WOODS HOLE – A historic vote to give control of the financially-troubled Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole to the University of Chicago will take place next Saturday, June 1.
The affiliation would mean the organization would no longer be run by the approximately 500 scientists who are members or Emeritus members of the MBL Corporation. Instead, the University of Chicago would control the MBL, having the power “to elect trustees, amend the charter and bylaws, and effect fundamental transactions,” according to a letter sent Friday, May 24 to Corporation members by Joan V. Ruderman, President and Director of MBL.
In her email, Dr. Ruderman offers a stark picture of what would happen with a “no” vote on Saturday. “The MBL has already faced large financial problems in the past several years and has been operating unsustainably. Without the affiliation, we would have to substantially restructure to meet our financial needs. This would require scaling back or cutting many of our scientific programs as well as selling key assets.”
The MBL Corporation usually meets in August, but the financial situation is apparently so dire, an earlier meeting is being called. “Every month that passes carries significant cost and risk to the MBL,” she wrote about the decision to hold a meeting two months early.
MBL’s Science Council and its Board of Trustees have both voted over the past couple of months to go forward with the affiliation, Dr. Ruderman wrote.
The deadline was Friday, May 24, for Corporation members to make sure their $100 annual dues are up to date so that they can participate in the historic vote to change the bylaws of the MBL Corporation. Approval of the bylaw change will make the University of Chicago the sole member of the MBL Corporation.
If the vote for the affiliation goes through, MBL Corporation members would become members of a new group: MBL Society. MBL Society would elect a Science Council that would advise Dr. Ruderman on matters such as MBL’s mission, research, teaching and appointments and promotions.
The MBL first began discussions with the University of Chicago late last year, according to Robert J. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, in a letter sent to MBL Corporation members on Friday, May 24.
A committee made up of University of Chicago faculty evaluated the proposal and its broad support was outlined for MBL Corporation members in a letter from Neil Shubin, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, and Associate Dean for Academic Strategy, who headed up the committee. “A primary goal of UChicago’s interest in MBL is to sustain and deepen the lab’s role as a highly collaborative and international center for research and education,” he wrote.
Dr. Shubin also stated that UChicago’s location “far from the coasts” has made it challenging to meet the growing interests among faculty and students in the field of marine biology, including marine systems, conservation and ecosystem analysis. “These fields are not among the University’s existing strengths,” he wrote.
MBL, a private non-profit institution, has a $42,6 million operating budget with, as of December 2011, $107 million in assets and a $64 million endowment, according to its website.
MBL is supported mainly through grants and fundraising, according to its website, with about 50 percent in federal grants. A scientist, who is an MBL Corporation member, told Cape Cod Wave that the struggling economy and the recent government sequestration have both affected the institution’s finances. The scientist requested anonymity since MBL officials have asked Corporation members not to speak to the press with Saturday’s vote on the horizon.
But MBL’s financial struggles are no secret. Attempts to deal with financial shortfalls in recent years included a controversial idea to sell off its beach property, Stony Beach in Woods Hole.
In a May 9 letter to members announcing the upcoming meeting, Dr. Ruderman stated, that MBL “has faced a very challenging financial environment in recent years. Affiliating with a major research university would significantly improve our financial foundation and allow our distinctive programs to thrive and grow.”
Dr. Ruderman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But in her recent email to Corporation members, she wrote that University of Chicago “provides an excellent match with MBL’s values, history, excellence in research and education and our culture of collaboration.”
“They are especially interested in the vast potential for new discoveries that can come from future work with marine species,” she wrote.
The MBL’s summer programs, when scientists come from around the world to the institution in Woods Hole, are “financially challenged, and we need new resources and strategies to sustain them,” Dr. Ruderman wrote.
The affiliation would mean the three elements of MBL: the courses, the visiting research program and resident research would be able to continue and even flourish, she wrote.
Under the affiliation with University of Chicago, Dr. Ruderman, as MBL’s president and director would report not only to the MBL board of trustees but also to the University of Chicago’s President.
MBL was founded in 1888, four years before the University of Chicago. But the two institutions have shared a number of scientists including MBL’s first two directors, Charles O. Whitman and Frank R. Lillie, who were both on the faculty of the university.
MBL, the oldest private marine laboratory in the western hemisphere, claims 55 Nobel Prize winners among its scientists.
According to MBL’s website, currently, there are more than 270 year-round scientists and support personnel and 300 visiting scientists. In the summer, 1,700 scientists and students come to study and do research at the MBL.
The vote is scheduled for 3 PM, during a meeting that begins at 1:30 PM June 1 at the MBL’s Lillie Auditorium. There need to be 100 Corporation members present for the vote to be valid, according to MBL officials.
Andrea Early, MBL spokesman, stated that the vote “is one among several steps in a larger process needed to affect the affiliation.”
–Laura M. Reckford