Sussman describes that strength as a “flexibility that comes from the lack of [the] bureaucratic juggernaut” that supports research at places like the University of California campuses.
“In hard times, though,” he says, “that lack can be a handicap. Because that’s when you need an established structure to support you. But I figured that, if I create my own infrastructure by building what I need within my own walls, and not depend on the school to build it for me, I can make a run at this. I’m usually best when I’m left alone, anyway.”
Right away, Sussman began buying equipment, some of it on eBay. Then he talked the SDSU administration into transforming a couple of classrooms in the Life Sciences building into a laboratory.
On a tour of the lab, I see slides with slices of heart tissue taken from mice that will be examined under a microscope. There is imaging equipment that allows the beating hearts of live animals to be seen. There are also many odd-looking machines I have little time to comprehend. In the lab, the molecular structure of animal heart tissue is being used to help study the human heart. Undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral scholars all work as part of Sussman’s research group. The lab has evolved into the Molecular Biology Laboratory of the Heart Institute at SDSU.
“When the UC system was formed,” Sussman says, “they built into it the mechanisms and bureaucracy to deal with funding, knowing that they were going to be a research university. That was never done for the CSUs. All of the research enterprise that’s grown up inside the CSU has been bootstrapped onto the system after the fact. The research, then, has driven an expansion of the infrastructure and the administration necessary for oversight.
“When a grant is awarded, they don’t just hand me a check for $200,000 and say, ‘Spend it on whatever you want.’ The school, through its Research Foundation, makes sure I spend it in compliance with federal guidelines, monitors progress-report deadlines, and makes sure I spend the monies only for the purposes for which they were awarded.”
The SDSU Research Foundation is an “auxiliary organization” and not strictly a part of the university. But Sussman argues that the university and the foundation are “like Siamese twins. They may have two hearts, but they share a blood supply.”
The foundation has its own CEO, while SDSU’s president is the head of its board of directors. The foundation’s purpose is largely to manage the money the university accumulates in research funding.
Researchers at SDSU have always been told, says Sussman, “that research must be a self-funded enterprise on this campus. We need to be as autonomous as possible. But this university does something rare, and it’s the main reason why research succeeds here. It diverts a relatively small amount of the overhead funds it receives [from grants] to individuals. [Here, that diverted] money is called Research Support Funds.”
Overhead funds are typically intended to cover the costs of research done on campus. For example, a university will bill the National Science Foundation, or the National Institutes of Health, two federal agencies that fund much research, up to 50 percent extra of the value of the grant. The school can put the money in its general fund for covering things such as water, electricity, and other costs, but they do not have to document how they spend it. It’s widely known that universities take in more in overhead than the research costs them. At SDSU, this overhead goes into the Research Foundation, where it might be invested in real estate, and can be withdrawn by the university as needed.
“The university will say to me,” Sussman continues, “‘Mark, based on the amount of overhead you earned this year, we’re going to release to you a certain amount to fix up your laboratory and keep it running. And you can put on there things that you can’t put on your grant, such as buying new computers, and air-conditioning systems to chill down the freezer room, [and] hosting outside speakers to come in and visit your lab and connect your lab on a national and international level.’
“SDSU does have this mechanism in place, and it was one of the main reasons I came here. It’s something that every single extramural-funded researcher on this campus depends upon to keep their research operation going.
“The attitude of the researchers is that we bring something to the environment that benefits the teaching mission of the university. All those students in my laboratory are exposed to research hands-on, most for the first time in their lives. We’re just teaching in the lab, as opposed to teaching in a classroom, and we would like the school to recognize that by underwriting some of the costs.
“But SDSU is not essentially a research university. It’s a community-based San Diego regional campus that has global impact…. That impact is not because of the classes we teach. It’s because of the research we do. Go to the SDSU website and see the kinds of research that is happening in terms of global warming, cardiovascular disease, education, and health-disparities research.”
As we talk in Sussman’s office, he pulls a copy of Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty off a shelf. I ask how he first became aware of the book, and he says that during a “disconnect” with the university administration over funding for his lab, a colleague recommended he read the book to put the problem in context.
In 2010, in the minds of some researchers (also known as “primary investigators”) on campus, the door seemed to be slamming on Research Support Funds. Tom Scott, then SDSU’s vice president of research, wanted “to divert the funds to other causes,” Sussman says. “He championed this as something that was best for the school.”
But Scott, who says his tenure “helped transform SDSU from a teaching to a research university,” sees what happened differently. It started in 2008, he tells me by phone, when, concurrently with his campus jobs (including dean of graduate studies), he worked as the temporary CEO of the Research Foundation. The board of directors had ordered a review of the Research Support Funds, which, Scott explains, are 12 percent of overhead funds at SDSU. That’s six times higher at SDSU than the national average. “I noted that fact in a report to the board, but I also defended the funds for the same reasons that Mark was saying they’re important. I felt that it was a balanced response. The board accepted this but said they would like the situation revisited in two years.”