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Administrators fear that this week's hearing may turn into a university- bashing free-for-all. If that happens, Congress may move to limit sharply what can be considered a legitimate overhead expense, or anxious research institutions may have to cap their indirect-cost rates -- or both. Closer regulation of indirect-cost charges is obviously needed. But for schools already squeezed by the recession, declining enrollments owing to the baby bust and outrage over high tuition costs, yet another budgetary constraint could prove devastating. "Universities are fragile places," says Marvin Ebel, associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "They don't operate with big cushions. Bad years can lead to some real destruction."
For the near term, universities had better be prepared for tighter belts and closer scrutiny. Already the General Accounting Office is delving into overhead charges at Harvard Medical School. And this spring Dingell's subcommittee plans to initiate similar probes at M.I.T., Johns Hopkins, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. The aftershocks of the Stanford tremors are certain to be felt for some time to come.
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