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Academic Lobbying: Ivy is not the Only Green for Universities

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Generally speaking, the nation's colleges and universities portray themselves as institutions engaged only in the pursuit of knowledge. So who would have guessed that universities are some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington D.C.?

Apparently, the green of money matters every bit as much as the green of ivy to institutions of higher learning. Academia seems to be driven by the pursuit of the dollar as intensely as the profit making corporations many professors deride.

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The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) is a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit organization which tracks money in American politics and its effect on elections and public policy. CRP wants to educate voters and make government more transparent and responsive.

For this purpose it operates a website, OpenSecrets.org. As CRP describes it, OpenSecrets.org is the "award-winning website...which is the most comprehensive resource for federal campaign contributions, lobbying data and analysis available anywhere. And for other organizations and news media, the Center's exclusive data powers their online features tracking money in politics — counting cash to make change."

According to OpenSecrets.org, the higher education industry ranked number 11 in 2012 for lobbying expenditures. The nation's colleges and universities spent $90, 503,733 for lobbying. Education came after hospitals and before real estate. 2012's Top Ten Academic lobbyists are:

  • 1-Association of American Medical Colleges $2,210,000
  • 2- Texas A&M University $1,565,000
  • 3- Warburg Pincus (a for-profit organization) $1,070,000
  • 4- Boston University $1,050,000
  • 5- Corinthian Colleges (for-profit) $ 965,000
  • 6- Assoc. of Private Sector Colleges $ 960,000
  • 7- California State University $ 900,000
  • 8- University of California $ 800,000
  • 9- University of Texas $ 785,000
  • 10- Career Education Corp. (for-profit) $ 750,000

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Ironically, despite all the criticism leveled at for-profit colleges, only three are in this Top Ten lobbying list. Moreover, as recently as 2009, there was not one for-profit university listed in the Top Ten. The ten biggest university lobbyists for 2009 were: State University of New York, California State University, University of Texas, Johns Hopkins University, University of Colorado, Boston University, University of Southern California, Texas A&M, University of California and University of Washington. These ten institutions spent more than $10 million to lobby the government on their behalf.

But why are they spending this money?

"This is to make sure the university has a voice," said Gary Falle, an associate vice president of federal government relations for the University of California (UC) system. . "We liaison with the government on several different levels; after all, there is a huge partnership between the federal government and the University of California."

 

He stressed that the university partners with the federal government in terms of research, student financial aid and healthcare. According to Falle, the major part of the federal government's role in higher education is in these three areas. This is especially true for research. He noted that the bulk of research money comes from the federal government. This is not the applied research work being done by private industry but basic research.

"What we try to do is to show the worth of the investment the federal government is making in UC," Falle explained. "Recently, we brought representatives from all our campuses to Washington to visit with all 55 members of the California congressional delegation. We showed them what is done with the research that is going on at UC."

Falle pointed out the importance of this basic research. He emphasized that the graduate students are the next generation of entrepreneurs and that they will drive tomorrow's economy.

While Falle is an employee of UC, some universities hire outside lobbying firms. These firms frequently employ those who formerly worked in the federal government. OpenSecrets.org calls such people "revolvers." They are former officials or staffers who worked in the executive or legislative branches. OpenSecrets.org calls them "revolvers," because, this system is "a revolving door that shuffles former federal employees into jobs as lobbyists, consultants and strategists just as the door pulls former hired guns into government careers."

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But Falle says this is just common sense to use such people. Former federal employees are familiar with the culture of the federal government. He said that while the University of California does not hire outside lobbyists there is no reason not to do so.

According to the OpenSecret.org database, one of the lobbying firms that universities use that employs "revolvers" is Van Scoyoc Associates (VSA).

VSA employs several former government workers which now lobby on behalf of universities such as the University of Alabama and the University of Pennsylvania.

None of this is illegal or unethical. Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity, even though it is derided in some circles. Everybody does it, even those who deride it. Yet, some say it is indicative of a larger problem – that of a government that is too big.

"It is interesting how many public entities spend money on lobbying," said Greg R. Lawson, a policy analyst with the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank in Columbus, Ohio. "This is justifiable to a certain extent, because it is simply making sure information flows to policymakers. The question becomes a matter of magnitude. How much do you have to spend to raise awareness? University lobbying is probably about student loans and things of that nature."

Lawson observed that people would not need to hire lobbyists if the government were not so large. He opined that if a legislative act can make or break an institution then the entity wants to be sure that it is represented. He indicated that institutions that get some or all of their money from the taxpayers are going to conduct campaigns to influence legislators to vote for their special interests.

"So in this sense, lobbying is emblematic of a larger problem," Lawson noted.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet

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