What makes UCSD's Larry Smarr worth $244,000?

Taxpayers subsidize a wealthy genius

By almost any measure, UCSD's Larry Smarr is a superstar of science and technology.

Hardly a week goes by, the record shows, when the onetime astrophysicist-turned-Internet-guru isn't out jetting around the country, speaking before trade conventions, holding forth at academic seminars, attending corporate advisory-board meetings, or giving interviews to the computer-trade press. Smarr is always good for a quote. His message is his mantra, "A gigabit or bust."

None other than Howard Rheingold -- onetime editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog and founding executive editor of Hot Wired (a pillar of America's high-tech journalism) -- has an homage to Smarr in his 2002 techno-futurist book Smart Mobs. "Perhaps the most significant news in the grid-computing effort is that astrophysicist Larry Smarr has enlisted the governor of California to finance what Smarr calls 'the emerging planetary supercomputer,' " wrote Rheingold.

"Smarr has a track record when it comes to creating as well as forecasting the next paradigm in computation. He founded the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in 1985. Part of the project involved finding ways to link the nation's five supercomputing centers through high-speed Internet connections.

"In 1993, another part of the NCSA research resulted in the creation of Mosaic, the browser software that detonated the explosive growth of the Web. His latest sponsor, funded by $300 million in state and private financing, is the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).

"He imagines bridges that are covered with a fabric of computerized sensors that will automatically tell engineers where earthquake damage has occurred, or a world in which intelligent buildings whisper directions to visitors on the way to their destinations. CITRIS will focus on new kinds of sensors, distributed computing software and advanced wireless Internet."

Smarr is the university's unofficially designated technological pontificator, poised to appear at almost any moment to offer himself as the average citizen's guide to the mysterious and sometimes frightening universe of modern technology. "We are moving into a world where your location is going to be known at all times by some electronic device. It's inevitable. So we should be talking about its consequences before it's too late," he told a reporter for the New York Times last month.Keeping track of the whereabouts of Larry Smarr himself, however, is not so easy.

Thanks in part to California taxpayers, he has parlayed his one-time association with the inventors of Netscape, the first popular Web-browsing software, into a lucrative personal franchise, complete with his own webpage featuring a guided photo tour of his elaborate gardens and hot tub in the back yard of his ocean-view La Jolla home, purchased with a $1 million home loan from state taxpayers.

He reached a new pinnacle three years ago when then-governor Gray Davis announced that Smarr would become head of a new branch of the University of California, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, to be headquartered at UCSD, into which state taxpayers have poured an estimated $300 million. His wife Janet was given a professorship in the theater department.

But the election of Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger means that the university's free-spending days may soon be over, a development that may subject Larry Smarr to unaccustomed scrutiny. Smarr's star power has come with a big price tag: the expense of his annual salary, currently just over $244,000, exceeds the average of most full professors at the university.

According to a recent survey by the American Association of University Professors, the average of salary of UCSD professors was $93,400. Average pay at UCLA was $98,600 and at Berkeley, $101,800. The highest in the country was Harvard's, at $125,000.

In 2001, shortly after taking charge of the institute, Smarr told a reporter he actually no longer conducted research. And he claims not to be much of an administrator, either. "I don't run existing organizations -- that's part of my deal," he boasted to the Union-Tribune in May of 2002. His travel schedule apparently leaves little time for teaching -- at a time when the university's student-faculty ratio is soaring. His most recently published scientific paper, according to the "Professional Vita" on his website, is dated 1995.

Thus, looming over Smarr's many travels and consulting activities is the question: can California taxpayers afford to keep him on the university payroll? His backers say that, while not much of a real scientist or engineer anymore, Smarr has a genius for raising money from private industry, which may become even more of an asset in the days of tightening state budgets.

Smarr's detractors within the University of California faculty -- who keep their criticism muted, lest they anger Smarr's friend and associate, UC president Robert Dynes, former chancellor of UCSD -- say Smarr is making more money than he is worth.

Dynes is the son-in-law of Warren Hellman, wealthy heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, a venture capitalist, and campaign contributor to Gray Davis, the now-fallen California governor who in 2000 set up Smarr's institute and provided the cash for it from the state treasury. Even though he is now president of UC and presumably busy with those duties, both Dynes and his wife, physicist Frances Hellman, are listed on the institute's website as among its 220 faculty researchers.

But today, in light of the state's crushing deficit, average California taxpayers may be likely to ask, what has Smarr and his institute done for them lately. With state and local budgets being shaved to the bone, newspapers are full of horror stories about wasteful, extravagant spending by high rollers on the government payroll.

One recent victim was Roger Talamantez, head of the City of San Diego's Data Processing Corporation, who was forced to resign his post two weeks ago after it was revealed that he had presided over elaborate employee "retreats" and parties where shots of premium tequila and $121 bottles of wine paid for by the agency were de rigueur.

Auditors also found that the corporation had paid for a spouse's $1075 airfare and picked up a $2000 tab for ten individuals to go to a charity dinner last year. Talamantez, who earned $235,975 a year, was forced to pay back $3108.74 worth of booze and $225 in golf expenses, on top of the $4700 he had already agreed to return. Just by coincidence, Talamantez's wife Delia is the conflict-of-interest officer for UCSD, in charge of keeping track of the financial-disclosure forms filed under requirements of state law by administrators and professors. Smarr's travel expenses are far greater than anything Roger Talamantez ever ran up.

So far, the University of California has escaped the embarrassment such scrutiny of the personal spending habits of its top employees and brightest stars might bring. But rumbles are beginning to make their way through UC rank-and-file that expense-account abuses and lax accounting practices are costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

As in the case of Roger Talamantez and the City of San Diego, the university's situation is being exacerbated by severe budget cuts and fee hikes proposed by the administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has promised to balance the state budget without increasing taxes.

But that promise does not extend to holding the line on the tuition and fees paid by UC students. Schwarzenegger's budget calls for undergraduate fees to rise by at least 10 percent, to an average of about $6000 a year, with graduate students to pay as much as 40 percent more than they are currently charged.

And two weeks ago, after a January 14 UC regents meeting in San Francisco, the university announced that it would be turning away more than 3200 eligible applicants for the freshman class who, if not for the governor's proposal to cut freshman enrollment by 10 percent, would otherwise have been admitted next fall. They will be redirected to community college for their first two years.

Schwarzenegger also wants to hack $35 million from faculty salaries and eliminate funds for programs aimed at helping low-income high school students get into the university. Regents had wanted to reduce the student-faculty ratio from its present 20-to-1 to something closer to the 15-to-1 of 30 years ago. The governor's budget anticipates raising it to about 21-to-1.

At the regents' meeting, the proposed cuts drew the ire of university president Robert Dynes, who declared that they would jeopardize both teaching and research at the university, which has long enjoyed a sacrosanct status, at least among the state's academic elite. "The budget cuts over time have begun chipping away at quality, accessibility, and affordability of the university," Dynes, less than a year in office, told the regents. In all, the Schwarzenegger budget calls for a total of $372 million in reduced university spending, a cut of 8 percent from last year. Aides to Dynes complained to reporters that UC faculty salaries lag the national average by more than 10 percent.

Regent John Davies, the San Diego attorney who was appointed by his close friend and fellow Republican ex-governor Pete Wilson, angrily declared that a proposed 20 percent limit on student financial aid combined with the fee increases would "impact the quality of this institution." Other regents criticized a Schwarzenegger administration proposal to cut funding for university research by an additional 5 percent more than the 20 percent they maintained had already been trimmed over the past two years. "I know 5 percent does not sound like a lot of a cut to research, but it does have a cascading effect with respect to matching funds and graduate students," declared regent Joanne Kozberg.

In other words, long gone are the expansionist days of Governor Gray Davis -- just a few years ago -- when the university created three expensive, sprawling new institutions, mostly aimed at so-called research and development of new technology and inventions, backed in part by big corporations (most of them Davis campaign contributors), which were expected to profit from the "technology transfer" of the work done by the scientists and engineers there.

The prototype was Smarr's California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. The institute also has a branch at UC Irvine.

The idea of the institutes was reportedly cooked up in part by none other than Padres owner John Moores and Richard Lerner, head of La Jolla's Scripps Research Institute, along with Davis chief-of-staff and ex-San Diego Democratic congresswoman Lynn Schenk. As a result, UCSD's bid was regarded by insiders as a sure bet and ultimately received generous funding from the state treasury.

In addition to owning the Padres, Moores is a venture capitalist who, after giving Davis almost half a million dollars in campaign contributions, was named by the governor to serve as a UC regent. The project also had the blessing of Warren Hellman.

In 2000, Hellman had partnered with Moores in at least one venture, Blackbaud Software, a South Carolina company that specializes in accounting systems for charities. Dynes, in turn, endorsed the $350 million, taxpayer-financed downtown baseball stadium proposed by Moores.

"This institute will leverage UCSD's and UCI's complementary strengths in telecommunications, information technology, and applications with the powerful industry base along the High Tech Coast from San Diego to Irvine," Dynes was quoted as saying in a press release announcing formation of the institute in December 2000.

"Cardiac bio-sensors may be developed to allow health care providers to remotely monitor elderly patients; and sensing devices embedded in highways and bridges will provide electronic damage reports immediately after earthquakes and other natural disasters."

"Wouldn't it be nice if you got a call on your cell phone that said, 'Hello, we thought you'd like to know that your right front brake will fail in about 100 miles'?" Smarr, the institute's muse and newly named director, told the London Guardian.

The awarding of the three institutes (the others went to UCLA, for "nanotechnology," and UC San Francisco for biomedicine) was supposedly the result of a competition held among five UC campuses. Proposals from two other UC campuses lost out: Riverside, which wanted to study plant genetics, and Berkeley, which also wanted to pursue the study of information technology.

Adding to the institute's sense of inevitability was the fact that then-UC president Richard Atkinson, a former UCSD chancellor, was an original board member of and investor in Qualcomm, the cellular-phone giant that was founded in 1985 as a virtual outgrowth of UCSD's engineering school.

In 2000, at the height of the dot-com boom, Atkinson owned more than $200 million of Qualcomm stock, according to the financial-disclosure statements. Qualcomm, which already has various technology agreements with UCSD, lobbied hard for the institute and reportedly donated $15 million to partially underwrite its creation. Lerner was the selection panel's chairman.

Almost as soon as it was announced, the university spent $100 million for the new headquarters building on the UCSD campus. In a press release last January, Smarr enthused about the Web cams he had installed to televise the building over the Internet. "We're very excited because our faculty and staff can now use these cams to monitor construction progress of their respective campus and the partner campus.

"This was a marvelous way for us to join together in a single enterprise -- these tangible buildings help us appreciate that both campuses are truly in this together -- it's an exciting new paradigm of collaboration for UC campuses, not to mention other universities around the country that see benefit in collaborating."

Another university press release says, "The facility has been designed to help the public understand how technology is conceived, studied, developed, and implemented, especially in integration with other technologies, such as in [California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology's] 'living laboratories.'

"Visitors will be able to explore an exhibit gallery, look down from a catwalk to watch scientists at work, and stroll through a rooftop 'antenna garden' to learn about wireless technology."

As it has turned out, very little of the institute's Buck Rogers wizardry has thus far emerged as practical applications, at least for the general public. Smarr's current project is called the "OptIPuter," which an institute website describes in the opaque jargon the institute favors:

"The OptIPuter exploits a new world in which the central architectural element is optical networking, not computers -- creating 'supernetworks.' This paradigm shift requires large-scale applications-driven system experiments and a broad multidisciplinary team to understand and develop innovative solutions for a 'LambdaGrid' world.

"The goal of this new architecture is to enable scientists who are generating terabytes and petabytes of data to interactively visualize, analyze, and correlate their data from multiple storage sites connected to optical networks."

Smarr may be regarded in computing circles as an information guru, but getting data about the institute and the way Smarr operates can be difficult. He declined to grant an interview for this story, and spokesman Douglas Ramsey refused to provide even basic information regarding Smarr's compensation. Thus, obtaining the amount of Smarr's salary, legally a public record, required weeks of sleuthing and dealing with recalcitrant university officials. Other key information about Smarr -- such as the personal income he has derived from his numerous private speaking engagements and consulting activities -- is also not available, because of a strange Catch-22.

When he took his position three years ago, Smarr told a reporter he would have no problem revealing his outside compensation as a consultant and expected that the university would require him to do so. "I fully intend to file all the disclosure papers. Everything I do with industry is very publicly known; it's on webpages or press releases about it, and everything is out there. As an incoming faculty member, as I understand it, my first reporting would be in August at the end of my first year.

"But I suspect that I would just go ahead and work with the university and do it sooner than that, but I'm waiting for the final designation that I'm director, and they presumably will ask me to fill a bunch of stuff in, and I intend to fully disclose everything."

As Smarr anticipated, his position was subsequently declared by the university to be reportable under the state's political reform act, which ordinarily would have required him to annually disclose his moonlighting activities and personal investments. But for almost two years, the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the ethics agency in charge of enforcing the state's disclosure law, has failed to approve the university's revisions to its conflict-of-interest code, includes the Smarr disclosure requirement.

A spokeswoman for the fair political practices commission says the reason for the delay is that the agency has been "overwhelmed with work." She says that the final approval is now set for the first quarter of this year, which would mean that Smarr wouldn't have to file his first disclosure until April of 2005. A source at the university questions the reasons for the delay, saying, "They are awfully suspicious."

Even back in 2001, Smarr was not eager to discuss the amount of his salary. "Tell you the truth, I don't know" is how he responded to a question about it from a reporter. "I don't know the number. I don't really think much about money, frankly. So I couldn't give you a specific number. The money just goes directly into my account; I never see it. If my wife asked me, I wouldn't know. I really just don't spend much time focusing on my own personal situation; I spend most of it trying to put together these big projects."

In 2001, university officials declined to provide Smarr's salary until they received a request under the California Public-Records Act. At that time the university responded that it was $169,600 annually. County records show that the University of California in June 2000 lent Smarr $1 million to buy a house in La Jolla for nearly $1.5 million.

Last month, in response to another request under the state's public-record act, the university revealed that, in less than two years, Smarr's salary had jumped dramatically. According to the information provided in a letter from UCSD public-records coordinator Linda Maczko, Smarr makes $244,300 annually. Smarr's assistant director, Stephanie Sides, gets $109,561. Institute public relations man Douglas Ramsey makes $71,130.

In 2001, responding to a question about how much he made from the consulting work, Smarr declined to disclose a specific amount, saying, "Well, so far, very little. Most of it is in startups that are pre-IPO and things like that. And most of it also is vested over three or four years, and I'm just starting in most things, so I don't have the stock, the full amount for another three or four years.

"I'm never operationally involved in any companies, I only advise companies. That is, I'm either an advisor or on the board or something like that, but I don't have any operational position in the company. They remunerate you for services, and usually these days companies will do it in stock or money or both."

Smarr's other title at the university is the Harry E. Gruber professor in Computer Sciences at UCSD's Jacob School of Engineering, a position endowed by Gruber and two former associates, Brian Kenner and Isaac Willis, according to a 2001 news release that quoted Gruber as saying, "I am especially delighted with the selection of Larry Smarr, a pioneer in prototyping a national information infrastructure to support academic research, governmental functions, and industrial competitiveness, as the first holder of this chair."

Gruber, 51, a physician and onetime UCSD medical school faculty member, was a co-founder in 1986 of Gensia Pharmaceuticals, an early biotech startup, and InterVu, a dot-com-era Internet technology outfit. He and his brother Alan reportedly have made millions over the years through various buyout scenarios.

Gruber now runs Kintera, a software vendor specializing in systems to help nonprofit corporations, political campaigns, and others to raise funds through the Internet. As of October, the company, which recently went public, remained in the red.

Smarr joined the Kintera "advisory board" in January 2001 and continued to be a member until it was recently disbanded, a spokeswoman for Gruber said last week. She declined to provide any information regarding Smarr's compensation or how many times the board had met. She added that Gruber would not say how much the entrepreneur had donated to the university to fund Smarr's professorship.

The record shows that in addition to his involvement with Kintera, Smarr serves on many other advisory boards and engages in other private consulting activities.

Another company that boasts that Smarr is on its board of advisors is InterWest Partners. According to its website, the company, based in Menlo Park, California, was founded in 1979 and is "a leading diversified venture capital firm." The firm's "Life Sciences Advisory Committee" consists of six members, including Smarr, according to the website, who are "distinguished scientists and physicians from across the country who join InterWest in our commitment to building a world-class health care investment practice."

According to university travel records obtained under the public-records act, Smarr has billed some of his InterWest-related travel expenses to the state, although the trip appears to have been personal in nature rather than official university business. On April 12, 2002, the records show, Smarr traveled to the "InterWest Life Sciences Advisory Board meeting" in Half Moon Bay, near Monterey, California. He returned on April 14, the records say. According to a university travel voucher, Smarr was paid $73 to cover his mileage to and from San Diego's Lindbergh Field and his overnight parking expenses there. A note on the travel voucher says "Sponsor paid for most, not all, expenses for this trip." An InterWest spokeswoman confirmed last week that Smarr was still an advisory board member. She would not provide any information regarding the amount of his compensation.

Other advisory boards of which Smarr has been a member include that of Entropia, a "PC Grid" computer outfit in Carlsbad.

In January 2001 Smarr told a reporter that his personal holdings included interest in a company called WebEx that was on a list of institute sponsors. Smarr confirmed he was on the company's advisory board. He said that the firm's participation in the institute was limited to contributing its Web-conferencing software.

"They are a participant; they are making their software available to the institute. That's the interesting thing about this. Most of the companies that are providing things, there are only a few of them who are actually asking for sponsored research, and obviously that's not with me; I don't get to do any research anymore.

"I've had 15 years of dealing with corporate partners at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, and these were very large companies: J.P. Morgan, Sears, Allstate, Boeing, American Airlines, Caterpillar, Shell Oil, and so on. So it's not like I'm inexperienced in this area. And I've raised a lot of money in the past from these companies."

His consulting activities for private companies as well as other governmental agencies are rankling to some. According to a review of Smarr's travel records, he has frequently ventured out of the city and state to attend a wide-ranging array of functions.

Of the approximately 90 trips reportedly taken by Smarr between June 2001 and mid-November of last year, according to this analysis, many have involved keynote talks at conventions and appearances at corporate events. Others have been for meetings of various federal advisory boards and technical committees. Smarr's supporters argue that his frequent travels bolster the reputation of the university and lure donations from major corporations. Detractors say that at best, much of the travel is a waste of time, and at worst, advances Smarr's personal agenda.

Under the university's official travel policy, trips not directly related to university service are in no cases to be billed to university accounts. The policy makes it clear: "When a University employee travels under the sponsorship of a non-University entity, travel expenses, including advances, prepayments, or billings, shall not be charged to a University account or billed to the University; airline tickets must be from the sponsor." The rationale for the policy is that it provides a clean audit trail.

University of California spokesman Paul Schwartz says the policy contains no exceptions.

But Smarr's travel vouchers document that UCSD travel officials repeatedly allowed him to charge such trips, including airfare, directly to the university, many times to the university's Diner's Club Card account, with the promise that he would repay the expenses when the event sponsors sent him a reimbursement check. According to memos on the vouchers, Smarr did not immediately reimburse the university out of his own pocket but would instead wait until checks arrived from the sponsors.

The university provided no documentation indicating whether or not Smarr ultimately made the reimbursements called out in the vouchers.

For instance, a memo on a voucher for a September 2001 trip costing $1567 to give a speech at the UBICOMP 2001 conference in Atlanta apparently sponsored by La Jolla-based General Atomics says, "Note that original receipts were submitted to GA Tech/UBICOMP2001 w/request for reimbursement since GA Tech is paying for most of this trip. Traveler will reimburse UC Regents and Diner Card charges upon receipt from GA Tech."

An October 2001 trip to Illinois to give the "Keynote Address at Illinois Digital Government Summit" cost the University of California $521. An expense-voucher note explains, "Traveler is expected to be reimbursed for most of trip expenses by Illinois."

In December 2001, a similar situation arose when Smarr spent $2700 on a trip to Austin, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., attending events by the University of Illinois, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The purpose of the travel was said to be: "[California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology] meeting with SBC, Austin TX; participate in NSF sponsored workshop at Univ of Ill, Chicago; Attend NIH and NASA Advisory Board meetings in Washington DC."

An addendum to that voucher says: "Original receipts for some expenses were submitted to third party (UIC NIH NASA) with reimbursement request. Upon receipt of any applicable reimbursement from third parties, Traveler will reimburse UC Regents."

A February 2002 trip to Hillsboro, Oregon, where Smarr was an "Invited participant at Intel Corporation's Seminar Series," cost $177.37. A memo on the travel voucher says, "Please note that original receipts were sent to Intel for reimbursement. Upon traveler's receipt of such reimbursement, Traveler will issue check to UC Regents. This [travel-expense voucher] covers expenses charged on Diner's Card. Payment to DC is requested with this [travel-expense voucher]."

An April 2002 trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Smarr served as a "Panelist in Sandia National Labs Spring Leadership Forum," cost $355.26, including airline ticket, hotel, and parking. A travel-voucher note says, "Sandia will cover for most of expenses including airfare. Original receipts were submitted to Sandia with reimbursement request. Traveler will issue a check to UC Regents for airfare upon receipt from Sandia."

A voucher from an August 2002 trip costing $293 to Washington to attend a National Institutes of Health meeting says, "Most of this trip's expenses will be reimbursed to Traveler by NIH and original receipts were sent to NIH for this purpose. Copies of pertinent receipts are included."

A December 2002 airline ticket to Champaign, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Washington, where Smarr was a "speaker at I-Light workshop, Indiana U event" and attending a National Health Institute meeting, cost $2442. According to the travel-voucher note, "Traveler will be reimbursed for most of the expenses incurred on this trip by Indiana University and NIH, including some airfare. Upon receipt of such reimbursement, Traveler will issue check payable to UC Regents for applicable amount. Airfare was pre-paid through Balboa. Original receipts were submitted to third party for reimbursement purposes. Copies are attached to this [travel-expense voucher]."

In March 2003, a travel voucher for a $220 trip to attend the AAMC Council of Deans spring meeting at a resort in the Napa Valley bears this note: "All hotel and dining expenses reimbursed by conference. Airfare prepaid on Diner's Card by the University. Therefore, L. Smarr to write a check for $217 to UC Regents."

A May 2003 trip to Illinois and Maryland to visit Smarr's old employers, the University of Illinois and NASA, cost $1582.69. The travel voucher says, "[National Center for Supercomputing Application], Purdue University, and NASA will reimburse Larry Smarr. Larry Smarr will reimburse UC Regents."

Last June, after Smarr attended a National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director meeting, his travel voucher noted, "[National Institutes of Health] is reimbursing Larry $148.50 ($65.50 in meals and incidentals & $83 for Bethesda cabs). Once funds are received from [National Institutes of Health], Larry will write a check to UC Regents for $126.80."

In July, an expense voucher entitled "To attend ESSAAC Meeting in Washington DC (NASA)" similarly noted, "Traveler is being reimbursed by NASA for all expenses. Larry will write a check to UC Regents for $432.05."

The most elaborate trip on Smarr's itinerary, according to the records provided by UCSD, occurred during two weeks last August, when he traveled with his wife Janet to Reykjavík, Iceland, to attend the "NORDUnet 2003" conference. Because the trip also involved a personal vacation for Smarr and his family, the explanatory memo on the travel voucher was even more extensive than usual:

"Larry Smarr paid for the airfare. UC Regents paid for the hotel, $2309.47, and Janet Smarr's registration fee, $135.85. Larry Smarr was on vacation for 5 of the nights. L Smarr owes UC Regents $1290.60 (5 nights at Radisson & Reg). L Smarr owes $135.85 for Janet Smarr's registration fee. UC Regents owes L Smarr $1463.40 (cost of airfare). Balance: UC Regents owes L. Smarr $39.95."

To see more details of Larry Smarr's expenses, pick up a January 29 Reader.

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