Tuesday, February 11, 2003

College Pork

I hadn’t checked in with Mark Shapiro, The Irascible Professor, for a while… I missed his December 29 column on pork-barreling in higher education. I loved the piece because it intersects my life in many ways. First, as an alumni of “Krispy-Kreme University” both as a student and a debate coach and because my husband and Royce were roommates many, many years ago when Royce wore a trench coat, and because Fullerton is my hometown—I am always interested in the goings on at Cal. State Fullerton. Plus, I am always amazed at vast sums of federal dollars that are given freely unattached to competition or performance.

According to a September 27, 2002 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey Brainard, the level of pork-barrel spending on academic projects reached $1.837 billion in the 2002-2003 federal budget. This represents a 9.2% increase over the previous fiscal year, and a 500% increase since 1989. The $1.837 billion figure refers to Congressional "earmarks", or direct grants of federal funds to academic institutions across the country, as opposed to federal funds for research and educational projects that are granted through the normal, competitive process of peer-review.. .

Here at Krispy Kreme U. our administration has been attempting to obtain a Congressional earmark to aid our Institute of Gerontology for the past few years. No doubt, our Institute of Gerontology does worthwhile work; however, the IP has heard of no good reason (other than need) for the Institute to be seeking funds outside the normal peer-review channels. Indeed, this may be an uphill battle in any case, because Krispy Kreme U. has the misfortune (or fortune depending on your point-of-view) of being located in the district of Congressman Ed Royce, who fancies himself a "pork buster". Congressman Royce has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to abolish the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy, as well as to abolish the Advanced Technology Program. This hardly sounds like the kind of guy whose going to spend a lot of effort to direct a million or so of taxpayer dollars to the Institute of Gerontology at Cal State Fullerton, even though he's an alumnus of the institution.
But that may be neither here nor there.

The IP's principal objection to the use of federal earmarks for funding projects in academia is that most of the projects either are of little or no national interest, or should have been proposed through the normal peer-review process. Some examples from right here in California include: a $2,000,000 grant from the Department of Transportation to Cal Poly Pomona to rebuild campus roads to accommodate buses, which were in jeopardy of being rerouted off campus; an $800,000 grant from the Department of Education to support distance education projects at Los Angeles Harbor Community College; a $200,000 grant to Cal State Monterey Bay to support student services; a $12.8 million grant to Cal State San Bernardino from the Department of Defense to create a distance-learning center that can provide education and training in disciplines of interest to the department; grants of $7.7 million, $9.0 million and $8.5 million to Loma Linda University from the Department of Defense for various aspects of medical research.

All of this reminds me of a multi-million dollar grant that the communication department of Cal. State Fullerton received back in my day, to study the best way to stop immigrants from being run over at immigration checkpoints on California’s I-5 interstate. The department printed extensive surveys (asking graduate students among others) what to do about the problem. The end results were the large signs that show pictures of a immigrant family running with children, which are posted before and after the immigration check points. I’m not sure if this was a pork barrel grant or a competitive grant—but those signs cost millions.

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