Research shows the success of a bacterial community depends on its shape.
Students concerned about a potential doubling in the cost of hiring UROP students got a chance to ask questions and make suggestions to Provost Mark Wrighton and others at a Monday night Undergraduate Association forum.
The cost increase for UROP (the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) is expected as a result of changes in federal rules concerning the indirect costs of research. As of July 1, employee fringe benefits and indirect costs associated with UROP work (e.g., libraries, utilities, Physical Plant, etc.) must be paid from federal research grants. Until now, UROP research has been exempt from these costs.
For every dollar spent on salaries for research, MIT spends and recovers roughly another $1.20 for overhead costs, which includes both employee benefits and the indirect-cost rate that is applied to both salary and benefits. Thus, the change will effectively double the cost of hiring UROP students. Grants totaling about $3.5 million are spent on students in the program, which involves 75 percent of undergraduates at one time or another, Professor Wrighton said. The change is likely to have the strongest impact during the summer, when many students do UROP work as their paid summer jobs, he and others at the forum noted.
There are several routes that MIT could take to get around the problem, although none of them alone seems satisfactory, Professor Wrighton explained. One method would be to simply add $2 million to the Institute's budget. However, in a time when MIT is trying to rein in expenses to eliminate a budget deficit, "this would create problems elsewhere," he said. "It is rather difficult because in the main, all our programs are first-rank, no one likes to take cuts, and I'm not a fan of sub-critical funding. I think we really should support the things we decide to do at a level which allows them to be excellent and to flourish."
Another possibility is raising more money to keep UROP resources at their current levels. But Professor Wrighton noted that for every $1 of endowment, only 4.5 cents can be spent each year; thus, $50 million would have to be raised to realize $2.5 million in expendable income. This is an "ambitious and somewhat unrealistic goal in the short run," he said.
A third option is to solicit expendable gifts earmarked for UROP from alumni, foundations and industry. While this is a viable partial solution, MIT must also keep in mind its top financial priorities: commitment to need-blind admissions and "hardening" of faculty salaries, Professor Wrighton said. MIT is already spending up to $17 million beyond its endowment income for undergraduate financial aid each year, he noted. A portion of faculty salaries is paid from research grants and contracts, a practice that the government may curtail in the future, so the Institute is trying to allocate a larger share of endowment income for that purpose, he explained.
Finally, MIT is negotiating with government officials to see if they would be willing to allow a period of adjustment to the new rules, postpone implementation until fiscal 1999, or permit MIT to continue the current UROP funding practices. Of those ongoing discussions, Professor Wrighton said there are "some opportunities there."
During a question-and-answer period in which students and others suggested possible ways to protect UROP, Assistant Professor of Mathematics James Propp noted that there are other sources of undergraduate research funding for faculty. For example, the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates supplement can be added to existing NSF grants, he said.
Among the students' suggestions were making up the shortfall by freezing or reducing faculty salaries and cutting back on non-research staff. But Professor Wrighton said those were not tenable options. Because of keen competition among top universities for the best professors, trimming salaries would start MIT "on a path certain to lead to erosion of the quality of faculty," he said. As for non-faculty compensation, "it's too simple to conclude that staff salaries are the source of our budget deficit," he said. Having top-quality staff "is no less important than having the high-performance faculty we have."
Junior Lynetta Frasure asked how increasingly scarce UROP jobs will be awarded, given the already stiff competition and small period of time (about one day this term) in which students can apply with any hope of acceptance. UROP director Norma McGavern responded that guidelines for awarding jobs under the new rules have not yet been finalized, but that they would be as equitable as possible to departments and students. If a price must be paid as a result of decreased opportunities, "it should be paid fairly across the board," she said.
Another student worried that those who use their UROP salaries as their self-help portion of their financial aid package may be hard-pressed to find other campus jobs if UROP openings are cut back. Professor Wrighton responded that many departments are increasing their budgets for other types of student employment.
Ms. Frasure expressed concern that the added UROP expense to faculty may make them more inclined to hire graduate students rather than undergraduates for research help. But Dr. James Elliot, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and chairman of a working group formed to plan a response to the new UROP rules, explained that undergraduates are not at a financial disadvantage from a faculty member's viewpoint compared to graduates. Also, hiring a graduate student entails a multi-year commitment, whereas UROP students can be hired for periods as short as one semester, he added.
In response to a suggestion for reducing the student minimum wage, Professor Wrighton indicated that educational and living expenses that students face would make this problematic. UROP "has to provide students with not only a meaningful experience but also meaningful compensation," he said. In addition, very few students can afford to do UROP jobs for credit rather than salaries, students noted.
The bottom line, Professor Wrighton said, is that "obtaining UROP for wages is going to be more difficult in the future but not out of the question."
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 23).