Obama Needn’t Federalize Higher Education; It Already Is Federalized

While we are all focused on health care, and cap and trade waits in the wings, we shouldn’t forget the third leg of Obama’s trio of nasty tricks to ‘change’ America—education reform. One might argue that George W Bush already federalized public school education with his infamous No Child Left Behind legislation. Whether one believes its consequences have been positive or negative, one cannot dispute that NCLB has effectively given the federal government control over critical parts of the public school curriculum. State and local officials understand very well that they must teach and test what the feds want, or they won’t be able to feed at the federal education trough—to whose content they are hopelessly addicted.

But I wish to focus on higher education here, and to argue that by virtually the same means—that is, by dangling dollars—the federal government controls the operation, enrollment, budget, facilities and curriculum of our esteemed institutions of higher education to a greater degree than most would acknowledge. I can cite the pervasive role of the feds in student loan programs, the federal regulations that govern the physical environment of our schools and the earmarks that support some of the most arcane education projects. But the coup de grace is the following startling fact. We have reached the point that for many institutions of higher education, the amount of revenue that they derive from either of their two traditional sources—tuition and either state funds (public institutions) or endowments (private institutions)—is eclipsed by the funds secured from the feds through government grants and research contracts.

Much of this has been accomplished without any special enabling legislation. It takes place within the budgets of various federal departments and agencies—e.g., Defense, Commerce, Interior, NASA, NSF, and others. But with or without specific legislation, like all the massive intrusions by the federal government into areas of our society and economy, it has been carried out lawfully, with the public’s support. Of course in doing so, we the people have ignored the most basic law—the Law of Unintended Consequences. And indeed the examples of unintended ill side effects of the federal usurpation of higher education are legion:

·       The vast majority of federal grant money is directed toward faculty research projects at the nation’s universities. The inevitable result has been a dramatic decline in the percentage of faculty time devoted to teaching. The unintended effect—the quality of education suffers.

·       Federal grants are complicated and time-consuming to administer. Thus, the number of university administrators has skyrocketed. These people contribute little toward the university’s mission.

·       It is no great secret that the lion’s share of federal grant monies is directed toward the sciences (physical, life, social and medical). Humanities lag far behind thereby engendering weaker academic credentials and a commensurate loss of self-respect in those quarters.

·       State support of public higher education continues to decline. No State can compete with the feds. Thus local control of our public universities diminishes.

·       As with any other federally-assisted venture, the huge influx of federal funds drives up costs. Inflation in higher education fees has swamped cost of living increases for years.

·       The one who pays the freight gets to call the tune. Faculty, students and administrators increasingly have to dance to Uncle Sam’s tunes. A simple example is the straightjacket that university researchers feel they are in because of federal export control rules that apply to all faculty activities supported by government research contracts.

·       State universities’ Boards of Trustees and private institutions’ Boards of Overseers have seen their powers curtailed. They are fearful of bucking the feds.

·       It might only be indirectly, but increased federal influence in higher education eventually leads to a say in the most important decision the university makes—namely, faculty tenure. These decisions are increasingly dependent on a faculty member’s ability to secure federal funding—opening the process to influences other than scholarly merit.

·       Naturally, faculty—and the university in general—devote enormous amounts of time, energy and resources to the securing of federal grants. This is time taken from teaching and research—supposedly the university’s primary mission.

·       We are all aware of rampant corruption in Medicare, Social Security and virtually every other huge federal program. Do you think that federal support of higher education is immune? Suffice it to say that universities now routinely employ lobbyists to further their cause on Capitol Hill.

All of the above, while perhaps unexpected, are not controversial allegations. The next two certainly are:

·       The university—like the media, legal profession, foundations and public schools—has become an almost exclusive province of the left. Progressivism, relativism, secularism, multiculturalism, pacifism and environmentalism dominate campus thought. Federal government money and influence only fosters that dominance.

·       There is absolutely no justification whatsoever in the Constitution for the federal government’s interference in higher education. But no one seems to care about that.

I believe I have heard or seen each of the above items—even the last two—in public venues in the last few years. But here is one that I am familiar with from my own university that I have never seen discussed. The selection of campus capital projects and facilities maintenance programs is determined to a surprising extent by the university’s perception of their likelihood of attracting federal matching monies. Well, it is primarily only sexy new buildings and research labs that can do so. Therefore, a disproportionate share of these projects is steered toward the realm of new buildings, hi-tech labs and ultra-modern recreational facilities. The basic infrastructure is left to decay. It has been estimated that the deferred maintenance costs at my institution are nearing one billion dollars. While the safety indicators and educational environment in our classrooms and office buildings atrophy, we leverage funds from the feds to build fancy new buildings whose need is questionable. So, as with the country’s crumbling bridges, roads and tunnels, the university’s infrastructure decays while we chase federal dollars for glitzy buildings, climate change projects, diversity programs and other wasteful outlays in order to satisfy Uncle Sam’s dubious priorities.
This piece also appeared in The American Thinker under the title, ‘Federalized Higher Education’; see: