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The Continuing Superfluity of the USDA Graduate School

About a year and a half ago, I posted on the ridiculousness that is the Graduate School, USDA.

[S]urely education initiatives would fall squarely under the Department of Education, right? After all, the department name kind of makes that obvious, doesn’t it?

Not to the guys at the Department of Agriculture, apparently. They operate the USDA Graduate School. “Hey”, you may be saying, “This must be like the DOE thing. There’s a logical explanation, right?”

Not that I can find. If this were some sort of program to teach subsidized farmers how to not grow corn, I could understand it. If it were a program to teach failed farmers how to do other things, I could get that to. Instead, this project seems to be a giant community college for anyone living in Washington, DC that wants to learn such critical life needs as: Creating a Podcast; Conversational French; Mushroom Identification; and Screenwriting.

In the nearly 18 months since, I have received the occasional e-mail or comment from people either chastising me for taking issue with such a noble program or, more recently, asking further questions about it. This comes from a note I received today.

Hi Turk! I came upon your USDA Grad School posts by a google search. Ironically, I was trying to do research on whether they are actually affiliated with the USDA or not. Just for background, the reason that I was trying to find this out is that government agencies can purchase many things tax-exempt at a state/local tax level in the state of [redacted], as states are
not permitted by the US Constitution to tax the US Government. However, [redacted] law does allow for the taxation of private universities from out of state. Naturally, they want to be tax-exempt as a government agency despite not receiving any funding as a government agency.

The author of this note cites a Washington Post article in which the Graduate School extols the virtue of not being funded by the USDA, and yet they tout the fact that the governing board is appointed by (you guessed it) the Secretary of Agriculture. So “funded by” and “controlled by” are two different things. Here are the kickers from that WaPo piece.

“We’re a self-financing organization,” Jerry T. Ice, the school’s executive director, said in an interview. “The folks that work at the graduate school are not federal employees.”

The school has a staff of 300, an annual budget of more than $60 million and a governing board whose 17 members are appointed by the secretary of agriculture. (emphasis mine)

Sixty million dollars? And yet they want to skip taxes in the states in which they operate? They want to use a technical loophole to claim government affiliation for the purpose of avoiding obligations that apply to every “actual” college, but they want to profess their independence from such groups for the purpose of justifying their existence.

OMG! This is infuriating. It was bad enough when I thought this was simply a ridiculous holdover from some bygone era of retraining milk maids to use typewriters, but this has gotten absurd.

If there is, as the WaPo piece argues, some legitimate good that comes from this school, fine. In that case, get rid of the appointed board, let private companies bid for the right to run it, and privatize what should be a private entity. There is no compelling national interest in this program being run by USDA (or not run, depending on which argument you buy). Spin it off. Make it a commercial entity and let it pay taxes to the government rather than skipping out on its financial obligations while claiming exemption.

Written by Michael Turk