WASHINGTON – Before boarding buses headed to Capitol Hill for a crash tutorial on congressional lobbying Tuesday morning, a group of roughly a dozen university administrators were briefed on what to expect.
“When you go into these offices, you are going to find very young people,” said Robert Moran, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). “I hope you go away feeling confident that your policies are being decided by 25-year-olds.”
The event was a capstone to AASCU’s four-day Millennium Leadership Initiative (MLI), which offers training and guidance to upper-level college and university administrators looking to advance in their careers. The crowd, gathered at the Sofitel Lafayette Square Hotel in Washington, D.C., was diverse with women and minorities, who are a focus of the MLI.
“When we look at how successful women and minorities have been when they move into these leadership positions, we want to make sure that there are others who will come in and replace us as we, perhaps, move on to other areas of our lives,” said Dr. Muriel Howard, AASCU president and former president of Buffalo State College at the State University of New York.
In an earlier address to the crowd, Howard conceded that the stresses of a university presidency are real: they should expect long hours, she said, as well as a “fish bowl” mentality.
“But the job is very, very doable,” she said. “For me, it was the most rewarding job that I’ve ever had in my career, and I think it’s the most important and rewarding job that anyone in America, or anyone in the UK, could hold.”
The main goal of the morning’s session was to encourage administrators to forge relationships with lawmakers. Howard sat on a panel with Moran and Edward Elmendorf, senior vice president of Government Relations and Policy Analysis at AASCU. They offered participants a crash course in lobbying on behalf of colleges or universities.
Moran said that lawmakers should be asked about the fate of the Pell Grant program, which is facing an $11 billion shortage this year.
Howard and her colleagues also offered a few words of caution. The key, they said, was to keep public officials at an arm’s length, though strong relationships should be encouraged.
“Don’t be intimated because a governor calls you at 11:30 at night and you think you have to say ‘yes,’” said Howard. “You don’t.”
“You work hard to develop these relationships,” she added. “You constantly work at it. And eventually it will pay off.”
Ultimately, they said, lawmakers are primarily concerned with how policy affects their constituents.
“What drives them politically,” said Elmendorf, “is to get elected and re-elected.”
The day’s events were capped by an address from Dr. Eduardo Ochoa, a 2002 MLI alumnus who now serves as assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education.
He said that critical reforms in higher education are part of President Obama’s agenda, which is to make the United States the most educated country in the world by 2020.
To achieve this goal, the U.S. must increase its number of postgraduates by as much as 50 percent. It’s a steep hill to climb but essential in order for the U.S. to increase its global competitiveness, Ochoa said.
“In a world where information and capital flow freely, our nation’s competitiveness depends critically on its ability to innovate,” he said. “Given the speed and diffusion of innovation today, we really are in a race between education and technology.”
A more educated populace not only leads to more upward mobility, particularly among minorities, but also makes for a better informed public, said Ochoa, who added: “Higher education levels are associated with a greater awareness of current events and public issues and a greater level of trust in public institutions.”