The president of one of the nation's foremost universities yesterday joined the angry crowd of Americans who think the federal government intrudes too often and too deeply in their lives.
"People are tired of it and I know personally of some new federal requirements that have been almost despotic," Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a bitterspeech to the National Council of University Research Administrators. "What we need and what the country needs is regulation of regulation."
Declaring that his dealings with the federal government make him feel "like a battered child," Wiesner said he is upset about two new regulations that threaten to bring relations between university and government to a "point of crisis."
One is rule proposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget that would no longer allow universities to charge overhead costs - such as library expenses - to government contracts. The other is a law that limits to $47,500 a year the amount of salary that the government will reimburse the university for faculty members who work on federal contracts.
"To say that a Nobel Prize winner should have a ceiling on his salary and his value to the world is absurd," Wiesner said. "I think it's wrong for the federal government to tell universities what kinds of salaries they can pay. We can't allow our best people to have their salaries pegged by the federal government."
Wiesner said the new law, which is an amendment to the National Science Foundation's Appropriations" Bill, will add $70,000 a year to the costs MIT incurs in paying the salaries of 60 members of its faculty, all of whom make more than $47,500 a year.
The salaries of these 60 faculty members are set by MIT and, in the past, the federal government paid a share of those salaries based on the amount of time the faculty members gave to federal contracts. Now, however, the federal share will be pegged to a rate that is no higher than $47,500 a year.
"They're our 60 best people," Wiesner said "and of course we'll make up the difference."
Even more serious in Wiesner's view, is that proposed regulation change that would disallow overhead costs on federal contracts. The OMB proposal would end the practice of allowing "indirect costs," such as a share of the heat and electricity in university buildings where the work is done, to be charged to federal contracts.
Wiesner said the elimination of the rule will add $2.2 million to MIT's overhead every year.
"These proposed revisions represent a point of transition to a quite different and less satisfactory liaison between the universities and the federal establishment," Wiesner said. "There is simply no question that the proposed changes will weaken universities as institutions and reduce their capacity to conduct research."
The MIT president, a White House science adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, cited two examples of how the proposed rule change would hurt MIT's research effort.
"We have a nuclear research reactor and an animal care center whose costs have been allocated to the overhead pool," Wiesner said. "We no longer will be able to do that and it could mean we will have to close these facilities down."
Wiesner said the rule change also would eliminate research costs allocated as graduate student aid. The change defines students as "learners" and not "contributors," who therefore cannot be paid for their help.
He said the newest changes are only the latest in a series of federal intrusions in universities. He cited the case of federal agencies requiring faculty members to fill in time cards to prove they spend sufficient time on federal grants.
"We don't see why our professors should be asked to keep time records because one or two professors somewhere else overcharged the government for their time," Wiesner said. "It's like searching everybody who comes to Washington for guns because a murder has been committed here."