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Gag Me With A Stick - The Lake Wobegon Schtick, Again.

Just when you think that maybe someone at the U was going to be reasonable:

(From MPR)

Since when is 'average' good enough for the U? by Tim Mulcahy August 10, 2009

So we start off with the mother of all straw men arguments. No one ever said that the U should aim for average or for mediocrity. Some of us have called for the U to set a goal of being one of the best schools in the Big Ten - we've been called "doubters" by this administration.

Like the children of Lake Wobegon, the University of Minnesota has never settled for being average. Ever since its founding in 1851, it has strived [sic] to be exceptional.

That's a bad word to use around here, Tim. I know that you are new around here but the U med school was officially declared exceptional by NIH a few years ago, but that is another story...

The pending arrival of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line across campus, however, gives us great concern about our ability to carry on our traditions of excellence, because those responsible for designing the line seem to feel that "average" should be good enough for the university, and for Minnesota.

Traditions of excellence? Could we please get real here, Tim. I am not crazy about rankings but even the U's own data collection office casts doubt on that claim.

The Central Corridor line is an important development for our community and for the university. Students, staff and faculty at the U constitute one of Metro Transit's largest user groups, and we strongly support a strengthened metropolitan area transit system that includes the line.

And motherhood, and apple pie, and double-dippers, and a strong conflict of interest policy?

What gives us pause is the threat it poses to our critical research mission, unless appropriate measures are taken to protect our facilities and equipment from harmful vibrations and electromagnetic interference (EMI).

Much of our research takes place in labs located along and near Washington Ave., where the light rail trains will run. The 195-foot trains, each weighing 265,000 pounds, put at risk research programs in as many as 80 labs in 17 buildings -- some located only 30 feet away from the tracks.

OK, now let's get real here. The lab that is 30 feet away can be moved and in fact plans are made to do just that if NIH funding can be found.

Light rail construction and operation are far from "light" in terms of noise, vibration and EMI. While these phenomena exist and are accounted for in the current environment, the presence of a huge, multi-year construction site and the constant passage of massive trains each day present much bigger problems.

And they are problems the U and the Metropolitan Council, the agency responsible for the project, need to resolve before construction begins.

And perhaps it would have helped if, instead of making blanket and expensive demands that things stay as they are, that the financial consequences of mitigation - to the U - be spelled out. Perhaps you might get a more sympathetic hearing?

We have explained our concerns to the Metropolitan Council on many occasions, and in at least four official filings over the last 14 months. The lack of progress has been discouraging and worrisome, particularly because the stakes are so high.
And exactly whose feet should this be laid at? Your boss fought long and hard, long after the battle was over, to stay the Washington Avenue route. The intransigence of the U in this matter did not exactly win friends and influence legislators.
The response from the project management thus far has been that the project will mitigate vibration and EMI to the present tolerance of the U's research equipment -- the "average" between current conditions and the outside tolerance levels of the equipment -- and that should be sufficient.

"Average" is not acceptable for the U, and certainly not in this situation. If the project proceeds and the proposed "average" mitigation does not meet our research needs, it will be too late.

Why don't you look very hard at what Peter Bell has said about mitigation and hold him to it? There have been some pretty strong assurances made.

Research in affected labs will have to be suspended, and in many cases funding -- and the world-class faculty it supports -- will be lost.

Proceeding before these issues are resolved would be a risky, unnecessary gamble that would place the public's enormous investment in the university in jeopardy.

This past year, U researchers were awarded nearly $700 million in competitive grants and contracts. Research currently taking place in our labs holds the promise of curing some of mankind's most serious illnesses and solving some of the world's most difficult problems.

Sorry, but this really smacks of special pleading. There are how many R1 research institutions that could say the same thing? And with recent scandals in the stem cell area and our poor record at conflict-of-interest policy perhaps as VP for research there is something you could do about this to strengthen our credibility in making such claims as above to the public?

Research at the U is also vitally important to the economy of the region and state. Our research grants directly support more than 22,000 jobs. Thousands of students, many of whom will work for Minnesota companies upon graduation, are trained in our research labs.

The good news is that we know that these sorts of challenges have been overcome elsewhere. The University of Washington in Seattle asked that light rail not harm its research work, requesting engineering that guarantees the rail will not increase vibration and EMI beyond the conditions existing before operation of the line, as well as the installation of monitoring systems to ensure that operation of the line remains within these standards.

And you can just guess what the response of Peter is going to be - Wash U. To continue to ignore this alternative and not explain the differences (if there are any) is disingenuous.

These concerns were not only considered reasonable and legitimate by the Seattle rail project leadership, the project accepted the terms stipulated by the university, and agreed to provide all necessary mitigation to insure that the project "does no harm" to the current environmental conditions along the rail line's path through campus.

Again, a really bad choice of phrases - "do no harm." This comes from the Hippocratic oath. We have a few problems in that area right now in the med school. Is "do no harm" only something that gets worried about north of and including Washington Avenue?

Garrison Keillor once said, "Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye, and deny it." We at the U hope that the Metropolitan Council and the Central Corridor management will not follow that advice.

This is called, in chess parlance, the Lake Wobegon gambit. So tired, so old, so inappropriate.

We have work to do, Tim. Let's get on with it.


Tim Mulcahy is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota. Coming Tuesday: The Metropolitan Council's perspective on the issue.

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