Where is Virginia State University’s $186,224 microscope?

Virginia State University President Keith Miller was looped into the finding that a former professor took some very expensive scientific equipment from the school.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — When a professor at Virginia State University in Petersburg left her job in August 2010, she managed to take a microscope worth $186,224 with her, a recent state audit found.

Nearly four years later, university officials haven’t recovered the costly assets that were purchased with a grant from the National Science Foundation — worth the equivalent to 24 years of VSU tuition at 2013 rates.

“This was not permissible under the grant — the microscope was the property of the university and not the professor,” Auditor of Public Accounts Martha Mavredes told Watchdog.org via email, saying the professor took the equipment to her next job.

Employees never even reported the incident to authorities, as required by law.

“Although the university corresponded with the professor on several occasions throughout 2010 and 2011 asking that she return the assets, the university has not aggressively pursued recovery of the items,” the audit reads. “Consequently, these assets that were purchased with National Science Foundation research funds are still missing. The university should have contacted the state police, inspector general, and auditor of public accounts immediately when the professor failed to return the assets to the university.”

University administrators had a reason to not report the incident as a theft — they wanted to protect the “professional reputation” of the internal investigator over the incident, wrote David Meadows, VSU’s chief financial officer, in a letter to the state’s top auditor. Officials from VSU President Keith Miller to Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton were looped into the findings.

“Initially, the university did not pursue this issue as a theft, but attempted to handle the issue in a manner that would not damage the principal investigator’s professional reputation,” Meadows told Mavrades in response to the audit findings.

When Watchdog.org reached out to Tom Reed, VSU’s director of public relations and marketing, he wouldn’t give any other details about the identity of the former professor or the internal investigator. University administrators aren’t even saying exactly what equipment went missing.

“Our administration is aware of the issue and is handling the situation internally,” Reed said. “Right now, this is all that we are at liberty to disclose.”

VSU isn’t alone. Virginia agencies and universities managed to misplace about $8 million in taxpayer-funded assets between 2010 and 2012, according to a March 2013 analysis by Watchdog.org.

VSU, however, topped the list for strange missing items. Among them were an incinerator, a lawnmower, sculptures and a tractor.

At the time, Reed said he was confident the items had been properly inventoried.

“We are confident that the items in question were properly accounted for in accordance with existing university and commonwealth of Virginia policies and practices,” Reed wrote in an emailed statement last year.

In light of this latest saga of missing equipment, the state auditor’s office told university officials they have to double down. Meadows said they did.

“The provost consulted with several sponsored research officers to obtain guidance, (and) the university developed a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that address compliance issues related to research,” Meadows wrote to the state auditor.

The microscope, however, is still out there.

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter with Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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