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Casper addresses higher education cost commission

Stop smothering the research enterprise in red tape, President Gerhard Casper told the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education Oct. 16. If the federal government were truly concerned about college costs, it would absorb more of the overhead expenses for research and loosen its "irrational" regulations, he said.

The commission, appointed in August by Congress and the Department of Education, has taken on the task of examining soaring higher education costs. Its broad mandate includes an examination of everything from tenure and classroom practices to administrative costs. Casper's remarks, however, were more focused.

At Stanford, tuition covers only about two-thirds of the cost of an undergraduate education, while gifts, endowment funds and other investment earnings subsidize even those students who pay the full bill. And that doesn't include funds devoted to providing more than 60 percent of undergraduate students with financial aid, he said.

"Many undergraduates specifically choose a research-intensive university because of the opportunity to interact with faculty members who are at the frontier of their field," said Casper, adding that students who take advantage of these opportunities are "rewarded in ways that cannot be matched in other settings."

Casper highlighted the Undergraduate Research Opportunities program and summer research fellowships offered to undergraduates in engineering, physics and chemistry. He also noted that each year one-third to one-half of graduating seniors have worked with a senior faculty member on an honors thesis or research project.

But providing these opportunities costs money ­ funds that are harder to come by, thanks to decreasing federal reimbursement for research. If the federal government were to conduct its own research, Casper said, it would have to set up its own labs and pay all the overhead costs. The system of university-based research was designed by the government to minimize those expenses. And despite the scientific breakthroughs that have resulted from such research, the federal government continues to decrease the level of reimbursement.

"This policy has the effect, at Stanford, of forcing about $10.6 million of legitimate costs of government research to be absorbed by university funds ­ funds thus not available for academic purposes," Casper said.

Research is further hamstrung by local, state and federal regulations, Casper added, using a one-pint bottle of alcohol to make his point. To have such an everyday substance in a campus laboratory, he said, the university must come under the scrutiny of six different agencies: the air quality management district; the sewer district; OSHA; the local fire department; the county environmental health department; and the state hazardous waste agency. Such regulation was not designed for universities, Casper pointed out, but for large-scale manufacturing, which produces 99.99 percent of the state's hazardous waste.

"We have very little time these days to do much science because it seems that every week there is a new issue, many of a reasonable nature but far too many of which simply do not address safety," Casper said. "If we continue to focus on non-problems, we will not achieve what should be the objective of our safety programs and legislation, i.e., to create a safer environment. Instead we will discourage compliance and drive our educational and research system into the ground," Casper said.

Later, Martin Anderson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the commission, suggested that, like long-distance telephone service and airlines, colleges and universities might be deregulated.
Casper offered cautious support. "If you and I were in Congress, I would vote for your bill," he told Anderson and added that they would probably be the only members who would vote for such a measure.

The bipartisan commission is expected to submit its recommendations to President Clinton and the Congress in December.


By Elaine Ray

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