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Panel accepts Food Research Institute closure, wants improved transition plan
STANFORD -- Despite protests from faculty, students and alumni, the Advisory Board of the Academic Council on Friday, Dec. 1, accepted a recommendation by the dean of humanities and sciences to close the Food Research Institute.
The seven-member faculty board, however, released a statement that said it was "not fully satisfied with the proposed transition plan" and asked the provost, who also has accepted the plan, "to provide a revised restructuring and transition plan" for the board's review.
The recommendation to close the institute as a degree-granting department of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and to transfer its endowment to a new interdisciplinary development center, possibly within the Institute for International Studies, now will go to President Gerhard Casper.
Institute director Scott Pearson, who has led an effort to retain the institute, all but conceded Monday, Dec. 4, that the institute will be closed.
In a letter to friends of the department, Pearson wrote that "it is highly unlikely that the president will overturn a decision that has been made by the dean of humanities and sciences and affirmed first by the provost and then by the advisory board. Stanford's Board of Trustees will have to approve of this decision, but normally that is a formality," Pearson wrote. "Officially, the final decision to close FRI will not be made until February, since the Board will not meet in January."
Pearson and others have claimed that the closure will cost the university at least $600,000 annually, primarily from the loss of tuition from master's students. The 74-year-old institute, which does fieldwork and other research in Asia, Africa and Latin America on agriculture and development issues, currently has nine tenured faculty, four junior faculty, 31 doctoral students and 40 master's students. It has an endowment of $12 million plus four endowed faculty chairs.
In a press release, Pearson said that "the core issue comes down to this - how best to use FRI's $1 million a year in endowment income. FRI wants to use it to invest in teaching and research on important world economic and food issues in developing countries; the administration apparently wants to use it to start over with some kind of new development center and to cover costs in other [existing] departments."
Psychology Professor Amos Tversky, who chairs the Advisory Board of the Academic Council, said the board's role is to judge only whether an organizational decision of the administration was reasonable. "We have taken the view that it is not the case that the university is precluded from making organizational changes," he said, but that "the university has a responsibility, when such changes do occur, to use its best judgment to make an effort to try to minimize the cost, and to make the transition as smooth as possible."
As part of the board's responsibility to "protect the interests of faculty and students," Tversky said, the board asked that the transition plan ensure that Food Research faculty are "able to continue research in their area and find a satisfactory arrangement where they can continue teaching and research with minimal disruption."
The board also asked, he said, that the provost's plan "make sure that students in a Ph.D. program will be able to complete their study in the best possible way."
The board did not set a deadline for the transition plan, but Tversky said his "general impression is that the provost is moving right ahead on that. . . . I expect all that to be resolved in the near future. We are not talking about weeks but certainly [within a few] months."
The Institute for International Studies (IIS) has been raised as "a very natural place" to put a new interdisciplinary center on food policy and Third World development issues, Tversky said. IIS, created in 1986 to "promote excellence in international research and teaching," has other research centers under its umbrella and, according to its recent newsletter, has doubled its expenditure base in the past five years to $12 million in 1994-95. It is directed by Walter Falcon, previously director of the Food Research Institute.
Tversky said that he hopes the provost's transition plan "will also be discussed in detail with faculty and get input from faculty. People within IIS, too. There is quite a bit of planning and designing to do," he said.
Originally, the transition plan outlined by John Shoven, dean of humanities and sciences, in an Oct. 30 letter to Pearson, called for maintaining the department "for the four years or so it takes to wind down the Ph.D. program" and for the launching of the new research center by 1996-97. Shoven said he would ask the economics department to set up a committee to consider absorbing some FRI faculty members and said that no tenured faculty members would lose their jobs. Junior faculty could stay, if they wished, through 1997-98.
The plan drew criticism from Food Research alumni and others in international development, prompting some to buy advertisements in the Stanford Daily. Comments by Manuela Ferro, an economist for the World Bank and a 1994 Food Research graduate, were typical. She wrote from Angola, where she said she is "working to rebuild a country that had endured 30 years of war," that her studies at Stanford directly applied to her job and that there was no shortage of job offers for the institute's graduates.
Shoven, however, had argued that the institute did not meet Stanford's academic standards and was "not high on a measure of academic centrality to the university."
Predictably, many food research faculty and students who have been fighting the closure were disappointed by the advisory board's decision but said it came as no surprise, given the recommendations from the university's administration.
"It essentially means that the two-thirds of humanity who have not yet shared in the fruits of prosperity have lost their voice on campus," said Marcel Fafchamps, an assistant professor at the institute. "[No faculty] will be there to share their firsthand experience of Third World villages and barrios with Stanford undergraduate, M.A. and Ph.D. students. Economic development as a field will be left in the hands of people who are not truly committed to the issues, who see development concerns as academic puzzles to be resolved from their armchairs."
Fafchamps said he viewed the idea of moving development research into IIS as a "joke." That institute, he said, "is more interested in organizing conferences and symposiums with flashy titles and recycled politicians than in contributing to scholarly pursuits," he said. "IIS is being used as a convenient way to 'park' the senior faculty and to apportion among other departments the 'bounty,' that is, FRI's endowment funds - given to Stanford to study world food and development issues - and FRI's faculty positions."
IIS director Falcon said that "a development-oriented center is very consistent with what IIS was set up to do. . . . The primary role of IIS is to promote innovative, policy-relevant research that drives forward the university's scholarly agenda in ways that are inter-school and international in character. . . . I believe our record on scholarly activity is outstanding."
Fafchamps, who was to be reviewed for tenure this year, said he will probably find a job elsewhere, but "the fate of the students is even bleaker than that of the faculty, and that is what angers me the most. Our students have been wonderful during the whole review period mobilizing themselves and providing incredible support to the institute. So far, no provision whatsoever has been made in writing about their future."
Doctoral students who are three or more years into the program say they are concerned that there won't be faculty qualified to serve on their dissertation committees and guide their research, while those who are just beginning are concerned about whether their fellowships, research grants and credits will transfer elsewhere.
"We feel that the university should be very generous in providing flexibility and support for individual students seeking to transfer to other departments and programs," said doctoral student Albert Park, who will graduate this year. He added that students "also feel a deep sense of injustice that the university would close a high-quality program without any significant criticism of the program's value and no discernible benefits from closure."
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