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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Boston Globe FOCUS Section 

May 23, 1999

It's small potatoes by federal standards, but the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education -- or FIPSE, as it's known -- has a reputation for giving a boost to innovative ideas for college teaching and outreach.

Successful as the program has been, its staff was still surprised last fall to discover that Congress had unexpectedly doubled the allocation to FIPSE, boosting it to $50 million.

Good news? Not really.

With the extra money came a new directive: Congress -- not the academics who run FIPSE -- would decide where and how to spend all but $254,000 of the pot.

Given lawmakers' new guidelines, the staff had to quickly cancel a competition with 1,700 applications because many of the entries didn't mesh with the new rules. Another "competition" was announced, but the deck was stacked in favor of pet projects and priorities named by powerful members of Congress.

Small potatoes have suddenly become juicy, albeit thin, slabs of congressional pork, and the latest example of how Congress can, with little notice, direct dollars to those it favors.

While there are legitimate arguments in favor of democratic bodies (such as Congress) divvying resources rather than leaving the task to bureaucrats, when it comes to finding and financing innovative ideas, those arguments just don't sit well with a lot of people. Especially since FIPSE, which was created in 1972, has always used a remarkably inclusive peer review process to winnow applications.

"We keep the squirrels away from the bird feeder and let the sparrows get in if they have a good idea," says Charles "Buddy" Karelis who, after 14 years as FIPSE's director, will next month become president of Colgate University.

To understand the issue requires a brief review of how FIPSE works. Of the $50 million it got this year, $12 million will go to honor existing commitments, and another $28 million will go to specific institutions named by Congress, such as the Robert Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. (These are called "hard earmarks" in the language of bureaucrats.)

The remaining $10 million is designated for the competitions FIPSE is known for. But here comes the rub. Using words like "urge," "encourage," and "commend," Congress named specific programs, institutions, and dollar amounts where all but $254,000 of that money should go.

Were these "recommendations" something FIPSE officers could simply acknowledge without giving anyone special preference? Or were they required to hold a sham competition while having a pretty good idea of who was going to win before the horses even approached the starting gate?

FIPSE officials figured it was time to call in government lawyers to decipher the legislation. But that failed to produce clarity on what, exactly, Congress meant with its "urge" and "encourage" language. A meeting in February between Education Secretary Richard Riley and Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee largely responsible for porking up the FIPSE budget, also failed to produce a clear understanding of the situation. (A spokesman forSpecter, John Ullyot, insists it is "categorically untrue" that Congress is trying to tie FIPSE's hands.)

So a compromise of sorts was struck, and the competition for the money was launched based on categories mandated in the appropriations bill, and with the understanding that the named institutions will be coached through the application process to enhance, but not guarantee, their success.

Department of Education spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said, "We will fund the best projects within the subject areas; some of the specific institutions named in the report may be funded and some may not." McLaughlin says she was disappointed by the way the money was distributed and hopes Congress will allow FIPSE to revert to a more open application process next year, again allowing applicants to set priorities.

Sol Gittleman, senior vice president and provost of Tufts University, worries that if Congress persists in its directives, the program will die. "People won't apply for grants there," he said, and the officers, who for the most part are accomplished academics, will pack up and look for more meaningful work.

Edwin Delattre -- dean of the School of Education at Boston University, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and a former FIPSE board chairman -- goes further. Politicians "just don't know what they are doing" when it comes to identifying and promoting academic innovation, he says. Even adding money to FIPSE's budget to finance particular programs does not keep Congress's intervention from undermining the program's reputation and mission, he says. "Pork is pork; it's a dirty word."and "every democratic legislature has to have a way of compromising and trading interests among its members."

With the advent of the environmental movement, said Prince, big projects began to generate as much controversy as support, so their political value waned. Military spending became an alternative to public works, and in the 1980s higher education emerged as a vehicle through which members of Congress started funneling goodies to constituents.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Prince; seeing politicians competing to bring education dollars home to their districts is desirable.

Still, he is not happy about what is happening to FIPSE. When 1,700 would-be applicants were told that their competition was being scrapped, "the normal process was interrupted," said Prince, and that harmed a well-regarded program.

Indeed, in an industrial economy, pork barrel politics may have provided a democratic means of distributing infrastructure. But in an information economy, in which a program like FIPSE is designed to promote ideas rather than distribute material, the process for deciding who gets what takes on additional complexity -- and additional potential for blunders.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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