The month of August on Capitol Hill represents a unique opportunity for colleges and universities to connect with their congressional delegations. It’s a “summer break” of sorts for members of Congress and their staffs that halts action in Washington. D.C., and gives them the chance to spend more time in their home states connecting with constituents. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called for an unusual curtailing of the Senate’s typical August break, the House of Representatives still stands ready to adjourn for the month; and many senators will still, undoubtedly, use their shorter break to travel home.
In this month’s Advocacy and Action, NACUBO highlights how three universities make use of the August congressional recess to connect with their state’s members of Congress. While each school takes a different approach, all efforts are designed to highlight the strengths of the institution and meet the needs of differing congressional delegations.
The University of Arizona, Tucson
In connecting with their congressional delegation, consisting of 11 members of Congress, The University of Arizona’s (UA) federal relations team begins crafting its August advocacy efforts months in advance.
Kristen Douglas, senior director of congressional affairs, says that reaching out to Hill staff members at the very beginning of summer allows her to determine what issues are topping staffers’ interests and what areas of need their office may have. From there, she builds a series of on-campus briefings, town halls, and tours during the month of August that are centered on the issues that Hill staffers care about most. What’s more, by reaching out early, Douglas can strategically schedule briefings around the Capitol Hill calendar, knowing that August is the most popular time for staff vacations.
Through traditional briefings, both on campus in Tucson and simultaneously in Washington, D.C., Douglas likes to highlight for Hill staff the valuable resource of UA professors and academics; she also does this in a more casual setting, such as in her weekly “Professor on Tap” series. The idea behind this new series is to connect members of Congress and their staffs with academic subject matter experts in an informal setting over pizza, allowing everyone to break from the more formal constraints of Capitol Hill and academia.
The series also serves to build relationships between the university and its delegation, while giving UA’s federal relations team great insight into what issues their state’s members of Congress are most interested in.
Beyond working with the congressional delegation, Douglas also makes a point to reach out to Capitol Hill committee staffers. She says, “Committee staff often have more time and budget in August to connect with our campus, and I want them to be aware of the University of Arizona’s great resources as well.” Given the frequent flow of Hill staffers between congressional committees and the individual offices of members of Congress, this outreach enables UA to make connections far beyond the state of Arizona.
Although Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) does a great job representing the congressional district where the university is located, it’s important to Douglas to engage all members of the Arizona congressional delegation for multiple reasons.
Primarily, she cites the fact that the vote of any congressional member from the state of Arizona has the potential to impact the university, but also that “we have students at UA from across the state; I want them to feel like we’re connecting with their congressional representatives, too.” Further, the political divide between Arizona’s seven Republicans and four Democrats doesn’t at all impact Douglas’s outreach decisions. She notes, “The University of Arizona has strengths that can be an asset to all members, regardless of political party.”
Arizona State University, Tempe
In discussing higher education congressional advocacy, Arizona State University (ASU) Associate Vice President of National Policy Shay Stautz says, “The biggest mistake that many schools make is thinking that one House of Representatives member and two Senators should do all the lifting for their institution.
“[ASU’s] advocacy is designed to get our delegation to think of us as not being tied to one district and to break them out of the thought that other members of Congress don’t need to care about what happens here.” This mindset is the guiding principle behind the delegationwide congressional conference that ASU is planning to host this August, for the second year in a row.
While last year’s conference focused on all things cyber, Stautz says his goal with any conference topic is always to get Arizona’s congressional delegation focused on a strategic priority of the university.
To see that members of Congress are more actively engaged, he gets as many members as are willing to serve in interactive roles at the conference—either through moderating panels or serving as speakers—with the idea that the more personally involved they are, the more invested they’ll ultimately be in supporting the university’s mission.
Stautz also says that, beyond advocacy, the conference represents a great opportunity for the school to think beyond what it may need from members of Congress right now and more about what the school itself wants to become in upcoming years.
Last year’s cyber conference, for example, enabled Arizona State University to think critically about the number of cyber-ready graduates it was producing and what it could do to triple that number over the next five years.
Stautz also cites the conference as a great way to connect members of Congress and their staffs with Arizona State University academics, and to highlight them as subject matter experts on pressing issues.
Above everything else, Stautz says, the conference is a fantastic way to bring together members of Congress with vastly different political beliefs to highlight that “there are things we should all pull together for, regardless of political party, and one of those things should be the state’s universities.”
Emory University, Atlanta
Emory University’s federal relations team has mastered something that many colleges and universities have not—cross-institutional advocacy coordination. In discussing Emory’s August advocacy, Director of Federal Affairs Jessica Davis describes how Emory partners with Georgia Tech University and Georgia State University, both located in Atlanta, to create a weeklong series of campus visits and briefings for the Georgia congressional delegation and their staffs. According to Davis, Georgia institutions of higher education have found that because members of their entire congressional delegation often work in conjunction with each other, it benefits the state’s colleges and universities to do the same.
As part of this coordinated August advocacy effort, Davis works with federal relations staff at the other institutions to ensure that Hill staffers are getting valuable insight into the different subject matter areas at each school. Tackling issues related to health-care policy is a natural fit for Emory, with its seven affiliated hospitals, and Davis strives to make these visits as “PowerPoint-free and hands-on as possible.”
This August, Hill staff will get the chance to tour new hospital facilities, visit the serious medical disease unit where Emory helped tackle the Ebola virus, and have lunch with Emory hospital leadership to discuss Medicaid and Medicare funding and the complications present in providing health care to the uninsured.
Davis says the biggest challenge with this event is ensuring that different material is covered every year so that even returning Hill staff get to see something new. In conjunction with her August advocacy agenda, Davis also makes a point to hold briefings in July for Georgia-based congressional staff to highlight Emory resources that may be of use in congressional district offices.
Just as each college and university can differ greatly in size, focus, geography, and a number of other factors, so too should each school’s advocacy be tailored to fit with campus needs and resources. What holds true for every institution of higher education, however, is that advocacy at the federal level is something that we should all be giving serious consideration to both this August and in the coming months and years.
NACUBO CONTACT Megan Schneider, assistant director of federal affairs, 202.861.2547