Phi Beta Cons

Colleges at the Trough

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has published the results of his August inquiry into Congressional earmarks for universities on his website and is actively pursuing replies from those institutions that provided no response to his recently-passed deadline. Coburn, continuing his valorous struggle against Congressional pork, launched an inquiry into the circumstances of earmarked support for colleges, which he stressed was not a search for “silly-sounding” projects, but rather an effort to determine exactly what sort of support the Byzantine and secretive earmarking process has provided to universities. Thirty-nine colleges provided no reply to Coburn’s request for information concerning earmarks. Those silent include Penn State, Ohio State, New York University, Drexel, The University of Pennsylvania, and North Caroline State University. Most did reply.
Responses to Coburn’s letter were revelatory. Here are a few illuminating examples.
Iowa State University took a rather obvious route of response to the question “…do you find congressionally earmarked funds to have contributed in a substantive way to your academic institution?” 

ISU finds that all funds – state, federal, and otherwise – contribute in a substantive way to the betterment of the institution. ISU goes to great lengths to assure that all university research contributes to the academic success of the institution, as well as the economic and social well-being of the State of Iowa and the nation.

 I could imagine few better justifications for non-competitive research fund allocation than that ringing phrase: “the economic and social well-being of the State of Iowa.”
Duke University elided culpability for its gift, fingering instead a member of Congress.  

University officials neither requested nor advocated for this funding. Rather, it came as a result of a discussion between the university’s chancellor for health affairs at that time and a leading member of Congress who was interested in identifying reimbursement incentives to promote wellness and preventative care.

 Aside from the question of lobbying (universities would never do that!), how many universities would refuse funds that lawmakers are eager to bestow? Not many; when staring funds in the face universities are unlikely to turn away because of the political nature of the process of allocation (look to Inside Higher Education here). Rather, any political process that results in Iowa State receiving more funding is likely to be regarded as proof that earmarking works perfectly at that university.
Stanford University, quite oddly, took some sort of stance against earmarking: 

We believe that the earmarking of federal funds, especially in a time of budget constraints, impairs the ability of government agencies to support the most promising research and weakens our national research program.  

Why… yes.  Ultimately helpful: more Stanfords, fewer Iowas. Or, most helpfully, fewer of these.  


The Latest