The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
'During the American Revolution, George Washington used to call out for "beef, beef, beef," but the Continental Congress called out for "pork, pork, pork."'... unknown, frequently quoted by Congressman Cannon.

Commentary of the Day - January 11, 2005:  Congressional Pork Sinks the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education.

The Irascible Professor has railed against academic pork in the past, because these Congressional "earmarks" rob funds from legitimate, peer-reviewed grant programs.  Pork-barrel appropriations that dole out highway projects and military bases to the districts of long-serving and well-connected members of Congress are nothing new.  However, the rapid growth in pork-barrel projects for academia is a relatively recent phenomenon that started under Democratic control of the House and Senate.  But, it has continued with a vengeance in the Republican-dominated Congresses of the past few years.  Congressional pork now has reached the point where it has all but sunk the formerly well-respected Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) of the Department of Education.

The centerpiece of FIPSE's efforts has been the "comprehensive program."  According to FIPSE's web site: "The Comprehensive Program is the central grant competition of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). The competition is designed to support innovative reform projects that hold promise as models for the resolution of important issues and problems in postsecondary education."

Kelly Field writing in the January 7, 2005 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that FIPSE canceled the 2005 competition "because Congress has devoted the bulk of the program's $163.6-million budget to pork-barrel projects."  In other words, instead of giving FIPSE a budget that could be used to fund projects that are found to be meritorious through a competitive, peer-review process open to all institutions of higher education in the United States, Congress has given FIPSE the money -- but only under the condition that it be used to fund particular pet projects favored by influential members of Congress.  In fact, Congress has ordered FIPSE to award more than 400 of these non-competitive, pork-barrel grants that range in size from $25,000 to $5,000,000.  These pork-barrel projects will consume $146.2 million of FIPSE's grant budget, leaving a mere $17.4 million to fund competitive awards.  With the peer-reviewed competition canceled, the work that has gone into the more than 1,500 preliminary proposals for competitive grants that already have gone through the preliminary peer-review process was wasted effort.

The sad fact is that many of the 400 pork-barrel projects that Congress has ordered FIPSE to fund, are decidedly mediocre projects that would not have made it through the peer-review process on their own merits.  One example cited by Field is a $5 million grant to help fund the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.  While this might be a nice addition to the University of South Carolina campus, its impact on higher education nationwide will be nil.  It clearly falls outside the objective of the FIPSE grant program, which is to fund projects that are likely to have a nation-wide impact on higher education.  The net effect of this grant is that taxpayers from all 50 states will help to fund a project in South Carolina that should have been paid for by South Carolinians.

Since the year 2000, the number of "earmarks" in the FIPSE budget has grown from 51 to 419 in number, and from $43.8 million to $146.2 million in cost.  During much of that time, the amount available for competitive grants remained stable, if modest, at a bit less than $32 million per year, because Congress increased the total appropriation to FIPSE to cover the growing cost of the earmarks.  However, with the exploding federal deficit it now has become unpolitic to continue those increases; and, this year the amount available for competitive grant was cut nearly in half.

The demise of FIPSE's small competitive grant program will cause few ripples in Washington, but it sends a corrosive message to university and college administrators and faculty members across the country.  It tells the administrators that in the grant business Congressional pork is the name of the game, and that it would be more advantageous for them to devote their limited campus resources to lobbying efforts instead of to the seed money that is necessary to help faculty members develop truly competitive projects.  And, it leads to an even more cynical view of government support for research and scholarly activities among college and university faculty members.

Perhaps the Republicans who hold the majority in both houses of Congress should consider changing their mascot from an elephant to a pig.

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