The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of congress; but I repeat myself." ...  ...Mark Twain

Commentary of the Day - Oct. 29, 2000:  Pork-Barrel Politics in Academia:

One of the more disturbing trends in American higher education in recent years has been the growth of direct "earmarks" in the federal budget for colleges and universities.  These are funds that are awarded by the federal government directly to various institutions for special projects.  In contrast to the highly competitive grant process of agencies such as the National Science Foundation, which requires extensive peer-review of proposals, earmarks are placed in appropriation bills by members of Congress.  When these bills are passed and signed by the President, these "pork-barrel" funds go directly the particular college or university that has convinced someone in Congress to champion their cause.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Brainard notes that in the past two years the total funding for "earmarks" has jumped from $500 million to over $1 billion.  Some of this money has gone for purposes that arguably are in the national interest.  For example, Loma Linda University received more than $3.5 million for a seismic upgrade to its medical center, which is nationally known for its medical research.  On the other hand, Saint Xavier University in Chicago received a $1.6 million earmark to help defray the cost of a new $15 million events center.  While this center may well serve a valuable purpose, it is difficult to discern any contribution to the national interest that warrants the expenditure of federal funds.

However, the allocation of federal "pork-barrel" funds to academia has far less to do with how much the project might further a vital national interest, and much more to do with how much access a particular institution has to powerful legislators -- particularly those who hold leadership positions in Congress or who have long tenure on appropriations committees.  For example, although Mississippi does not spring to mind as a state whose colleges and universities are at the forefront of the American higher education effort (though it certainly has some decent schools).  Nevertheless, Mississippi ranked third among the 50 states in the amount of federal "pork barrel" funds received this year.  It certainly didn't hurt the cause of the Mississippi institutions that Senator Trent Lott, Senate Majority Leader, represents the state.

For universities and colleges access to their elected representatives does not come cheap.  Many larger, more well-established institutions maintain extensive government relations offices.  Dozens of these institutions each spend in excess of $200,000 per year to lobby Congress in hopes of landing a substantial chunk of these non-competitive, "pork-barrel" awards.  Another substantial group of colleges and universities hire independent lobbying firms to press their cases with Congress.  For example, Boston University spent more than $760,000 lobbying Congress for "pork-barrel" funds in 1999.  In fact, colleges and universities spent a total of about $18 million on fees to independent lobbyists in 1999.  The total spent by institutions that use their own government relations staffs to lobby Congress is not known for sure, but likely falls in the same range.

Most colleges and universities that seek federal "pork-barrel" funds consider their lobbying costs money well spent.  After all, the return generally is quite high.  With over $1 billion in earmarks being handed out, the $40 million or so spent on lobbying amounts to only 4%.

However, many observers - the Irascible Professor included - think that these lobbying efforts pervert the mission of higher education.  They reduce higher education institutions to the level of other special interest groups.  Public confidence in higher education is diminished when federal money is sought for projects of questionable merit.  Worst of all, the money spent on earmarks is money taken away from research and education programs that make their awards through the highly competitive peer-review process.  While not every research or education grant goes to a good purpose, the peer-review process greatly reduces the chances that tax money will be spent unwisely.  The same cannot be said for many "pork-barrel" projects.

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© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.