University receives controversial funds

Sarah McKenzie

The University ranks 12th in the nation among institutions that receive hefty federal contributions in academic pork barrel spending, according to a report published Friday in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Congress authorized $8.1 million in spending for various projects at the University during the 1999 fiscal year, according to the analysis.
The University also shared $8.3 million in federal earmarks with other institutions and agencies during that period.
Academic earmarks are somewhat controversial appropriations granted by Congress that enable federal agencies to fund special projects at specific institutions without subjecting the universities to rigorous merit-based reviews.
The University rebuffed that characterization of the federally funded projects in a report prepared Friday.
“All, however, are legitimate and valuable research programs,” the statement reads. “They do not constitute ‘pork’ under the traditional public perception of that term.”
According to the University’s report, six projects were funded by the federal appropriations during the last fiscal year. The total cost of the projects is unclear.
University researchers studying fusarium head blight, a fungal disease afflicting wheat and barley, were granted $338,000. University scientists shared their portion of the $3 million earmark with 26 other institutions and agencies.
Another federal earmark, worth $260,000, funds research on the uses of wood at the Duluth campus, according to the University’s report. Seven other states have collaborated on the wood production and waste management project.
Other projects without a specified price tag include the University’s Research and Education Center on Transportation — a center that hosts studies on human safety factors and trucking safety system.
Studies on wild rice in northern Minnesota, agricultural diversity in the Red River Corridor and operations at the Army High Performance Computing Research Center are also funded by the federal earmarks.
“In general, many of these programs are not earmarks,” the report states. “They are the outcome of funding authorized through the traditional congressional process and funded appropriately. In addition, all programs labeled as ‘shared earmarks’ by the Chronicle are vastly overstated in their rankings.”
Nils Hasselmo, former University president and current Association of American Universities president, also cautioned against assuming the earmarks fund frivolous projects.
“This is a very complicated picture,” Hasselmo said Friday from his office in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know what the $8 million represents, but it might not be what you call pork barrel.”
However, Hasselmo did acknowledge the rise in earmarks is an unsettling trend for universities around the nation.
Hasselmo said he supports further increases in merit-based federal funding for institutions, closely monitored by academic leaders.
The University typically receives more than $200 million annually in federal appropriations through such a process, he added.
“The University has had relatively modest funds come through this earmarking process,” Hasselmo said. “But Minnesota has done extremely well in the competitive process.”
Congress awarded a record $797 million in academic earmarks to universities and colleges throughout the nation, according to the Chronicle.
A large national budget surplus is a factor in the increase.
Minnesota ranked 17th in the nation for total higher education pork spending. California topped the list.
Among Midwestern states, Illinois and Iowa ranked higher than Minnesota on the pork list, seventh and 15th respectively.
The states that received the most money appear to be linked with which states have members on the Congressional appropriations committees, the Chronicle also reported.