Morgan State University mismanaged the largest federal research program in its history, according to the organization that contracted with the school and alerted it to "serious performance and financial deficiencies" earlier this year.

In a letter to Morgan officials obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the Universities Space Research Association details concerns with the program, including problems with scientists properly logging the time they work on projects, accounting issues and hiring delays. The organization also complained that the university did not have a plan to engage its students in the research.

The organization manages the $96 million research program and oversees Morgan's share of the work on it. Morgan supports about 40 scientists working on research in areas such as climate change and ecosystems. Its share of the contract could total $28.5 million over five years.

The contract has been a cornerstone of Morgan's effort to expand its work on federal research. While Morgan has been recognized by national experts as a research university for about a decade, other Maryland institutions have made bigger strides in landing lucrative federal contracts, including the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Maryland, College Park.

Morgan President David Wilson, hired in 2010, pledged to make growing Morgan's federal research footprint one of his top priorities. Morgan won the subcontract administered by the Universities Space Research Association for NASA's Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research program, known as GESTAR, in 2011.

In an interview, Wilson said the university was moving to fix the problems identified by the space organization, or USRA, and that those changes would better position Morgan to win more federal research contracts.

"I don't think it's at all unusual for a growing research institution to have a few growing pains," Wilson said. "In some ways, I think it's good that we had this experience early on so we can put the right infrastructure in place. This is going to mean that the university will be stronger and be more competitive going forward."

In its March letter, the USRA said it would impose conditions to ensure compliance and warned of possible penalties, including termination of the contract. Officials declined to describe the conditions.

The contract could be up for renewal for another five years after the current term.

Morgan State University management "has not demonstrated an ability to address these concerns effectively and in a timely manner," the letter states. "It appears to USRA that this is due to a lack of clear lines of communication and accountability for this subcontract. ... This need has been identified previously, without results."

Both Morgan and USRA officials confirmed the letter.

Donald Kniffen, acting president and CEO of the USRA, said it wouldn't be appropriate for him to comment on the letter. Like Wilson, he characterized the problems as "growing pains."

"Dr. Wilson is very, very much committed to improving the process and doing everything he can, but Rome wasn't built in a day, and it takes a while to put in place things to operate a larger program than they've ever had before," Kniffen said.

Scientists in the program study the Earth's ecosystems, atmosphere and hydrosphere, and develop media outreach to engage the public with stories of NASA's space exploration. Other GESTAR partners include the Johns Hopkins University and Ball Aerospace & Technologies, which is based in Arlington, Va.

Wilson and Kniffen said the contract problems have been financial and administrative, and that everyone involved has been pleased with the research itself.

Anirban Basu, head of Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, said the federal government is "very particular" about the way its contracts are managed because of a political climate that scrutinizes how research dollars are spent.

Meanwhile, universities have come to rely more heavily on such contracts as other government funding has lagged and as the colleges try to keep down tuition costs, he said.

"This is of enormous importance because the hope was that Morgan could use this as a foray into more federal contract work," Basu said. "Of course, what these federal funders are looking for is a demonstrated capacity to perform, and one would think that if Morgan is unable to use this experience, then that becomes problematic."

Wilson said the scientists are required to log each hour they spend working on a particular project, which he said was "quite onerous." Morgan is in the process of obtaining new software that will enable scientists to log their hours more easily and administrators to better track invoices and other financial documentation, he said.

Wilson said about 10 internships will be created in response to concerns about lack of student participation in the program.

Kniffen said he is confident Morgan is taking steps to fix the problems that the USRA identified. He said there's a good chance the program would be renewed for another five years.

"When the largest grant hits you ... there are going to be some growing pains, and this is all this was," Kniffen said. "But on the other hand we have our responsibilities to the government as well, so we're just trying to work together to make that as smooth a process as possible."

Wilson characterized the contractual issues as "a few glitches." He said Morgan officials met with USRA colleagues after receiving the letter. "It was a very good meeting and we resolved the issues, and that's where we are."

Kweisi Mfume, chairman of Morgan's Board of Regents, said the board was aware of problems with the program.

"Dr. Wilson has assured us that the concerns are being addressed," Mfume said. "The full board will have an opportunity to be updated and to discuss the matter more with Dr. Wilson and his team at our next regularly scheduled board meeting in August."

cwells@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cwellssun