Favoritism Alleged in E.D. Peer-Review System
WASHINGTON--The Education Department's "peer review'' system for judging grant applications is under attack again, this time because of allegations that a top department official sought special consideration for a teacher-education center at Michigan State University.
At a recent Senate hearing, Chester E. Finn Jr., the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, was closely questioned about a five-year, $6-million grant awarded by the department to the Michigan State center in late 1985.
The questions, posed by Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut, concerned a review panel formed last summer to decide if the center's federal funding should be continued. According to internal memoranda cited by Mr. Weicker, Mr. Finn suggested to a subordinate that she seek comments from David Cohen of the Michigan State center on a list of proposed reviewers.
The subordinate, Mr. Finn reportedly wrote, should "give him [Mr. Cohen] the opportunity to indicate if he thinks any of the individuals on the list wouldn't be open-minded or disinterested judges.''
"He doesn't get a veto, of course,'' Mr. Finn added, "just the opportunity to try and persuade you.''
Mr. Finn denied any wrongdoing, saying that it is "absolutely appropriate'' for the department to seek applicants' views on the makeup of the peer-review boards that will judge their proposals.
Last year, Mr. Finn was criticized for his management of the Secretary of Education's Chapter 2 discretionary fund. Under Mr. Finn's direction, the department awarded grants for 14 projects, even though a review panel had ranked those proposals considerably lower than other applications that were not funded.
Following that episode, Mr. Finn promised to strengthen the peer-review process to eliminate any appearance of favoritism.
The Michigan State center was one of two research-and-development facilities on teaching that the department sought to establish after the Congress ordered it to put all of its research-center contracts up for bid in 1981. The then-existing teacher-education center at the University of Texas at Austin also submitted a proposal for the grant eventually won by Michigan State.
To handle the competition, the department's office of educational research and improvement created a two-tiered review system to judge the competing proposals. One panel of experts evaluated the plans and assigned them a numerical score, and a second committee then reviewed those judgments and issued its own recommendations.
Although the first group scored both proposals favorably, the second panel recommended that neither center receive funding. Mr. Finn, however, overruled the second committee and awarded the grant to Michigan State in late November 1985.
As with all other winners of grants in the competition, continued funding for the Michigan State facility was contingent on satisfactory completion of goals set out in its "mission statement.'' The reviews were to be conducted approximately one year after the awards were announced.
In the spring and early summer of 1986, according to memoranda cited by Mr. Weicker and an additional one obtained by Education Week, Mr. Finn voiced repeated concerns that the Michigan State center would not receive a "fair'' evaluation when the panel to review its first year of work was convened.
In one memorandum to Sally Kilgore, the O.E.R.I.'s director of research, Mr. Finn reported that Mr. Cohen, who had developed the center's original proposal, was "antsy'' about being judged by "conventional teacher educators.''
The center, the assistant secretary explained in a subsequent July memorandum to Ms. Kilgore, "is organized around concepts that the 'teacher-education establishment' cannot stomach.''
"Are you not asking the cardinals of the Catholic church to review the work of Luther and Calvin?'' Mr. Finn asked.
Mr. Cohen denied, however, that he was ever offered an opportunity to examine the list of reviewers or to "persuade'' department officials to add or drop names from the list.
"As you can imagine in a situation like this, it isn't only the government that wants to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,'' he said in an interview last week. "Those that are being reviewed also want to make sure everything is kosher.''
Mr. Cohen said he and other center staff members were consulted by Mr. Finn and other department employees about the academic disciplines that were to be represented on the review panel. The Michigan State researchers, he added, also suggested specific persons to serve on that committee.
"That's not a perversion of the process,'' Mr. Cohen said. "They did not have to take our suggestions, and, in this case, I don't think they did.''
The review panel eventually issued a favorable evaluation of the center. According to an O.E.R.I. spokesman, the center will receive slightly more than $1 million in federal funding this year.
At a hearing last month of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Education Department, Senator Weicker characterized the Michigan State grant as "a political distortion of the peer-review process.''
Mr. Weicker, the panel's ranking Republican member, demanded that the department investigate the affair.
"If that is in fact the way it happened, then, Senator, I completely agree with you,'' replied Bruce M. Carnes, the department's deputy undersecretary, who promised to look into the matter.
Since the time of the Michigan State grant, the O.E.R.I. has created a computerized list of grant reviewers who have been personally approved by Mr. Finn, according to an internal agency memorandum.
The document, dated Jan. 12, notes that any individuals not named in the list must be approved by Mr. Finn before they can be included on any of the office's review panels.
This procedure struck some education experts as unusually close supervision on the part of Mr. Finn.
"In all my years in Washington, in and out of the government, I have never seen this level of day-to-day involvement [in the review process] on the part of any one at Finn's level,'' said E. Joseph Schneider, executive director of the Council for Educational Development and Research.