Sept. 21, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Universities Divided on Responding to Coburn

When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) began an investigation this summer into the earmarks secured by more than 100 colleges and universities, he touched off an internal debate within higher education over a key source of federal funding.

Individual schools are taking divergent approaches about how to respond to the August letter in which Coburn, a foe of earmarks, asked detailed questions about the schools’ earmarked funds since 2000. Coburn spokesman John Hart said the Senator planned to release the response letters as well as a statement today, after giving schools an extra week to respond to his original Sept. 1 deadline.

Some schools see earmarks as vital to securing research funds, while others view them as providing an unfair advantage for schools that happen to be close to key politicians or hire the right lobbyists.

In fact, the members of one of academia’s biggest lobbying groups are so divided that the organization said it has no plans to take a position on earmarks for higher education.

Sang Han, associate director of Congressional affairs for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said NASULGC is not recommending how its members should respond to Coburn. Han said the more-than 200 colleges and universities his group represents simply can’t come to a consensus on the earmark issue.

“We’re staying out of it,” he said. “As far as I know, we do not have a position on earmarking in general. I have never been privy to any conversations about whether our association should have an official policy or position on the whole concept of academic earmarks.”

Han said the group held a teleconference for the universities that received the Coburn letter to discuss the matter. “But we made no suggestions or offered any kind of advice on that front. We just provided a call-in number and said if you want to talk about this,” then dial in.

Lobbyists familiar with the letter said several different strategies have emerged. Some schools have fully outlined all their earmarks. Others are not responding at all, while many responses fall somewhere between those extremes.

Coburn repeatedly has riled his Capitol Hill colleagues, including Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), over earmarks, and he did not alert appropriators this summer about his investigation, which he is conducting as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, government information and international security.

Martha Stewart, director of federal relations for the University of Alaska, is one who said her institution would not respond.

Stewart said she showed the Coburn request to the Alaska Congressional delegation, including the office of Stevens, whose clout as an appropriator and earmarker is legendary.

“If our delegation had recommended that we respond, I would have,” she said. “There were suspicions that the reason the information was being requested was to try and eliminate earmarks for funding that we had requested.”

Stewart said she also planned not to respond on process grounds, saying that Coburn should have made the request directly to his own colleagues.

“Until it becomes clear what’s going to happen in the world of university earmarks, I’m recommending that the university err on the side of caution and let our Congressional delegation respond,” she said.

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