5 Great Quotes from University Lobbyists

As many of y’all know, most of my research focuses on political action in higher education, and specifically postsecondary institution lobbyists. As part of my dissertation, I’ve gotten the chance to interview some of the best in the business. In honor of presenting some of this qualitative work at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association this week, I thought I’d share five of the most interesting quotes given to me by higher education lobbyists. 

5) Do You Do Earmarks? Yes, You Do: Before 2011, colleges and universities were able to seek funding for specific projects from Congress. The GOP-led House of Representatives disallowed legislative language providing the funding – known as earmarks – in 2011. Prior to that ban, many colleges would follow self-imposed bans on earmark funding – but still managed to get such funding anyway. One lobbyist who was frustrated by that phenomenon described a conversation with one of her counterparts as follows:

“Many of them said ’We didn’t request [the money], so we don’t do earmarks.’ And I went, ‘Well, did you take the money?’ ‘Yeah, we took the money.’ ‘Well, guess what? Then you do earmarks; it doesn’t matter if you thought of the idea and requested or your member did, if you took the money you’re part of the earmark process.”

4) Lobby Law Ruins College Basketball (For Lobbyists): Lobbying disclosure regulation got a little more strict in 2007, when Congress enacted the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. That law stopped certain non-profit organizations from giving gifts to legislators – including tickets to sporting events at colleges and universities. Public institutions, however, can still bring elected officials to football games. One private institution lobbyist expressed frustration with that dynamic as follows:

“There was a day when you could take people to basketball games, you can give them tickets, but obviously ethics laws have changed. We used to play UConn, and state institutions can give them tickets… and we can’t because we’re a private institution. That’s a source of personal aggravation. When we used to play UConn most of the Connecticut delegation was in [our home Basketball arena].”

3) Junior Faculty Should Ask for Earmarks: Some Lobbyists really, really wanted to bring earmarks back. Some made constitutional arguments for earmarks, suggesting that Congress ceded the power of the purse when they gave up earmarks. Others made arguments for earmarks based on the needs of universities and their constitutions. One such need struck me personally, as I hope to one day be a junior faculty member:

“What has happened as research budgets have decreased is that we have more and more young faculty unable to get their first grant on their own; as agencies become more risk adverse because of fewer dollars, they are… choosing people… that they’ve funded for years that they know will deliver a product in order to continue to be able to report that their scientific research program is a success!”

You heard it here first – the only reason junior faculty can’t get research grants because earmarks are gone. If you are a junior faculty member and want tenure, ask your member of Congress to reinstitute earmarks! (At least, that’s what one lobbyist thinks).

2) Sgt. Pepper’s Lobbying Hearts Club Band: Lobbyists are very strategic about the alliances they make on policy issues. For example, one lobbyist for a non-religious, private university on the East Coast described working with the Church of Latter Day Saints on tax policy issues because Sen. Orrin Hatch – who led the charge on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – represents Utah and its 1.89 million mormons. That lobbyist described the process of selecting partners as follows:

“Those of us who have been around a long time try to think what are the levers within higher education. When is it important for us to be in the front of the band with a loud instrument, when is it better to be in the band, when is it better to be watching the band clapping along?”

1) Legislators (and Lobbyists) Love Hipsters: As mentioned before, private universities have a hard time entertaining legislators due to lobbying disclosure legislation. That is especially true for universities without major sports teams. One institution for a private institution with no history of athletic success came up with a pretty ingenious way around that problem:

“It is trickier with the lobby law, us not being a public, not having a [major college athletics] team… We do have a series of business incubators; to me they’re the coolest places at [our university] where there’s all these guys in cool t-shirts and stocking caps building the next Google, these awesome looking hipsters who look like they’re on the set of an HBO show… and legislators love it… they can see demos of some new technology and… feel like 10% of this room is going to be uber-billionaires and living in San Francisco in 10 years .“

Bonus) Football Metaphors: Many lobbyists with whom I spoke expressed that most of their work involves fighting to maintain the status quo. They aren’t pushing for new programs, they’re fighting to keep current ones in place – including the availability of research funds and student aid, no tax on graduate student stipends,  and even DACA. To that end, one lobbyist at a school known for its football program stated:

“[in most areas of policy], we’re probably more on a defensive stance, than on offense. Most of what we do is blocking and tackling.” 

The good news for anyone in the field of higher education is that these folks aren’t just great blockers and tacklers – they’re Pro-Bowlers. They’re simply the best in the business and laser focused on serving their institutions, their faculty, and most importantly, their students.

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