In a recent commentary published in The Sun, Morgan State University President David Wilson described in glowing terms a multimillion-dollar NASA grant his institution won three years ago to conduct advanced climate and Earth sciences research. Mr. Wilson called the contract, which could total $28.5 million over five years, the largest federal research grant ever awarded Morgan and a milestone in the school's quest for national recognition as a major research institution. He dismissed as mere "glitches" and "growing pains" any compliance issues Morgan had experienced in administering the grant.
But as The Sun's Carrie Wells reported a few days later, those problems are in fact anything but minor. Federal research funds awarded to universities are subject to stringent accounting, reporting and disclosure rules, and institutions that don't follow them to the letter risk serious penalties up to and including having their funds cut off. Failure to comply with any of the literally dozens of specialized financial accounting and performance requirements laid out in federal research contracts is one of the quickest ways for a school to see its grant revoked.
That's why the situation Morgan now finds itself in is far more serious than Mr. Wilson's casual dismissal of the problem would suggest. In a letter sent to Morgan in March, the Universities Space Research Association, the organization that manages the $96 million research effort of which Morgan is part, cited "serious performance and financial deficiencies" in the way the university was running the program. And it warned that if they weren't corrected immediately the association would have no choice but to terminate funding for the program.
Among the performance problems the USRA demanded Morgan immediately address were a "failure to make transfers of researchers to MSU in a reasonably timely manner, hiring and reporting delays, slow responses to requests for corrections to performance problems and lack of a plan to engage more MSU students in research related to Goddard." It also cited long-standing financial discrepancies in the school's accounting practices, including late, incorrect or inadequately documented invoices and failing to keep accurate records of the number of hours put in by researchers on various projects.
A violation in any one of these areas would be enough for the government to cancel an institution's contract and revoke its award. From the tone and specificity of the issues outlined in the USRA letter, it appears Morgan is confronting a raft of federal complaints regarding virtually every aspect of its administration of the program.
In his commentary, Mr. Wilson insisted that the "growing pains" in the university's ability to manage the contract in accordance with federal regulations stem from the school's lack of many of the resources — financial control officers, project managers and the like — typically found at campuses with the research university label. That, in turn, he blames that on the historic under-funding of the state's historically black colleges and universities.
But clearly there's more to it than that, since other HBCUs across the country have been able to successfully manage similar programs without running afoul of the federal government's strict contract requirements. Mr. Wilson as much as admits that the school's systemic problems in oversight and accounting policies have allowed the situation to get completely out of control. It's clear from the USRA letter that officials there have long been trying to get Morgan to address these problems, without success, and their documentation of a timeline of past failures sounds like the laying of groundwork to justify terminating the school's research contract. Unless something dramatic changes, the school will either have the program's funds revoked or the award won't be renewed when the current agreement expires.
Either outcome would represent a stunning reversal for Morgan and its aspiration to be recognized as a major research university. Remarkably, however, Mr. Wilson seems willfully blind to the catastrophe about to befall his school when he goes on to suggest that everything would be fine if the agency would simply cease holding Morgan accountable to the same standard every other school must meet. Maybe Morgan's board of trustees thinks it's OK for the government to bend the rules to let their school off the hook. But we'd hate to be passengers on a spacecraft that NASA developed that way.