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Investing in Morgan's research benefits Maryland [Commentary]

A few years ago, the Maryland legislature appointed a panel to assess the way it was funding higher education. As part of its scope, the panel evaluated the funding needs of the state's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), paying particular attention to the research infrastructure needs at Morgan State University, which in 2005 had received the coveted Carnegie designation of "Doctoral Research University" without any additional infusion of state resources. It achieved this designation because it annually awarded the requisite number of doctoral degrees and received sufficient external federal research funding to qualify.

The state's study found that unlike the University System of Maryland research campuses in College Park and Baltimore city and county, Morgan lacked most of the infrastructure components typically found at campuses with a research university label. Morgan's faculty has much higher than average teaching loads, and its research laboratory space and equipment were inadequate. The study concluded that an investment in Morgan's research platform would be required to allow it to adequately compete with research campuses with better developed infrastructures. But while state investment in capital facilities at Morgan has improved, its investment in enhancing Morgan's research mission has not.

The university's recent experience with a federal contract demonstrates both the shortcomings imposed by its under-developed infrastructure and the potential great payoff to the state by further developing Morgan's research enterprise. Three years ago, Morgan received a sub-contract via Universities Space Research Association (USRA) for the Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research (GESTAR) Program. This program had been administered by UMBC for the prior 10 years, but the state averted losing it to a competing nearby state as a result of its award to Morgan. The cooperative agreement to Morgan could total $28.5 million over five years. This contract supports approximately 40 research scientists working on projects of importance to NASA, such as modeling and simulation of climatic events. It is the largest contract received by Morgan in its history, and the university is committed to ensuring its successful implementation.

But while the research carried out by the faculty supporting the GESTAR Program has met or exceeded expectations by its NASA sponsors, Morgan has encountered a few minor glitches in administering this contract — obstacles that could have been averted if investments in its infrastructure were comparable to those made in its sister research institutions in the state.

Unlike other campuses with well-developed technological systems and processes for executing federal grants and contracts in place, Morgan is in its embryonic stages of development as a research university. And with limited resources, we face the same requirements as other research campuses. But we learn from each experience we have, which improves our competitive position in the future. Accounting for researcher time is proving to be unnecessarily difficult, however.

Since some of our faculty researchers have multiple grants, we are required to account for the time they spend on each grant or contract — by the hour. The Association of American Universities recommends that instead of requiring this type of low-level reporting from universities, the federal government should instead expect campuses to simply comply with generally accepted accounting standards, which, in many instances, are already in place. I agree. Research universities and their federal and private sponsors need to explore the balance between research compliance and research outcomes — recognizing that both are equally important.

While Morgan is encountering an obstacle or two on the path toward further developing its research mission to become Maryland's premier public urban comprehensive research university, the payoff to the state from our success is already plainly obvious. The millions we now bring into the state yearly accrue many benefits. This funding is supporting economic activity in the city of Baltimore and statewide through the impact it has on new business creation, local employment and sales and services. As one of the nation's few HBCUs with a doctoral research mission, Morgan is in a position to make the state even more competitive for external grants and contracts.

Maryland has a stake to invest in Morgan's success in developing an infrastructure typical of campuses with its mission of research and economic development. It should take a page out of Sen. Barbara Mikulski's book where, as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she has charged the National Science Foundation with investing more in our science programs at HBCUs. With these types of strategic investments in Morgan, the state of Maryland and city of Baltimore can have a truly outstanding urban, public, comprehensive research university of international repute to enable the city to realize its potential as a global innovation hub.

David Wilson is president of Morgan State University. His email is david.wilson@morgan.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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