Governor Challenges Universities on Research Accountability

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Tuesday that he’s not sure the university system is following its own accountability standards for the millions in federal research money it receives each year.

Schweitzer met Tuesday with the commissioner of higher education and asked for firm guidelines on reports submitted by schools on how research money is spent.

The issue dates back to the problems uncovered a few years ago at a heavily criticized space research center at the University of Montana.

Schweitzer has met with university leaders this year, quizzing them about their promised follow-up efforts to bring accountability to the money they often get by lobbying directly to Congress. He said the answers he gets just lead to more questions.

“I am getting a very skilled level of obfuscation,” Schweitzer said in an interview.

Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns said system leaders are confident the system is working.

But Schweitzer sparred with Stearns several times over the course of their meeting.

The governor said the Montana Board of Regents has failed to follow its own policy requiring reports in September on how the research money was spent and reports in January on what money the schools would be asking Congress for. And he said no one has been able to give him a straight answer on the issue.

Stearns said the reporting dates were subject to a “de facto” change based on a verbal understanding, and were in the process of being formally changed.

Schweitzer said he is asking the board at its March meeting to stick with its original guidelines and produce the reports as scheduled. Schweitzer said the regents needs to see in January what kind of projects universities will be asking Congress in the following months to fund.

“It’s a good idea to find out what we are going to be asking for before we ask for it,” Schweitzer said.

The governor said he also wants more detailed reports from both Montana State University and the University of Montana, and wants answers to more than a dozen specific questions related to research money.

Stearns said the research programs provide valuable benefits to the campuses, and have been a credit to the state. She said she is confident the programs are being run well.

Stearns is hired by the Board of Regents, which is appointed by the governor. But the board is constitutionally autonomous from the executive branch in many ways, and has the authority to set its own budget — which has led to a recent clash over spending plans.

But Stearns said she understands the governor’s concern, and will take his requests to the full board.

“Your point of view is very, very important to us and the regents,” Stearns told the governor during their meeting.

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