Palin on Higher Ed, Earmarks and Science

McCain's VP pick has generally been supportive of Alaska's universities -- though her record is thin. Her entry into the race also could renew debate on the "politicization" of science.
September 2, 2008

Governors, by job description, tend to have their hands in higher education policy. Republican Sen. John McCain himself has said very little on higher education in this presidential campaign. But what can be gleaned from the record of his new running mate, Alaska Gov, Sarah Palin?

The general consensus seems to be that Palin -- who became governor in 2006 after previously serving as mayor of a city with an estimated population just below 10,000 -- hasn’t had time enough to establish a clear record.

She has approved increased funding for higher education, but she’s also governing in boom times: Alaska, fueled as it is by oil, has a multibillion dollar surplus. Having pledged to maintain funding for the University of Alaska "at an appropriate level" in her gubernatorial campaign, she approved a 7 percent, $20.5 million operating budget increase for state universities for the 2009 fiscal year. At the same time, the governor vetoed energy research and cooperative extension programs that were, according to the university system, endorsed by the Alaska State Legislature, in addition to vetoing an endorsed increase for tutoring and distance learning for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program.

Palin’s stance on federal earmarks (of which universities are often big beneficiaries) has earned her attention. Most notably, in announcing his VP pick, McCain praised Palin for putting a stop to the infamous $400 million “bridge to nowhere" project. “We can and must continue to develop our economy, because we cannot and must not rely so heavily on federal government earmarks,” she said in her 2008 State of the State address -- a strong position in a state that receives the most pork per capita, but one that also implicitly acknowledges the utility of earmarks in some, albeit fewer, cases. (In this way, her statement is not much unlike the love-hate relationship many in higher education have with earmarks. Many at colleges and universities dislike that earmarks undercut peer review and competitive grant processes, but also appreciate the stream of available federal dollars.)

More broadly, Palin's positions on scientific issues, including climate change and "creation science," potentially could ignite a debate the Democrats seem eager to have. Democrats criticized the “hostility to science” in the party platform they formally approved last week.

As for her own background, Palin is a 1987 graduate of the University of Idaho, where she earned a bachelor of science in communications-journalism, leading to a job in sportscasting.

Reactions from Alaskans

“We really don't have enough time to gauge yet where she is on higher education. She's made a lot of positive comments. There's not been much time for follow-through," said Steve Haycox, a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage who focuses on the American West and Alaska.

"She did in fact approve a budget that granted a 7 percent increase in university funds, and a hefty increase in deferred maintenance," Haycox said. "But I’m not sure that tells us a great deal. She made a lot of statements when she was running about making the university world-class and providing leadership in areas where it would be logical for Alaska to provide leadership, which would certainly be marine science and energy. But she hasn’t had time to follow through on any of that, if indeed she’s inclined to do so."

"It’s a little difficult to see a long-term record on this or that issue, given the fairly short tenure she’s been in office. That being said, the university has no complaints about how she’s provided funding for education,” said Jonathan Anderson, president-elect of the Faculty Senate and an associate professor of public administration at the University of Alaska Southeast. “We’ve continued to get good funding. In part, though, that’s because the money’s available.”

In a written statement, Mark Hamilton, president of the centralized University of Alaska system, offered kind words for Palin on Friday.

“Sarah Palin has been very supportive of higher education in the state of Alaska, especially voc[ational]-ed and workforce training programs, which we do a lot of here at the University of Alaska,” Hamilton said.

“Under Gov. Palin, our FY09 operating budget increased by 7 percent, $20.5 million over the prior year. This covered not only increased costs in day-to-day operations but gave us nearly $7 million for priority educational programs our students want in health care programs such as nursing and allied health occupations, engineering, construction management and fisheries. It’s only the fourth time in 20 years we’ve received program money, above and beyond fixed costs….She hasn’t given us everything we’ve asked for, but our highest priority programs in the operating budget were covered, and nearly $50 million for deferred maintenance and other funding in the capital budget were funded. Our capital budget was $107 million from the state -- one of the largest capital budgets the university has ever received.”

Science and Research

In her campaign, Palin described research as being "a huge part of how a university can help pay its own way." However, her positions on some scientific issues – including a statement in 2006 supporting the teaching of creationism and evolution alike in public schools – are raising some eyebrows.

Alaska last month filed suit against the federal government for its decision, based on climate change and shrinking sea ice, to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this year, Palin wrote an op-ed for The New York Times arguing that listing polar bears “is the wrong move at this time." She indicated that her “decision is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials of scientific information from a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts.”

Richard Steiner, a professor of environmental policy and marine conservation at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, filed a freedom of information request to see that “comprehensive review.” After months of facing resistance, in July he received the state scientists’ written review of the federal government’s finding on threats to polar bear survival.

The document, passed along to Inside Higher Ed by Steiner, concludes: “For the purpose of this review, we presumed that the projections of sea ice loss in the current scientific literature represent the best available information. Similarly, we have also presumed that the relatively substantial amount of information in the scientific literature on polar bear ecology, including habitat use and predator-prey dynamics, is applicable to polar bear subpopulations that have not been studied. Given these two critical assumptions and recognizing their significant associated uncertainties, the finding that the polar bear will decline significantly across much of its range is supported.”

“Those results that tend to support her political agenda, she uses and employs, and those that contradict it, she subverts or hides,” Steiner said. When asked about what the Democrats describe in their platform as the “Bush administration’s war on science,” Steiner replied, “She will continue it.”

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