The Irascible Professor SM
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.”"... ...author unknown, frequently quoted by Congressman Cannon.
 

Commentary of the Day - December 23, 2003:  Noted "Pork Buster" Reverses His Position on Academic Pork.

For the past decade or so Congress has been providing colleges and universities throughout the land with an early Christmas present in the form of "earmarked" budget appropriations, which are better known as "academic pork".  The 2003 fiscal year has  been no exception.  According to a September 26, 2003 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey Brainard and Ann Marie Borrego, academic pork appropriations topped $2 billion for the first time in history.  This represents a 10% increase over the previous fiscal year, and a more than seven-fold increase (in constant dollars) since The Chronicle first began reporting on these allocations in 1990.  Not only has the number of federal tax dollars devoted to academic pork projects risen significantly in the past 13 years, but the number of institutions feeding at the federal trough has jumped six fold from 117 in 1990 to 716 in the 2003 fiscal year.

For those readers who may be new to the issue of academic pork, the "earmarks" refer to appropriations contained in various budget bills that benefit specific institutions of higher education.  The bulk of this funding is for research and development projects, but some goes to student services and infrastructure enhancement.

The IP commented on the issue first in an October 29, 2000 article, and then again in a December 29, 2002 article.  The only thing that seems to have changed in the interim is that the congressional appetite for pork has become increasingly bipartisan.  When the Democrats controlled the important appropriations committees in Congress, one heard protestations on the part of some Republicans about the merit of these "earmarks".  However, since the Republicans have gained firm control of the House of Representatives and a somewhat more tenuous control of the Senate, their tune has changed.  In fact, they seem to have an even more insatiable appetite for pork than their Democratic predecessors.

This is most apparent in the recent defection from the rather small camp of "pork busting" congressmen of Ed Royce who represents California's 40th Congressional District, which just happens to include Krispy Kreme University (aka Cal State Fullerton).  Royce, who is a graduate of Cal State Fullerton, for many years has boasted of his membership in the "Congressional Pork Busters".  He was co-chair of the group, and as recently as April of 2002 posted anti-pork press releases such as the following on his congressional web site:
 

Royce Helps Introduce This Year's "Pig Book"
Citizens Against Government Waste publication details wasteful spending
Washington, Apr 9 [2002]-
Congressional Porkbusters Co-chairman U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA-39) joined Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on Tuesday, to kick off the 2002 "Pig Book." The CAGW publication lists projects that are unauthorized, unrequested, local specific earmarks, or budget add-ons.

"Congress, especially the Senate, has really outdone itself this year. Pork programs have shot up by one-third over last year's amount, totaling more than $20 billion. I commend Citizens Against Government Waste for being watchdogs of the taxpayer's money," Royce said.

Royce has worked with Members of Congress from both parties to root out wasteful spending, corporate welfare, and special projects.
He attacked wasteful projects like: $190,000 for the Motor Racing Museum of the South in Spartanburg, South Carolina; $400,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute; $1 million for infrastructure improvements and to build a multipurpose event center at the Southern New Mexico Fair and Rodeo in Dona Ana County; $800,000 for Satsuma orange research in Alabama; $273,000 for the Blue Springs (Missouri) Youth Orchestra Outreach Unit for educational training to combat Goth culture; $50,000 for a tattoo removal program in San Luis Obispo, California; and $2 million for the Vulcan Monument in Alabama - a giant statue of the Roman god of fire Vulcan.
"The number of earmarks has exploded, more than tripling over the past two years. This has gotten out of hand. The federal government now has entire programs in which every dollar has been earmarked for someone's special, pet project," Royce said.
The Irascible Professor has learned from usually reliable sources that Congressman Royce now is supporting two congressional earmarks for his alma mater in the 2004 federal budget.  One is a $700,000 grant that would support the activities of the Gerontology Center at Cal State Fullerton, and the other is a grant of comparable magnitude that would support a project to investigate the possible contamination of public water supplies.  The latter is one of a number of earmarks that have been subsumed under the rubric of "homeland defense".  The gerontology project is one that the Krispy Kreme U. administration has been promoting for several years.

The IP attempted to find out from our Executive Vice President and our Director of State and Federal Relations more details about the two Krispy Kreme U projects that Royce is backing, and about how much was spent by the university to lobby for these grants.  Unfortunately, the initial response from the Executive Vice President did not reach the IP on the day it was sent. .

[Update 12/24/03: It turns out that the Executive Vice President did respond to the IP's second request for information.  Unfortunately, the message was not received directly owing to an overly agressive spam filter.  The Gerontology Center grant, which is closer to $500,000 will be used primarily to upgrade technological infrastructure and distance learning capabilities.  The water supply project is scheduled to be funded at approximately $100, 000.  The university has spent $126,907 in lobbying efforts to obtain these earmarks.  $97,994 was spent on lobbyists, consultants, and other outside vendors, while $28,913 was spent on travel to Washington, DC.  The Executive VP is proud of the nearly 5 to 1 return on investment through these earmarks.  However, the IP wonders how much greater a return would have been obtained if the $126,907 had been used in direct support of faculty members who were seeking to support their scholarly and research activities through peer-reviewed proposals.]

As the IP has noted in his previous commentaries on academic pork, many -- though certainly not all -- academic earmarks go to support research and development projects that, on the surface at least, seem worthwhile.  The problem is that many of these projects have not been subjected to the rigorous vetting that takes place when grant proposals are submitted to federal funding agencies through the usual peer review process.  And, others are projects that were turned down for funding when they were submitted through the peer-review channel.

The result is that some of the projects funded through earmarks represent mediocre research at best, and boondoggles at worst.  Even the more worthwhile projects often end up going to institutions that are known more for their close relationship with a supportive, well-placed Congressman or Senator rather than for their research strengths.

While the short-term benefits derived from academic pork certainly gladden the hearts of ethically challenged university presidents in the present challenging budget environment, in the long run academic pork threatens the integrity of America's research establishment because it threatens to undermine those funding agencies that base their decisions on results of peer evaluation.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.