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Politics as it is played – lobbying activities of historically Black colleges

In a move that surprised alumni and other observers, Tuskegee University officials recently decided to close its long established Washington office and hire lobbyists instead.


Among the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Tuskegee University is renowned for its carefully cultivated relationship with the federal government, a relationship which has brought the school millions of dollars in federal funding. “Federal support is critical to Tuskegee,” said Michael Hill, senior vice-president of institutional advancement at Tuskegee. “We’re known for a number of innovative programs, and the federal government has helped us with that.”


Tuskegee University receives grants from the Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Department of Energy.


Hill says that closing the Washington office does not mean Tuskegee is scaling down its federal activities but that a lobbying or a law firm will help it keep and increase the necessary federal support.


By hiring such a firm to represent its interests on Capitol Hill, Tuskegee joins a growing list of historically Black colleges which are aggressively seeking federal grants with the help of lobbyists.


In the bruising world of congressional appropriations, Washington, D.C., attorney-lobbyist Anita Estell knows the score. A vice-president at the lobbying firm of Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc., Estell counts Spelman College as one of several clients she represents before the U.S. Congress and the federal agencies.


Spelman College President Dr. Johnetta Cole credits Estell with having helped raise Spelman’s profile in Washington so much that the African-American women’s liberal arts college secured federal funding commitments in excess of $21 million for Spelman and other HBCUs in less than three years.


“Until Anita Estell and Van Scoyoc Associates signed on with us, Spelman College had never had its own voice in Washington,” Cole said. Knowing the ins and outs of the federal government in has become a critical strategy for a number of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that hope to build and win support for new academic programs, campus infrastructure projects and partnerships. By taking an aggressive posture and enlisting the support of the federal government, HBCU presidents, with the help of Washington lobbyists, are carving unique leadership roles for their schools.


In the 1990s, despite budgetary pressures, the federal government increased its partnerships and relationships with HBCUs, largely because the institutions turned to Washington lobbyists such as Estell.


“You need people on the outside applying pressure because the system will not respond unless you [do],” said Estell, who uses the political skills and savviness she acquired from her experience in Congress and a stint with the Clinton administration. Between 1987 and 1992, Estell learned the intricacies of the federal appropriations process while serving as a staff lawyer on the House Appropriations Committee.


“I was the first African-American female lawyer to serve on the House Appropriations Committee. There are probably fewer than fifteen African-American professionals in the nation who have experience working on either the House or Senate Appropriations Committee as professional staff members,” Estell said.


She watched large, well-financed institutions snag billions of dollars in federal research and development funding, and fumed that HBCUs lagged behind comparable institutions in getting their fair share in federal funding. By joining Van Scoyoc in 1993, Estell passed Up being considered for a number of political appointee positions in the Clinton administration.


“I made a point to work with HBCUs. I saw that few of the minority schools were really engaged in this process,” she said. “There are more than one hundred HBCUs. During the five years when I was on the Hill, I saw five or six HBCU presidents coming to Washington on a regular basis. They were the ones who secured the most federal support for their schools.”


Spelman College established a strategy to secure federal research and development funding to support teaching and campus infrastructure. Knowing the federal research and development programs are structured to support the largest schools not the smaller ones, Spelman officials argued that it deserved support based on its success of preparing African-American women for graduate study in science and engineering programs.


“Spelman has a very specific set of needs (It) falls into an unique classification,” Estell said. “Federal dollars are big business for certain institutions. Nonetheless, under Cole, the decision was made to strengthen the school’s relationship with Washington.”


Among Spelman’s successes in the 104th Congress was obtaining a targeted congressional appropriation, known as an earmark. that could net the school $2.5 million for the development of a women’s health program. Spelman College was also named a Model Institute of Excellence by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is providing $9 million in funding to the school, according to Estell.


Cole considers that the greatest benefit to having Washington representation over the past three years is that “Spelman College is now well known on Capitol Hill.” She said that obtaining funding accomplished short-term goals for the college, hut credits Estell for laying the groundwork for long-range success by raising Spelman College’s overall profile among members of Congress and officials in the federal agencies. “No matter what [electoral] changes may come, we are still going to have the contacts,” Cole said.


Cole said the lobbying efforts led by Estell brought a clear message to Washington policymakers that although Spelman College has no intention of becoming a John Hopkins University or MIT in terms of developing major graduate research programs, the school deserved federal research and development funding because it was preparing a disproportionately high share of African-American undergraduate women for graduate programs in science and engineering.


“We defined our mission as a national need,” Cole said. “And we did it because we had someone like Anita who speaks [the language of] Washington quite well. When you go into a new environment, you need a translator.” Adds Estell: “My personal philosophy is that we have just a few more years for institutions to be positioned as lead players. We’re trying to develop partnerships that will last for generations.”


Gregory Gill, an attorney with the government relations firm, the Washington, D.C.-based Cassidy & Associates, said HBCUs began turning to Washington lobbyists to help them build relationships with policymakers in Congress and the federal agencies. “Having someone in Washington can help school officials navigate their way on Capitol Hill and in the agencies. That’s one of the benefits we can provide,” Gill said.


Gill, an African-American attorney, says he has represented Clark Atlanta University, the Morehouse School of Medicine and Tougaloo College as clients of Cassidy & Associates. Another former Capitol Hill staffer, Gill began his career while working for U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm in the 1970s. “Knowing the committees, their staffs and being able to talk about new initiatives and how there might he a partnership to meet their needs are the things from which schools is benefit,” Gill said.


Tougaloo College President Joe Lee credits Cassidy & Associates with helping the university obtain a $6 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to fund the construction of a gerontology care facility on Tougaloo’s campus. Gill said getting assistance from the federal government is often vital to strengthening an institution’s ability to attract support from alumni, state and local government, and private foundations. “Developing a partnership brings added clout to an institution’s efforts and a stamp of approval,” Gill said.


William “Bud’ Blakey, a veteran Washington lobbyist who says he represents fifteen HBCUs — he declines to name which ones — says the congressional environment has grown tougher for schools seeking targeted congressional appropriations. Growing federal budgetary pressures are requiring that schools develop creative approaches to securing federal assistance, according to Blakey. He said Washington lobbyists can provide the expertise needed in a legislative environment that is growing increasingly more competitive.


Blakey, who is also the Washington counsel to the United Negro College Fund, says research consortiums comprised of HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions working together on a common research project have drawn favorable attention from Washington policymakers. Blakey currently serves as legal counsel to Minority Males Consortium, a three-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Public Health. The project, in its third year, has enabled social scientists at consortium schools to study the lives and conditions of at-risk African-American and Hispanic males, and devise policy solutions to reduce violence and increase opportunities for young males, according to Blakey.


“This project has shown that there are roles for HBCUs to play in creating policy and options for minorities. One of the factors that has driven the research is that instead of someone else doing it on us it is being done by us,” Blakey said.


Yvonne Freeman, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Clark Atlanta University, said HBCUs using the consortium route to achieve research goads are likely to find favor among policymakers. A former NASA associate administrator, Freeman, who said Blakey is one of Clark Atlanta’s lobbyists, agreed with him that HBCUs should form consortiums that could take advantage of federal support. “It’s important to understand the value that consortiums can bring to participating institutions,” she said.


Henry Ponder, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), said he considers it encouraging to see individual HBCUs sponsor lobbying efforts in Washington. Seeing no conflict between NAFEO’s lobbying activities, which are carried out on behalf of more than one hundred HBCUs, and that of individual schools, Ponder believes more schools should lobby the federal government. “Each institution should have someone in Washington advancing its interests,” Ponder said.


Ponder said NAFEO and organizations such as the United Negro College Fund, have been most effective at fighting for programs, such as Title III of the Higher Education Act, Pell grants, work-study, and Stafford loans, which he says benefit HBCUs as a whole. Says Tougaloo’s Lee, “We were very concerned about cuts in federal aid. But there was a slight increase in Pell grant funding.”


This past session of the 104th Congress, NAFEO and other organizations lobbied heavily for the passage of a bill that would fund preservation of historic buildings at several HBCUs. “The historic preservation initiative was a success for us and the others who lobbied for it,” Ponder said.


When the 105th Congress convenes next year, it is widely expected that organizations such as UNCF and NAFEO will dead the charge in lobbying for broad policy changes when reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is considered. There is an also expectation, however, that more individual schools than ever will have Washington representatives pleading their case for appropriations and grants in the Congress and the federal agencies. “Schools know the importance of having their own advocates, and they can be successful having such,” Blakey said.




The ten HBCUs that receive the most federal funding 1. Howard University


2. Clark Atlanta University


3. Southern University


4. Meharry Medical College


5. Florida A&M College


6. North Carolina A&T State University


7. Tuskegee University


8. Xavier University


9. Hampton University


10. Tennessee State University


SOURCE: White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 1996.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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