East Coast school's funding ignites debate

by Jim Parsons

Daily Cougar Staff

Disputes over a budget analysis from the University of Rhode Island have sparked a national debate over whether federal research grants to American universities have led to rises in tuition.

In January, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page article that claimed undergraduate students at URI are subsidizing the university's research programs with no direct benefit to the student body.

Moreover, the article claimed undergraduates in humanities and fine arts programs make up most of the difference.

"It costs more to get grants and administer research projects than the grants pay," wrote Ron Grossman and Charles Leroux of the Tribune, "creating a deficit passed on to students in the form of tuition increases."

The article went on to report that URI's $4,404 tuition could be reduced by half without the research grants.

However, administrators at URI contested the Tribune's report, saying the reporters had misinterpreted the numbers issued by the university.

Alvin K. Swonger, who oversaw URI's budget report preparation, said it is "roughly true" that undergraduates cover the cost of their education while state appropriations are used for research and graduate programs. Therefore, it is not accurate to say students bear as much of the burden of research costs as was reported by the Tribune.

The Tribune published a correction Feb. 4 that said Grossman and Leroux's analysis of the budget was incorrect. The correction claimed each URI undergraduate student pays about $410 to cover research, 17 percent of tuition, rather than $1,900, 50 percent.

Nevertheless, Grossman and Leroux stated undergraduates should not be expected to subsidize any research when most of the researchers never set foot inside a classroom.

M. Beverly Swan, URI vice president for academic affairs, said many schools are trying to find ways for undergraduates to participate in research. "It's a rich opportunity for students to work with faculty who are very actively engaged in research," she said.

Despite the dispute, Grossman said he stands by the figures he originally reported, and said the Tribune correction was published because the newspaper neglected to confirm the figures with him and Leroux.

He also said he believes his report contradicts the established beliefs among university staff that the science programs support the humanities.

"I spent 20 years in higher education as a professor of medieval history," he said, "and the chemists always gave me that kind of look that said, `We're earning your keep here.'"

The Providence Sunday Journal published in February that the report from URI, no matter what the correct figures are, should be a matter of concern for research universities everywhere. "Whatever the cost," said Morgan McVicker of the Journal, "a URI student or parent may well question whether he or she should be paying for (research projects)."

Robert L. Carothers, president of URI, said, "Research at URI does not detract from the quality of education for students nor increase its cost.

"Indeed, it makes the university an exciting, challenging place for our students to learn and assures that our faculty are at the advanced edge of their disciplines."

Grossman and Leroux said, "Because universities all operate in basically the same fashion, the implications of Rhode Island's study apply to campuses across the nation."

The Journal said URI's study has the potential to turn the nation's research system on its ear. Indeed, that might be the case, but not until a specific problem is diagnosed, and that might be a long time coming.

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