Lab Rats

TUCSON -- First there was a Harvard, then came a "Harvard of the South," a "Harvard of the Midwest" and a "Harvard of the Plains."

Indeed, great statesmanship in expansionist America was often defined by how quickly the local hayseed college could, without widespread snickering, be deemed the "Harvard of Whatever Region You're In."

By the 1970s, the University of Arizona was probably the "Harvard of the Southwest," which wasn't saying too much. The UofA was a lower-echelon Category I research institution with a decent reputation and an above-average ability to acquire federal grant moneys in Washington.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, some Arizonans wanted more from their state university.

So the university's president at the time, John Schaefer, began an extremely ambitious campaign. His goal: Expand the UofA into one of the top research institutions in America. His sales pitch to legislators and Arizonans: Together, they would build "The Harvard of the West."

Perhaps that goal was reached. Twenty years later, the UofA is now widely considered one of the top 15 public research universities in the country.

This is a particularly stunning achievement considering Arizona's increasingly abysmal record of supporting education.

But it came with a price. And the financial practices used to build this research powerhouse may have damaged the university's ability to educate students, attract and keep non-research professors, and cope with financial draughts like the one it presently faces.

New Times found:

• That millions in earmarked state allocations were routinely spent on projects other than those approved by state officials.

• That researchers and their federal grants were routinely overcharged or charged twice by university maintenance crews and other service providers. These extra revenues were then funneled through a maze of accounts to prop up over-budget construction projects and pet research projects such as the university's mirror lab and Mount Graham telescopes.

• That major construction projects were often based on unrealistically optimistic financial projections. Those projects routinely ran into financial trouble, with the shortfalls then covered by money earmarked for other purposes.

• That top researchers were sometimes lured to the university with incentive packages administrators had little hope of providing.

• That most researchers or faculty who complained about the university's spending practices were blackballed or fired soon after airing complaints.

• That University of Arizona ranked last among more than a dozen peer institutions in the amount of money returned to university coffers from patents, compared to the amount spent on research.

• That tens of millions of dollars that could have been spent on improving student services and education at the University of Arizona had to be diverted to prop up ill-conceived construction and research projects.

• That these past financial practices, while keeping alive this dream of a research powerhouse, are a key reason the University of Arizona has slipped among peer institutions in critical categories such as faculty salaries and student retention.

Past and current university officials deny any wrongdoing. They deny, too, that this rush for research gold damaged the university's ability to fulfill its other missions.

New Times obtained more than 2,000 university financial documents from current and past employees, as well as from court documents in university-related lawsuits. From those documents and more than two dozen interviews, a clear 15-year pattern of financial wizardry, problems and indiscretions takes shape.

Once John Schaefer conceived the Harvard of the West idea in the late 1970s, it was Gary Munsinger's job to make it happen.

Schaefer and Munsinger's largest obstacle, of course, was money. New research buildings alone would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Operating those buildings over time would cost hundreds of millions more.

At the time, state law dictated that university research buildings could only be built using money the state already had.

It was a fiscally conservative, pay-as-you-go philosophy. Munsinger, the university's brilliant, politically cagey and often reviled financial officer who served under both Schaefer and President Henry Koffler, would need a line of credit from state legislators to make the dream possible.

"We had to get revenue bonding approved," Munsinger says. "That was critical to the whole deal."

The sales pitch went like this: The University of Arizona is poised to become a great research university. Great researchers are willing to come here. If they were here, these great researchers would enhance the reputation of the university, bring federal grant money and, later, patent money from the inventions they created. All these researchers would foster the construction of a massive private-research complex. High-tech businesses would locate in Arizona to feed off the university's creations and students.

Some of this ultimately came true.

But the university was cramped into tiny, outdated buildings. It needed laboratory space -- lots of it.

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Robert Nelson