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Consortium Topples Ohio State's Hold On Voc.-Ed. Center

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Washington--Education Department officials said last week that Ohio State University will lose the National Center for Research in Vocational Education to a consortium of research institutions led by the University of California at Berkeley, despite Congressional attempts to prevent the relocation.

Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio brought the decision and the dispute surrounding it into the public arena last week when he attached an amendment to the omnibus education reauthorization bill that would delay the award of the five-year, $30-million center grant until an investigation of the selection process has been conducted.

His move was largely a symbolic one, however, since the legislation will not become law until spring.

Education officials also said the department had already agreed to postpone formal announcement of the award for two weeks as a "courtesy" to Representative William F Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has also called for an examination of the selection process by the General Accounting Office.

The announcement will be delayed, said William Kristol, chief of staff to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, "until we're satisfied that everything was done correctly."

Ohio State has been home for the center since its creation by the Congress in 1978, and its hold on the federal grant was never seriously challenged until now.

Loye W. Miller, Mr. Bennet's spokesman, said the flurry of political activity last week that centered on the grant was understandable, in light of the center's importance to the states and districts involved.

"If you're going to close down an existing facility to the tune of $30 million and move it somewhere else, that kind of thin virtually never happens without Congressional scrutiny and Congressional pressure,'' he said.

Congressional sources said that interested lawmakers had known the outcome of the grant competition since late October and that Mr. Metzenbaum had been spurred to act when a public announcement of the award drew near.

In a Dec. 2 press release, the Ohio Democrat accused the department of "rigging the competitive bidding process."

"Education officials have been unable to give a good reason for arbitrarily weighting the results against osu," Mr. Metzenbaum said. "There is also no evidence that the competing universities offered adequate financial support or technical expertise for the national center."

'Unhealthy Interplay'

The Metzenbaum amendment would require the department to continue funding the center at Ohio State until the gao completed its investigation. It was accepted unanimously by the Senate, but seemed to catch many members off guard.

"I am taken a little bit by surprise by this amendment," said Senator Robert T. Stafford, the ranking Republican on the Senate Education, Arts and Humanities subcommittee. "But I'm agreeable to its going to conference."

But Mr. Metzenbaum's move was viewed by some of the competition's participants and others close to the Congressional deliberations as a new chapter in the politicization of the award process for the center.

Charges of "an unhealthy interplay" between the center and federal agencies had been lodged in 1983, when Ohio State fought off a challenge by the University of Tennessee for control of the vocational-education facility.

Under the consortium's proposal, the center would be headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., with additional facilities and faculties provided at other consortium institutions--the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, Teachers College of Columbia University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the rand Corporation.

Some Knew, Some Didn't

Education Department officials confirmed last week that Mr. Goodling, who has maintained a special interest in vocational education, and Representative Chalmers P. Wylie, who represents the district where Ohio State is located, had been informed of the decision on Oct. 28.

In addition, Congressional sources said the two Republican Congressmen and an Ohio State representative had met with department officials to discuss the matter after that notification.

But aides to lawmakers from states where the consortium institutions are located said last week that they were not aware of the department's deci4sion favoring them until the Metzenbaum amendment was introduced on Dec. 1. They said they had not been notified of the status of the competition since a site visit in late September.

Ray Ryan, director of the Ohio State center, also said he had not been given definitive information about the grant.

But Mr. Wylie, in an interview last week, said he had informed Ohio State officials as soon as he was notified of the decision on Oct. 28.

He also said that Chet Hansen, the center's deputy director, came to Washington that same week to meet with Education Department officials.

The Ohio Republican said he had also spoken by telephone with Secretary Bennett, who had "assured me nothing would be done until the matter was looked into."

Mr. Bennett's spokesman, Mr. Miller, said it was not unusual for department officials to discuss major grant awards with interested lawmakers. He conceded, however, that it was not "standard practice" to discuss an award with an unsuccessful applicant.

He said the fact that discussions were held "doesn't mean anything" and that the department had never considered reversing the decision.

'Fraternal' Relationships

Charges of political influence in the awards process for the center surfaced during Ohio State's first competitive fight for renewal of its five-year grant in 1983, when the University of Tennessee submitted a bid that was substantially lower than the university's.

When Ohio State won the competition, Tennessee's Congressional delegation--including then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker--and university officials charged that there had been an "unhealthy interplay" between top officials of the center, federal vocational-education officials, and the American Vocational Association.

A few months later, a panel assembled by a consulting firm working for the Education Department issued a scathing review of the center's operation, concluding that "the overall relationship between the ncrve and the office of vocational education and adult education is too fraternal and not conducive to an aggressive, change-oriented program of research and development."

Ohio State officials note, however, that the university has played a leadership role nationally in vocational education for 23 years, though federal funding for its work only began in 1978, with its designation as the national center.

Senator Metzenbaum's press secretary, Nancy Coffey, said that "there were questions about the procurement procedures" in the Education Department's competition and whether "they arbitrarily weighed factors against osu"

To stimulate competition, the department had offered $25,000 planning grants this year to institutions interested in the award.

Though Ms. Coffey and others maintained last week that there had been "no good reason" for choosing the consortium over Ohio State, Gordon Swanson, professor of vocational education at the University of Minnesota and co-chairman of the consortium , said: "We have the faculty of five institutions, three of which are among the top 20 research institutions in the nation."

"You can always improve the process," Mr. Swanson said of a possible investigation of the competition, "but unless there is some evidence of wrongdoing, I don't think they should hold up the funding."

"There is no question that there is a lot vested in this decision," he added. "Ohio State doesn't want to give it up and that's understandable."

In fact, the Columbus Dispatch reported that loss of the center might cost the university 200 jobs, what it called the largest single layoff in the institution's history. The center's director, Mr. Ryan, put the possible job losses at 100 or fewer, however.

"We have anywhere from $1.5 million to $3.5 million in funding beyond the federal grant," he said, "and we have a full commitment from the university." The center's current contract expires on Jan. 15.

Though the Metzenbaum amendment seeks to continue its funding until after the proposed gao investigation, Congressional representatives from the consortium states have vowed to block passage of the measure in conference.

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