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Education funding's double standard

PORTLAND, Ore. - On the one hand, President Bush recently tapped
mathematics professor Judith Vergun, Ph.D., as one of nine people to
receive the 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics,
and Engineering Mentoring that includes a $10,000 grant.

On the other, Bush administration cuts in the areas of education, welfare
and the environment have toppled funding to projects like the Native
Americans in Marine and Space Sciences program (NAMSS) at Oregon State
University that Vergun helped develop.

NAMSS, which started in 1990 with funds from a National Science Foundation
grant, had a 15-year track record that supported 2,500 students.

Wrote program organizers: "The problem encountered during NAMSS's first
year was that few Native students were enrolled in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics [STEM] majors, and most quickly changed majors
because they perceived that they could not pass the mathematics
requirements."

Vergun and her colleagues have begun to change that dismal scenario. In 14
years, her team achieved a 95 percent retention rate among students that
accepted the STEM-major challenge. The program recorded 147 NAMSS
undergraduates earning Bachelor of Science degrees, over half of whom
continued on to graduate school.

Vergun said that although being red-carpeted around Washington, D.C. and a
photo-op with the president was an honor, the award was bittersweet.

"The current U.S. president and his administration are undermining the
future by profoundly mismanaging our resources. The Department of Defense
budget is $500 billion this year alone, at a time when we have the biggest
national debt ever," said Vergun.

"Funds to support ... education, welfare and the environment are plummeting
to new lows without much understanding from the administration of the
grave, long-term, damaging impact they are having. As a result, the
National Science Foundation and others have smaller and smaller shares of
the taxpayer dollars to support projects like our NAMSS program."

Vergun pointed out that all would not be lost if Oregon State University
found funds in its budget to support NAMSS. "Our academic institutions need
to internalize these wonderful programs by providing basic support for the
staff and daily operation, such as office space, computers, materials and
supplies, and communications costs."

She argued that if OSU did step in, it would provide program permanency by
offsetting NAMSS's costs. In turn, the program's grant applications would
be more modest and, hence, competitive.

The good news is that Vergun is not on the faculty of OSU - an institution
plagued by the state Legislature's notorious attitudes toward funding
education - but is instead employed at the University of Hawaii.

"Fortunately, I am replicating the program in Hawaii, and the program model
informs many others who wish to establish similar programs, said Vergun.
"So the program lives on, but not for our Oregon students, families and
communities."

While in the nation's capital accepting her award, Vergun and the other
awardees gave presentations to a gathering that included National Science
Foundation officers. Her comments described the NAMSS program's mentoring,
as well as how the model is working in Hawaii.