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Universities lobby for a seat at the table
by Mara Grebnick, David Unger | Jean Song, Medill News Service
Washington (UPI) Jul 20, 2012

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

In academia it takes more than prestigious faculty and ground-breaking research to win the attention of lawmakers.

From 2002-11, the 10 universities that spent the most in Washington paid a combined $84.4 million to either hire lobbyists or pay for in-house federal relations staff, data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicate. In 2011, those 10 schools spent $7.7 million, a 24 percent increase from $6.2 million a decade ago.

Universities have long had a presence in Washington but at a time when more institutions are competing for fewer federal resources, non-profit universities are spending millions to petition Congress and federal agencies.

The State University of New York, the nation's largest state university system, has doled out more than any of its peers for lobbying from 2002-11, the Center for Responsive Politics said. SUNY is followed by the California State University system and Johns Hopkins University.

A diverse range of issues

Universities hire lobbyists to represent myriad interests, which range from federal student aid and loan programs, visa requirements for foreign students, and specific research interests, officials said.

In 2011, California State University played a role in maintaining $17 billion in funding for the need-based Pell Grant program, the university's federal relations staff said. The funds helped maintain the maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 and limited cuts to student eligibility that would have affected about half of California State University students who are non-traditional, part-time students.

Records from 2009 list economic stimulus funding as one issue targeted by SUNY's lobbyists. A year after the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the school received more than $109.7 million in recovery funds to support infrastructure, education and research.

Representatives from California State Universities said that even K-12 education is important to universities because they want to ensure students are prepared for college.

The lobbying activities of universities extend beyond grants and student aid.

"The issues that would impact universities are almost anything we could think of," said Gerald Sroufe, the director of government relations at the American Educational Research Association, an advocacy group in Washington.

"Universities get involved in a number of things that are not about their curriculum or even about financial aid, but have to do with just the magnitude of their enterprises, which very often are very large," Sroufe said.

Defense bills, taxes, land use policy and a host of other issues outside the specific field of education, all affect the mission of these institutions, Sroufe said.

For the large universities maintaining a constant presence in and around Capitol Hill, the cost is "not particularly expensive" given the return on investment, said James Gelb, assistant vice chancellor for federal relations at California State University.

In the context of a typical university's operating budget, the amount of funds used to pay lobbyists is a very small percentage. At SUNY, where the 2010-11 budget was $11.5 billion, $1.2 million went to lobbying last year.

Lobbying budgets tend to fluctuate from year to year, driven by state and school budgets and the varying ambitions of school leadership, experts said.

Federal relations

Because no two universities are the same, university officials say it is important for individual schools to communicate its unique needs and interests to policy makers whose decisions impact all aspects of higher education.

"We help design policies that make sense for students like ours, and advocate for resources that are important to the state," Gelb said.

Lobbying also serves an educational role in its own right by communicating the interests of students, faculty and administrators to policymakers.

"You hear what some of these members say in markups and committee hearings and it's like, you wish their institution was there more often so they had a better understanding of how these policies affect what happens on campus, or how these programs work, or what the value is of federal investments," said Ellin Nolan, president of Washington Partners LLC, which lobbies on education issues.

Nolan, who has lobbied on behalf of universities in the past and has worked closely with educational coalitions, finds nothing wrong with the idea of educational institutions building strong relationships with their delegations.

"[Universities] are important constituents," she said. "And they're important economic engines, often, in the communities they reside in."

Several universities operate satellite offices in Washington to build and maintain relationships with policymakers. Recently, universities including Northwestern University and Duke University have expanded their presence or opened offices in Washington.

In some cases, a multipurpose office isn't just used for lobbyists but as an outpost of the chancellor's or president's office, experts said. And having a foot on the ground in Washington helps campuses understand what opportunities there are for the university to, for example, compete for grants.

As budgets tighten and the landscape of higher education continues to evolve, Nolan and others expect to see universities continue to make their presence known on Capitol Hill.

"We're all in the same game of trying to gain access to policy makers through legitimate means and then to try to persuade them of a point of view that benefits our members," said Sroufe.

For Sroufe, these efforts can be self-perpetuating.

"Hardly anyone ever eliminates a government relations program, because people always feel vulnerable," he said. "Each new issue produces a new set of lobbyists around it."


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