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Media Lab Makes Budget Cuts

By W.S. Wang

STAFF REPORTER

The MIT Media Laboratory laid off approximately thirty staff members last month and cut salaries of others, including senior staff members, according to Media Lab Executive Director Walter R. Bender SM ’80.

Faculty members were not affected and no plans to cut projects or programs have been announced. The Media Lab currently employs about five hundred people with an annual budget of close to $40 million.

Budget cuts are preemptive

Bender described the lab’s recent budget cuts as preemptive measures. “Media Lab revenues have been growing linearly, but expenses have been growing at an exponential rate,” he said. He added that while “the Media Lab does not owe the bank any money right now,” necessary steps are being taken to curb expenses so that the lab does not run out of resources.

There are “three types of expenses: inefficient, excess, and growth-related,” Bender said.

According to him, inefficient expenses, such as “lack of coordination between groups when ordering electronic parts” can certainly be cut, as can more excessive expenses, such as food.

However, Bender said that he does not plan to cut any research programs nor any funding for such programs.

He did say, however, that UROP students would be required to turn in proposals on time now rather than be paid in hourly vouchers as they were in past when they were negligent. These hourly vouchers incur more cost onto the Media Lab because of the extra overhead.

Bender said that he remains “optimistic about MIT and Media Lab’s future” despite the recent economic recession that largely burst the technology bubble. “I want the Media Lab to take risks and build things that don’t work,” he said. He said that regardless of who provides the funding in the future, whether public or corporate, “the Media Lab is not going to be a job shop.”

Lab, MIT numbers do not match

“Everyone tries to balance the books, but what does it mean to balance the books?” Bender asked. He said that MIT and the Media Lab do their books differently, with the lab “trying to keep track of annual revenues and annual burn rates,” while MIT keeps track with the research contracts.

Because of this bookkeeping discrepancy, Bender refused to put numbers on the Media Lab’s financial problems. Bender did say that “he is in almost daily contact” with the MIT finance team.

Expansion to continue

Alexandra L. Kahn, spokesperson for the Media Lab, said that “the extension building project is not affected” because it is financed by a separate budget. She also said that the Media Lab has been receiving more funding from avenues other than the corporate sponsors. She cited the National Science Foundation grant of an unprecedented $13.75 million for the Center for Bits and Atoms and the private donation by Isao Okawa donation as examples.

The Media Lab annex is funded by a $27 million donation from Okawa. This seven-story building will be connected to the existing Media Lab building and houses the LEGO Learning Lab among others. The new building, approximately 100,000 square feet in area, slated to be finished in 2005, will double the size of the Media Lab.