A confusing disagreement among public higher education officials over the success of a Ph.D. program in microbiology at Alabama State University has placed funding for the program at risk and raised the possibility that the issue again could be decided in federal court.
Lost in the bigger debate in recent days over a proposed $10 million cut in Alabama State University's funding in the education budget was a more specific discussion over a possible $1.7 million cut in funding for an ASU doctoral major in microbiology for the coming fiscal year compared with this fiscal year.
But a disagreement between ASU officials and the Alabama Commission on Higher Education over whether the Ph.D. program has met the requirements for continued funding places the program -- in which Alabama taxpayers already have invested more than $12.1 million -- in jeopardy.
The budget proposed by Gov. Robert Bentley -- who serves as president of the ASU board of trustees -- and the version passed by the Alabama Senate eliminated the $1.7 million for the program. But state Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, who is executive vice president and chief operating officer at ASU, is trying to get the funding restored in the House. Last week, Knight clashed with ACHE Executive Director Gregory Fitch over ACHE's failure to recommend funding for the program.
The microbiology funding issue is particularly interesting because the funding was originally mandated under a federal court order that came from a lawsuit that alleged there were vestiges of segregation remaining in the Alabama higher education system. The lawsuit, Knight vs. Alabama, bears the name of Rep. Knight, who was the lead plaintiff.
As part of the settlement, in 2003 the state agreed to fund several programs at ASU, including the Ph.D. program in microbiology.
But the court settlement was not open ended. According to ACHE documents, it stated that the state had no obligation to continue the funding of the program if it did not meet certain requirements, including meeting a certain goal for the number of students enrolled and the average number of graduates each year.
And, as Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet might say, there's the rub.
According to a letter last July from ACHE's Fitch to then-President William Harris of ASU, the program failed to meet its goal of having 12 students enrolled on average from 2005-06 through 2009-10 -- the time span spelled out in the ACHE approval of the program. The actual annual average of students enrolled during that span was 10, according to the letter.
In a return letter, Harris requested that ACHE modify the agreement to lower the earlier requirement to 10. He pointed out that by the end of the court-ordered settlement in 2014, the program would have met the enrollment standard. And, according to a letter from Fitch to Harris on Sept. 19, 2013, the commission approved the request to "amend the post-implementation conditions" for the program.
But ASU and ACHE officials differ even more on the goal for graduates.
The original ACHE approval of the program called for "the annual average number of graduates for the Academic Years 2005-06 through 2009-10 will be at least 3 based on proposal," according to ACHE.
But ACHE officials say that the agency's official graduation reports certified to ACHE by each of the state's public universities show only three total graduates for the microbiology doctoral program -- not three per year. And ACHE maintains that it confirmed that number with reports by ASU to the U.S. Department of Education.
However, ASU officials told me Tuesday that they have actually graduated eight doctoral students, with more expected to graduate this year.
Dr. Karyn Scissum Gunn, who chairs the Department of Biological Sciences at ASU, told me Tuesday that the microbiology program has graduated eight students "and I can name them if necessary.
Gunn said that there currently are 20 students enrolled fulltime in the program and that she expects three of them to graduate this year.
Fitch wrote to Harris in July that because the program did not meet the original requirements set out in the court settlement, the agency would not recommend its funding for fiscal 2014-2015.
"However, the end of the court-ordered action requirements does not preclude ASU from incorporating the request within its standard budget process for consideration by the governor and the Legislature," Fitch wrote to Harris.
Which leaves it up to the Legislature to decide if it will fund the program.
Knight told me Tuesday that he is still hopeful that the House will restore the funding, but that it will be difficult without a recommendation from ACHE.
He said that part of the problem is that the program did not get started when originally projected. He said that because of the technical nature of the program, "it was a little difficult to get things off ground." ACHE documents indicate that part of the delay was the result of having to get the agreement approved by the federal court as part of the settlement.
However, Knight said that since the program got on track it has met its projections -- just later than originally thought.
Knight was clearly agitated when he discussed the possibility losing funding for the program.
"The state of Alabama and the commission should be applauding an historically black institution such as ASU for having a doctoral program in microbiology," he said. "I've never seen where a commission would try to destroy a program such as that."
He said that if funding is not restored, he did not think he would have any other choice but to take more legal action to try to have the federal court intervene to protect the funding.
He said he was speaking of the legal action as an individual plaintiff in the original court case, not as an official of ASU.
"I could not sit idly by and see the program not recommended for funding," Knight said.
Some readers might wonder if the $12 million total investment for the program is worth such a small number of graduates -- whether it turns out to be three or eight total, or even three a year as originally planned.
But there are always start-up costs for new programs, especially such highly technical ones. As more students get their degrees, the average cost per degree will go down.
Gunn said that if the annual funding for the program were compared to other doctoral programs of such a technical nature at other institutions, she felt the costs would be comparable.
Even after spending several days talking to ACHE and ASU officials, I admit to being torn over the funding issue for this program.
Recently I wrote that it would be wrong to slash $10 million from ASU's budget to provide leverage to force financial reforms at the university, and I stand behind that position. Such a heavy-handed tactic could cause ASU's accrediting agency to question whether the Legislature was usurping institutional control at ASU. It also could raise further issues about the stability of state funding at ASU, which already has seen its bond rating lowered. It would not hurt ASU officials, but students and faculty members. The House should restore that $10 million funding that the Senate budget makes only a conditional appropriation.
But the arguments that I used to oppose the $10 million reduction for ASU don't apply to the proposed $1.7 million cut for the Ph.D. program. That funding should be based only on a clear-headed and factually based decision on whether the program has met or will soon meet its goals.
However, if funding is removed, there should be a phase out of the program so the currently enrolled students are not left high and dry.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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