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Principal investigators meet Van Etten

In a spirited give-and-take session that reflected the frustrations and uncertainties of Stanford's budget crisis, a group of about 40 principal investigators met Tuesday, Sept. 17 with Peter Van Etten, the university's new chief financial officer.

Some of Stanford's leading researchrs answered the public invitation of the P.I. Council to discuss mutual concerns with Van Etten.

The meeting was organized by electrical engineering professors Anthony Siegman and William Spicer, acting co-chairs of the P.I. Council. An ad hoc group formed with the stated goal of giving a voice to the 500 faculty members responsible for sponsored grants and contracts, the council was formed in June. It has had several meetings, including an informal session between 12 scientists and a committee of trustees early in the summer.

Siegman said that because principal investigators are responsible for raising and administering funds to carry on their academic activity, they "have insights and contributions to make to the exchange of ideas of the university as a whole."

The Sept. 17 meeting touched on a scattergun range of topics from "how did we get into this mess?" to the growth of administrative staff to decision-making on budget cuts. It ended with its ambitious agenda unfinished, and Spicer and Van Etten agreed to arrange another session later, narrowed down to topics such as the overhead rate for research.

Faculty members interviewed afterward agreed that the purpose of the meeting was less to resolve longstanding issues than to improve communication between the administration and the research faculty. Opinions were mixed about the results. Spicer said he was discouraged that several faculty members went away dissatisfied. He said one researcher told him the meeting just seemed like another in a long string of confrontations.

However, Spicer felt that the meeting was important in starting a dialogue.

"We now know how to get the next meeting in better focus," he said.

Others were cautiously optimistic. An engineering professor who asked not to be named said while he did not always agree with Van Etten, "I like his style. . . . I think he is willing to listen to good input."

A central recurring theme of that input was the desire of faculty to have more voice in decisions about how money is spent at Stanford.

Biologist Sharon Long took to the blackboard to illustrate researchrs' concern that faculty often are out of the loop when decisions are made about services or investments that will increase costs. Siegman asked why the university cannot calculate the indirect cost of all departments, not just those doing sponsored research. A third scientist asked why scholars themselves are not managing indirect costs that apply to their research.

"I share your concerns," Van Etten said. He said Stanford's financial information systems are based on a fund accounting method that is required for the university to issue bonds but in other ways is "not adequate for managing complex institutions."

"This is happening in American industry as well," he said. "Managers responsible for income want more say in expenditure."

After the meeting, Van Etten said, "I better understood the depth of faculty concerns regarding priority-setting in the institution, and concerns regarding the role of the administration."

He said that university policies regarding indirect costs "directly affect issues of deep concern to the faculty."

Long said afterward that it was valuable for the chief financial officer to hear research faculty members' viewpoints.

"Many of us hope that the principal investigators can make their voices known and have those voices heard on more issues than previously," she said. "Of course that's more responsibility and more work for us, but I think we realize that's going to be important."

Stephen Harris of applied physics and electrical engineering said that part of the principal investigators' perspective is that excellence at Stanford resides in the originality and caliber of the students and faculty.

"What we're really arguing for is that attention be given to excellence of scholarship, and that money be spent in that direction instead of on buildings, plant and administration," he said.

"Everybody is clear that we need both. What is needed is a change in the balance."


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