21st century land grant research institution to bring new research to the state, and they say the research improves the value of a CSU degree.

“There are plenty of non-research universities students can go to, but the value of a degree comes from the reputation of the institution, which comes from research,” said Tony Frank, the provost and senior executive vice president. ” … It’s why we exist,” he said.

In his fall address, Penley boasted a record-breaking $303 million in research expenditures for fiscal year 2008. But for every dollar of sponsored research, the university spent 15 cents — about $45 million total — in institutional funds from what’s commonly referred to as the “general fund,” an aggregate account of primarily tuition dollars, state dollars and other less significant revenue streams like private donations.

At the same time, resident undergraduate tuition has increased 52 percent — from $2,907.90 in 2003 to $4,424 today — since Penley’s arrival, and undergraduate student fees have climbed by more than 73 percent, from $836.40 in 2003 to $1449.56 today.

Frank says the investment of student’s dollars in research, which institutional reports show has a negligible monetary return, is controversial among some faculty circles. While he says it’s a wise investment, he said the money could instead be funneled into instruction.

“You’ve got limited resources at CSU,” he said. “There’s research out there that argues you could invest that money somewhere else. And that’s a very legitimate question.”

And as the push continues, CSU’s research expenditures surpass that of peer institutions by 27 percent, up from three years ago when the university was at the bottom of the list of peer institutions. But conversely, CSU falls about 6 percent behind in instructional spending, according to university officials.

And critics of the research campaign say student’s money should go to fund the academic colleges to bring that number up.

“The money that funds this stuff comes out of the general fund,” said John Straayer, a CSU political science professor. “As the burden has been shifting more and more on the students, large chunks of that money aren’t going to the instructional side. I think that’s questionable.”

Despite drastically increased student fees, tuition costs climbing at three times the rate of inflation and state funding falling $832 million behind other states, the president promises to spend more time on the road vying for research grants, which aren’t alleviating the university’s dire financial woes.

Money granted to the university for research can’t legally be used for other university needs — tenure faculty promotion, construction, financial aid, anything that doesn’t apply to the specific research project or associated overhead costs — and is focused almost exclusively on the sciences.

And as the university consistently breaks records each year in overall research expenditures, the amount taken from the general fund also increases, annual CSU expenditure reports show.

Expenditures from sponsored research, mostly from the federal government, have risen 53 percent since 2002, and research spending from the general fund has climbed at 50 percent, according to the expenditure reports.

In total, CSU has spent $246 million from institutional funds for research since 2002, according to university records.

Jim Hearn, a higher education finance expert with the Institute of Higher Education in Georgia, said Penley’s focus on research is common among public university presidents who struggle to offset dwindling state funds, but he said the efforts have mixed returns.

“Sometimes, leaders have to trade off certain goals to pursue others,” he said in an e-mail interview. “A president becoming heavily involved in pursuing research funding might be exactly the wrong choice in one institution, but quite appropriate in another.”

As Penley charges the institution with becoming carbon-neutral by 2020 as part of the internationally recognized “green university” campaign, the funneling of tuition and state dollars into research and away from other areas is likely to increase, according to the trend seen in expenditure reports over the last five years.

Frank defended the increased focus on research, saying it provides more opportunities for faculty to conduct research and for students to be involved. But the expenditures have no short-term positive impact on most undergraduate and graduate students, especially those in non-research majors like the liberal arts.

Straayer charges Penley with not prioritizing the academic mission of the school and paints the increased focus on research spending as “very expensive public relations” that can’t benefit the instructional side “even if we bring it in by the train loads.”

“I don’t think that, in the long-run, you serve the students, and ultimately the state, to raise money that can’t be used on instruction,” said Straayer, currently in his 41st year of teaching at CSU.

Straayer, an expert in state and local governments, said Penley and his administration should spend less time marketing and fundraising for research grants and more time at the Capitol, working to fix the way the state funds CSU.

“Is he going to go out and raise money for tuition relief?” he said. “I would say that the number one priority of any president in this state is to work cooperatively with each other, the governor and the legislature.”

Frank said the university has not backed off efforts at the Capitol and alluded to an official university campaign for financing reform in the future. He didn’t provide details about the campaign because it’s “in the silent stage,” he said.

While state lawmakers laude Penley’s efforts to aggressively pursue research funding, they cite questions of transparency as the president spends large amounts of time on the road talking to investors and neglecting what they said are Penley’s duties to candidly disclose the direction of fundraising efforts to them.

“I think the university should be talking to the legislators more and the media more,” said Sen. Steve Johnson (R – Larimer County), who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, a six-person board charged with setting the state’s budget and allocating state funds to CSU. “We’d like to be included more, so we can tell people how their tax dollars are being spent.”

Considering what he called a “flawed system” for funding higher education at the state level, Rep. John Kefalas (D – Fort Collins) applauded Penley’s efforts to focus on research, which he said can be a wise investment.

But he said he plans to meet face-to-face with Penley and other administrators to ensure tuition dollars are focused on instruction.

“Academic instruction is the highest priority,” he said. “… For me, the bottom line is that we don’t put all of this on the backs of students. … We need to make sure we’re good stewards of those dollars.”

In addition to meeting with administration, Kefalas said he plans to talk with student government and Faculty Council to discuss the school’s budget.

“I think that research is part of academics, but the question is: Where is all this money coming from, and how is it used?” he said. “I’d want to make sure CSU is demonstrating the highest level of transparency on how these decisions are being made.”

News Managing Editor Aaron Hedge and Enterprise Editor J. David McSwane can be reached at tips@collegian.com.