The University Record, December 6, 1999

Ups and downs of collegiate lobbying reviewed by panel of experts

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

The message was clear: political lobbying by the higher education community, especially in Congress, has improved in the past decade, but it has a long way to go. This overall view was voiced from varying perspectives by a panel of experts at Rackham Amphitheater on Nov. 30.

“Politics and the University: Lobbying for Higher Education and Research” was the most recent in a series of Rackham-sponsored programs on the future of the research university. Panel moderator for the program was Tom Butts, associate vice president for government relations and director of the University’s Washington, D.C., office. Butts, who will retire at the end of this year, has represented the University on Capitol Hill since 1980. Prior to that he was director of financial aid.

Panel members included President Emeritus Robben Fleming; Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations; Constance Cook, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, associate professor of education and author of Lobbying for Higher Education: How Colleges and Universities Influence Federal Policy; and Kevin Casey, senior director-state relations, Harvard University.

Noting that the Constitution leaves education to the states, Fleming provided some historical perspective on politics and higher education. He cited as a starting point President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the 1862 Land Grant Bill, which provided funds for the founding of agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. Since then, federal funding has been aimed primarily at students—for student loans, for example, and for competitive research grants—rather than at individual schools.

As colleges and universities joined together into associations, such as the American Council on Education, to increase their “bargaining power,” the schools made an informal pledge not to seek federal dollars on their own. However, Fleming noted, “some schools have not been loath to approach Congress on their own, and there have been some notable ‘leaks’ in recent years. Given the nature of the budget process in Congress, the temptation for special funding requests by individual schools could increase,” Fleming warned.

Cook approached the topic of the day “as a student rather than a practitioner.” Her book, published last year, describes a sea change in higher education lobbying that came as a result of the Republican revolution in the 104th Congress. In response to the budget-cutting challenge, Cook recounted, the leading higher education associations began to overcome their collective bias against aggressive lobbying and adopted strategies routinely used by other major interest groups. Among those are grassroots campaigns, constituents making contact with members of Congress and media ads. “The successful result has led the associations to further strengthen their efforts on Capitol Hill,” Cook said.

Wilbanks, who is responsible for the University’s federal and state lobbying efforts, described some of her experiences “on the other side of the desk” as a staff member over a 20-year period for former Michigan Congressmen Marvin Esch and Carl Pursell.

“There is a vast difference in lobbying by higher education now from when I started,” she said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, when federal funds to higher education were expanding, association lobbying was often disjointed and na•ve.” In comparison to federal funding, which has a myriad of programs, higher education in Michigan has a single line in the state budget each year, Wilbanks pointed out. “Each of the 15 state universities has its own agenda, so telling our story has its special challenges at the state level. That has become even more complicated with the introduction of term limits,” she said.

Casey provided yet another point of view from his position of leadership in the Science Coalition, a small group of research universities, including the U-M, who jointly adopt more sophisticated lobbying techniques to achieve continued congressional support for research.

“One of our strategies is to generate third-party voices to speak for research. In that regard we’ve recruited CEOs from 15 large corporations to sign a letter making a powerful statement on the importance to them of university research. We’re also asking state governors to sign a similar letter on the value of research to their state’s economies. And,” he added, “we’re realizing the power of the Internet as a lobbying tool in grassroots efforts.”