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State of Affairs

Smart government relations can turn local and state officials into supporters of higher ed.
University Business, May 2006

During Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the presidency, Democratic strategist James Carville took a simple route to keeping the campaign on message. Carville posted a sign at the Little Rock, Ark., headquarters of the campaign reminding staffers and Clinton of the now-famous phrase, "It's the economy, stupid."

The message rang true with American voters, and it's one that college and university leaders are grasping these days as well. Facing insufficient state funds to keep up with growing enrollment, and yearning for local support, institutions of higher education are realizing that old ways of advocating no longer gain ground. Economic-impact studies, professional television campaigns, and contracts with lobbyists all have their places in state and local relations.

The work of gaining support from state and local governments now requires creative sales tactics. That means asking, "How can we help you?" rather than "How can you help us?" Or saying, "Here are the numbers" instead of "We need money."

"Government is just too big and too important for colleges and universities to treat it the way they did a generation ago," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education. "The old 'I've always depended on the kindness of strangers' doesn't work these days."

So how can IHEs get out of a "show me the money" mindset? By getting smart with data, coordinating with lobbyists, reaching out to the public, and considering the good of communities. Those are just a few strategies being put to use by public and private institutions these days. Here's more about how.

"If I speak Spanish and you speak English, we're not communicating," says Rab Thornton, dean of Outreach Services for Housatonic Community College. It's a lesson Thornton has confirmed on the job at HCC, one of the fastest-growing two-year schools in the Northeast.

Ensconced in Bridgeport, the poorest and largest city in Connecticut, Housatonic has taken a new approach to government relations in recent years, collecting data on jobs and running economic-impact studies. The work has put Housatonic in better step with government so that now everyone is speaking the same language, Thornton says.

But let's start at the beginning. In 1997, Housatonic moved into a renovated building in downtown Bridgeport right off the Connecticut Turnpike, a location that was not only convenient but also important. Within a few years, the move would help the college's student population grow from 2,500 to 4,500, and program offerings to increase by 50 percent. Downtown Bridgeport would become home to art galleries and services, with the new Arena at Harbor Yard attracting thousands of concert-goers and sports fans.

Despite the bricks it laid on the path toward success, Housatonic was not receiving much kudos from state officials. The problem came down to one of awareness.

Housatonic is about a two-hour drive from the University of Connecticut-a school that, around the same time Housatonic moved, launched an enormously successful fundraising campaign. UConn also boasted two of the most successful college basketball teams in the country. Competing with UConn was like competing with Shaquille O'Neal for attention; the difference couldn't have been more clear. "UConn 2000 was getting millions of dollars," says Thorton. "I don't begrudge UConn anything." He wanted Housatonic to at least get on the radar screen, and it wasn't.

With that situation as a backdrop, administrators at Housatonic decided to put more sweat into the government-relations game. "Legislators were asking, 'How can we better understand why we should invest more in you versus some other social service need in the state?'" notes Janis Hadley, president of Housatonic since 1996. "We began to understand that we really needed to [talk] economic impact."

"What seems now to be logical and rational actually took some doing," says Thornton.

Motivated to change the college's connections with government, leaders at Housatonic put resources into two economic-impact studies that aimed to answer, in practical ways, one question: What does it mean for the city and the region to have Housatonic Community College downtown? The results unearthed valuable numbers. Housatonic was bringing in approximately $60 million to the city of Bridgeport and $180 million to the surrounding region; $26 was being returned to taxpayers for every dollar put into the college. Housatonic's presence translated into jobs, boosted earning potential for area residents, and improved social factors such as lower crime, welfare, and unemployment rates. "It was the same language," says Thornton of legislators' responses to the study. "They understood."

The economic-impact study is now a core practice at Housatonic and is run every three years, becoming more fine-tuned over time. In addition, every community college in the state now runs ROI figures, according to Hadley.

With the feather of the study in their school's cap, administrators have also entered into other economic-data initiatives. Housatonic became a provider to area businesses of OneSource, a high-end aggregator of major business research used by Fortune 500 companies. And the school's Outreach Services department ran an analysis to predict how jobs and industry needs in Connecticut would change 15 years down the line. All of these efforts bolstered government relations. "You can't be naive about people understanding who you are, what you stand for, and how you are contributing to the greater future of the state," says Hadley.

College leaders are now working on securing funds for the construction of a new, 150,000-square-foot building for Housatonic in Bridgeport. "If you are going to really advocate for something, it is best to get in [public officials'] shoes first and look at it from their perspective," says Thornton. "That has been the fundamental philosophical change, and it is now at the core of what we do."

Economic-impact data speaks volumes to state and local officials-particularly if the numbers are supported by the voice of the public. Understanding that tenet, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, a coordinating body for the state's community colleges, has turned outward to strengthen its funding mechanisms.

As is true in many states, the 19 community colleges of New Jersey have experienced a drop in per-student funding since the start of the decade. Full-time enrollment has blossomed by 31 percent, yet state funding has stayed level, translating into a net 13 percent drop per student over the last four years.

In addition, the state's funding formula for two-year schools is out of whack. The state is supposed to pay one-third of community college operating costs, but in actuality it contributes an average 26 percent, as do the counties. That leaves 48 percent of the average community college operating budget to tuition and fees.

Facing flat funding, the council teamed with the New Jersey Education Association and funneled $136,000 toward a professional advertising campaign. This past January, state residents began seeing 30-second television commercials. "Visit," the ad's narrators appealed. "Tell your state legislators to make sure New Jersey's community colleges stay available, accessible, and affordable."

"We thought it was necessary to educate the public about the importance of community colleges," says Jacob Farbman, director of communications for the council. The competition for funding is fierce. "The thing is," says Farbman, "with our state budget in New Jersey, which has a huge deficit, we felt we really needed to pull out all the stops and focus like a laser beam."

The commercial acts as the front end of the council's ad campaign. But the back end is a website that allows residents to directly contact their legislators. Utilizing a software package called State Web, the website asks visitors to provide a name, a mailing address, and an e-mail address. It then sends off prewritten letters to the appropriate legislators and the governor's office. The user-friendly process helps community college officials back up their own appeals with those of constituents. "It's one thing if I go to a legislator and say that community colleges are important," says Farbman. "What about a student? A parent of a student? A son or daughter of a returning [adult] student? Those people are all voters, and they have a lot of clout."

According to one executive with The Soft Edge, the Virginia-based company behind State Web, more colleges are becoming interested in technological tools for grassroots advocacy. "The trend is toward engagement, not just reporting," says J.C. Chamberlain, vice president of marketing and sales. "They feel that the more voices are heard, the more potential results they can get."

In New Jersey, the council is hoping legislators and Governor Jon Corzine will hear their message-particularly with possible state budget cuts ahead. "Advocacy is something we've done for a number of years," says Farbman. "This is just a whole new level."

Public colleges and universities aren't the only schools to benefit from creative government relations strategies. Some private institutions that consider community needs can also boost funding and strengthen relationships.

For Widener University, a former military college that has four campuses in Pennsylvania and Delaware, recognizing the public service mission in its history has helped strengthen government ties. Service learning is part of every Widener student's education; the university feels that students who engage in meeting the needs of others will become "citizens of character," contributing to the well-being of communities.

Until two years ago, Widener (a university with about 6,700 students total) did not have a separate department with a dedicated staff for government work. Instead, Marcus Lingenfelter, assistant to President James Harris III, oversaw government relations along with his other tasks.

The school was missing opportunities for government support. Unlike many states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania grants public funds to private universities. Another thing: Widener has campuses in Chester, Exton, and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., meaning it falls within multiple legislative districts.

In 2004, government relations was spun out into a department within University Advancement, with Lingenfelter leading the charge as assistant vice president for Government, Corporate, and Foundation Relations. Under Lingenfelter's guidance, the university began to pay significantly more attention to state government in Harrisburg. The school already had resources at its fingertips: Widener's law school is located in Harrisburg, so hundreds of alumni are working in the halls of state government. "That's the irony of it; no one had ever capitalized on that," says Lingenfelter.

Widener administrators utilized the school's history of public service to build government relations and accomplish key goals. The university implemented a fund to guarantee a four-year tuition scholarship for children of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both houses of the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed resolutions supporting the scholarships and getting word out to the public.

On a local level, university decision-makers worked with elected officials to offer free legal services to veterans facing discharge paperwork. And they obtained a grant to help fund an annual conference training regional mental health workers and law enforcement officials handling sexual abuse cases. The university is also closing in on a capital grant to build a performing arts center for Delaware County (Pa.), home of the university's main campus.

Each year, Widener's government relations staff and other administrators become more adept at conveying the university's values and messages to government. "We went from having virtually no government relations operation to, I'm not going to say a sophisticated one, but we are probably no more than two years away from being a significant player in the Commonwealth," says Lingenfelter.

The efforts have begun to reap rewards. Competitive and earmarked funding exceeded objectives by 89 percent during the last fiscal year, according to Lingenfelter. Government funding is now the number one source of non-tuition revenue to the university.

For Widener and other IHEs, the possibilities for ramping up government relations abound. Sharpening tactics represents just one part of the process-staying on top of change is another. "Government relations is organic," says Hadley of Housatonic Community College. "Legislators change." Underscoring the message of Jim Collins, author of the leadership book Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2004), Hadley adds, "You need to know who's on the bus, and on what seat. You need to be constantly aware of that. You can't assume at all that what you did last year to raise discussions and contact people will be cookie cutter for this year."

With smart strategies in play, colleges and universities can meet goals large and small. And who knows-such efforts could lead to days of better funding and widespread public support ahead.