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UROP Revisited -- A year after the worst crisis in its history, the embattled program isn't doing too badly - yet

By Ramy A. Arnaout

Last year at this time the Undergraduate Research Oppor-tunities Program was still reeling from the most financially disastrous summer of its 26-year history. Starting July of 1994, unexpected changes in federal funding guidelines had effectively doubled hiring costs, threatening the jobs of hundreds of students across campus.

UROP's plight was the cover story of last year's Year in Review; but since then, news of the embattled program has been surprisingly quiet. It turns out that while UROP is not out of the woods yet, it hasn't done nearly as badly as it had feared.

The UROPoffice said overall involvement is down only about 20 percent, short of the 40 or 50 percent it had predicted last summer. That decrease is "considerably less than we thought," said UROP Director Norma G. McGavern. Spring UROPparticipation declined just 13 percent as hundreds of students sidestepped the funding issue entirely by taking projects for credit instead of for pay, she said.

Summer participation was also better than expected, down about 20 percent to 700 students, "which is not terribly dramatic," McGavern said. "That's fairly healthy, since there were 900 the two years before and over a thousand the year before that." Numbers for the fall term showed a similar trend: 1,000 compared with about 1,100 in past years, with the pay/credit split roughly in line with previous years at about 60/40.

Some departments and programs have remained more or less immune from the effects of the rules changes, McGavern said. For example, the number UROP students in the Department of Material Science and Engineering has remained fairly constant, according to departmental UROP coordinator David K. Roylance. Even with the higher overhead charges, "UROPs are still quite economical compared to research assistants," he said. "If funding was available for the project in the first place, having a UROP on the project doesn't add all that much to the overall budget," he said, although he acknowledged that a few of his fellow researchers disagree.

However, the federal rule changes - meant to correct what the General Accounting Office called "lax oversight practices" - bit harshly into most departments as supervisors tried to stretch research dollars further than they could go, forcing students to look elsewhere for employment. The Department of Biology simply stopped funding term-time UROPprojects in order to save money for the summer, when students often need it more to pay for housing.

Maybe it's not so bad

The situation could have been far worse, McGavern said. She credits faculty members' monetary generosity for helping avert the predicted disaster, although donations - like the class gift of the Class of 1995 - also played an important part. "The amount of money we have has been growing nicely this year," she said.

It is too soon to tell whether continued increase in faculty money will compensate for last year's crisis; statistics from the fall semester will not be available until the end of the fiscal year in July.

But there is a hint that things might not be as rosy as they seem. While faculty spending on UROP students has been increasing steadily in the past few years - from $2.8 million in FY 1986 up steadily to an all-time high of $4.5 million in 1994 - it dropped in 1995 to $4.3 million, McGavern said. That financial year included the summer and fall of 1994, which was the first funding period under the new cuts. It is unclear whether the drop was caused by new federal guidelines or the general tightening of governmental purse strings, she said.

And FY 1995 might not have been a good yardstick anyway, Mcgavern said. A summer infusion of $1 million from MIT's endowment fund to UROP largely offset the effects of the federal rules changes in 1994; the past year has seen no such gift. "A 22-year trend of increase stopped dead," McGavern said. "Is it going to drop again? Is it going to stabilize? I don't know." The trend won't be clear until this year's figures are available in July. "What kicked in [last year] and what we can't really predict is the extent to which the faculty will chip in," she said.

But then again

Even if the funding shortfall stops at 20 percent, UROP's outlook is still not quite cheerful. The numbers for fall 1995 technically rose 11 percent compared with fall 1994 - 1,000 students, up from 899 in 1994 - but this trend is misleading, McGavern said. Fall 1994 was the first term after the federal rules changes went into effect; as a result, UROPinvolvement was down nearly 30 percent over the previous fall, 1993. An 11 percent improvement over last year is therefore still nearly a 20 percent decrease over UROP's fairer days, she said.

The upshot is that involvement is "up a little bit over last year, so that's encouraging; but that's just another way of saying we're getting used to [the shortfall] being 20 percent," McGavern said. Right now, "we're living a little bit too much hand to mouth."

Is there hope in Wash-ington of changing the rules back? Not much, McGavern said, at least not right now. "There's always chaos down there," she said. This has been especially true in the past few months, when government shutdowns and other more nationally serious funding concerns have been vying for legislators' attention [see page 8].

A year after the crisis the prognosis for UROP looks about as good as can be expected. "The program is alive," McGavern said. "[But] are we doing great? No." A full 80 percent of students hold a UROPsometime during their undergraduate career. Whether that figure can hold up against the budget axe remains to be seen.