Morgan State University continues to have problems managing the largest federal research program in its history and has faced financial penalties from the organization that oversees the program, according to documents released this week.
Mismanagement in the program known as GESTAR, or NASA's Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research, became public in June when The Baltimore Sun obtained a letter from the contractor overseeing the program that detailed "serious performance and financial deficiencies." The contractor, Universities Space Research Association, identified problems that included scientists not properly logging the time they worked on projects, accounting issues and hiring delays. USRA also wanted more Morgan students to play a role in the research.
The $96 million research program, for which Morgan is one of several subcontractors, is a key part of the university's mission to build its federal research footprint. Morgan's share of the contract could total $28.5 million over five years.
In a letter dated July 9, the USRA noted that Morgan had made "some efforts" to improve, including hiring a program manager and a contract administrator. But two invoices submitted after Morgan was first warned in March required "a great deal" of review and help from USRA officials before they were correct, which USRA called "unacceptable."
Another document submitted by Morgan to the USRA had pricing errors, while performance problems identified in March had "also not shown material improvement," according to the USRA letter. Further, Morgan had not provided the USRA with information to support previous payments despite repeated requests.
The letter, obtained by The Sun in a request made under the Maryland Public Information Act, said the USRA would be withholding some payments to Morgan until the problems were fixed, though it did not specify the amount.
Morgan was given 90 days from the date of the July letter to show more progress.
Victor McCrary, Morgan's vice president for research and economic development, said Tuesday that the timekeeping and accounting issues will be fixed with the use of a new computer program that can better log that activity, set to roll out in a couple of weeks. He said Morgan officials are working to better their communication internally and with the USRA. He also said Morgan is working to ensure more students are involved in the research, which he described as the "biggest issue."
"These types of programs have a lot of different moving parts," McCrary said. "I think we're getting through these growing pains."
Morgan President David Wilson has said the changes the university is putting into place will leave it better positioned to win more federal research contracts, a significant goal of his tenure.
Donald Kniffen, acting president and CEO of the USRA, said in an interview that "there is progress" toward Morgan's fixing the problems in the program. He declined to comment further.
Neither Kniffen nor McCrary was able to provide the amount of money that had been withheld from Morgan.
Scientists in the program, including 40 at Morgan, study the Earth's ecosystems, atmosphere and hydrosphere, developing media outreach to engage the public with stories of NASA's space exploration. Kniffen has said there have been no issues with the research itself.
The audit committee of Morgan's Board of Regents has met several times since June in sessions closed to the public to discuss the GESTAR program. The full board met Tuesday but would only discuss the GESTAR program in closed session with attorneys. Morgan Board of Regents Chair Kweisi Mfume said members needed to get a better understanding of what the university administration was doing to remedy the problems.
"We need additional information," Mfume said. "We want to make sure we understand what the approach is."
The documents released Monday night also went into more detail about the USRA's initial concerns, including that Morgan's request to have a foreign worker visa program was denied by the State Department before the contract began in 2011.
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