With one of the most challenging fiscal climates in decades and a reform-minded Administration leading the charge on a federal level, many colleges and universities are ramping up spending on lobbyists to represent their interests.
LobbyingFirms.com asked veteran lobbyist Patrick McCallum, President of Sacramento-based McCallum Group, and a recognized expert on higher education issues in the U.S. and abroad, to share some insights into the role of a lobbyist in this sector .
LobbyingFirms.com: Can you give us some background on your activities in this area?
Patrick McCallum: Sure. The McCallum Group is a California lobbying firm. While we do represent clients in various private industry sectors such as health care, real estate, technology and financial services, we’ve also developed a specialty over the years in higher education, particularly around community college issues. We’re going into our 12th year, prior to which I was the Executive Director of the Faculty Association of Community Colleges and before that, staff to the Chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee and a Staff Consultant to two members of the California Assembly. With more than 30 years of in-depth involvement with California’s higher educational institutions, it’s an area I know well and care about deeply.
I also serve as President of the College Brain Trust, a consulting group established in 2007 composed of 45 retired California college and university presidents, vice-presidents and faculty leaders. CBT offers strategic planning and implementation services on all aspects of setting up and operating a college or university. It complements the work our lobbying firm handles in this arena and allows us to be a full-service shop for our educational institution client base.
What are some reasons why a college or university would or should seek out a lobbyist? Would it be at the state or federal level?
The lobbying effort could aim at either or both, but the sustained need is generally at the state level.
Decisions regarding all areas of a college or university are made by state legislatures, the governor, educational governing boards, and other state agencies. It’s a lot of work – a full-time job, in fact – to monitor the internal and external environments, to lobby for a college’s positions, to respond to regulations or sponsor new legislation.
Leadership in a college or university is not only an academic position, but also a political position. A lobbyist can serve not only as the institution’s “eyes and ears” regarding the development of laws and regulations that will impact the university, but can also provide timely political advice to the president and board members on issues dealing with the public and political leaders.
As I said, the McCallum Group is a California lobbying firm, but if one of our clients should need or want to undertake a federal lobbying effort, we would help prepare them to do so or – the recommended approach – help them hire an effective federal lobbyist.
Do both private and public institutions have a need for lobbyists?
In short, yes. Clearly, a public educational institution has more interest because its primary source of funding is from the public sector, but both the federal government and the states are beginning to look more carefully at private colleges on issues around financial aid, loans, accountability and oversight vis-à-vis how public money is being spent. Both public and private educational institutions are impacted in these areas. For public institutions, accountability primarily comes in the form of legislation that will alter the law. Many laws and regulations also govern private schools. In California, for example, many private schools must follow regulations promulgated by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. Additionally, lobbyists can help clients navigate state regulatory bodies.
In what areas can lobbying efforts have the greatest impact?
A key area is funding. These days, funding is the number one issue for educational entities, particularly public institutions. In these tough economic times, there’s a diminishing amount of available dollars, and as the “pie” shrinks, if you will, an educational institution has to be especially vocal if it hopes to get a share. This is where a lobbyist can play vital role on a client’s behalf.
In more prosperous times, new programs can be created to ensure that your college is set up to be funded. Right now, it’s all about cuts. First, trying to avoid them and, if that isn’t possible, at least mitigating their negative impact.
A lobbyist has to be familiar with the many types of funding required, whether it’s for academic programs, student services, IT, buildings, facilities. And, to understand what is the criteria for funding – that’s the big question – as well as the long-term implications. This can take a lot of complex analysis and a good lobbyist can really help guide the client in making the right decisions and avoiding some major pitfalls.
For colleges and universities as well as K-12 education, funding models involve complicated factors that can help or hurt a college. The goal is for every student to have the best possible learning experience and the challenge is having the resources to make that happen. Finding the balance between the two.
In addition to funding mechanisms, laws and regulations can be intrusive or expensive for a college and have negative impacts on its operations and ability to deliver quality education. This can be the result of different priorities on the part of a governor, legislator or other governing body, for example.
“Conflicting priorities,” that’s an interesting point. Can you give an example?
Yes. Let’s say a component of a governor’s election platform was prioritized enrollment for vocational or career technical education – an area that is in vogue right now – and in the first budget, he or she proposed that the majority of funding go solely to this. What we have to look at is whether this is best for the program mix of the college. Do we reduce English and History, for example, in favor of technical education? While a proposal may sound good on the surface, it could be a rearrangement with other unintended consequences.
Another example is the current movement to eliminate physical education courses, with the thinking being that these courses are more expendable than more “hardcore” subjects. Yet, eliminating these courses can have some major detrimental effects. For one thing, kinesiology and physical therapy majors need this training. What isn’t taken into account is that physical education courses cost less to administer which frees up some funds for other purposes. More importantly, the research demonstrates that students who take physical education courses have greater retention and are more likely to graduate, particularly men who play sports, for example.
Politics is so often about simplistic solutions to meet a rallying cry around some issue that is in vogue in the public’s mind, riding the wave of popular opinion. Simplistic solutions create other problems. Part of our job as lobbyists is to take the longer view, to understand and advocate for what’s best in the long-term, and to educate the public and policymakers in the process.
What are the top challenges now confronting colleges and universities, particularly given the current economic climate? If you were president or dean of a college or university, what would be keeping you up at night?
Unfortunately, at the present moment, there are several worrisome issues. Some of the obvious ones are the result of the current economic contraction we’re experiencing. State and municipal governments have less tax revenues to work with; the federal government has a host of hugely expensive initiatives competing for resources. This has meant significant decreases in available funding for colleges and universities, with public institutions particularly hard-hit. With job losses, unemployment and tighter credit restrictions, many more students can’t afford private universities and are opting instead to attend state universities or community colleges which puts greater demand on the already strained budgets of these institutions.
Less obvious but also challenging are the rising expectations of private and public financing sources that are calling for greater emphasis on accountability and outcomes measurements. This “perfect storm” of more students, less revenues, and higher expectations from funders wanting to know what they’re getting for their money is putting a lot of pressure on educational institutions right now.
We are hearing a lot about “reform” these days, more accountability. What does that mean for higher education? How is it affecting colleges and universities?
Well, that’s a much longer discussion, but I can give you a brief picture. There is a movement afoot for more educational reform, particularly in the outcomes area, more student success. Student success measured as lowering the number of dropouts, getting more students to graduate, and speeding up the time to graduation.
This emerging cry for educational reform is generating a good deal of concern within college and university systems and for good reason. A number of private foundations, for example, are focused on making educational institutions more accountable and improving student success through punitive measures. These foundations have gained the attention of many policy makers, including the federal administration. Colleges and universities are now being forced to defend themselves against proposals that sound good in concept, but could, in practice, actually have a detrimental effect on student success. One such example is an effort to tie funding to institutional success, funding based on results narrowly defined as number of people graduating.
This idea of “performance funding” is a model that sounds good but has no research behind it and has been dropped where tried in other states. Funding based on a limited measurement of results, period. When results are narrowly defined as more people graduating, it can become problematic. In other words, a college could increase its funding base by only admitting students that were “sure bets” to graduate, who have the financial and academic wherewithal to succeed, who are more likely to graduate, less risk. Does the college admit only candidates who can go to school full-time, or have the highest academic scores?
What about the students who can only attend school part-time because they have to work too? Or those who may have lower-level skills in Math or English? What happens to them? Are they shut out? And what about educational districts in lower-economic urban areas, for example, that do take students with lower-level skills. They now have to live with less funding which makes their job harder than it is already. That’s the danger.
Student success is a legitimate issue. Higher education needs new, innovative thinking. The public and lawmakers need to be educated to the value of a higher education, in the broadest sense. This is what colleges and universities are about. Yes, technical training is important, but let’s not lose sight of the perhaps less quantifiable aspects of the learning experience, the whole process of discovery, inquisitiveness, research, ideas, creating new knowledge.
With cuts in jobs and programs, funding shortages, the situation seems rather dire and bleak. Is it only going to get worse? Do you see any hopeful signs on the horizon, creative solutions? Can being proactive make any difference?
Colleges and universities – and their advocates – have to be proactive. Those that are passive in a zero-sum environment will be hurt. The “squeaky wheel” axiom applies here. You’ve got to speak up, take action to capture attention.
That said, it takes research, analysis and expertise to develop smart targeted messaging for each of your audiences tailored to their interests and taking into account all the decision-making factors in the process.
One bright note in this dire budget environment has been a willingness for groups to come together to proactively promote efficiency measures. While some of the proposals, as I mentioned above, would hurt colleges, there have been some very good ideas, such as using technology to gain efficiencies in assessment and student evaluations.
And, looking at efficiencies in articulation has gained greater traction given the low funding environment. Articulation as in the interplay between 2-year and 4-year colleges, for example. Are the credits from the 2-year schools going to transfer to the 4-year colleges? Because funds are such an issue right now, some 4-year institutions are allowing more students from 2-year colleges to transfer and accepting their credits so they aren’t required to take more courses in order to be admitted.
How receptive are legislatures to educational issues? Are they popular? How much interest and support is there from the public?
Most legislators are very receptive to educational issues and many legislators list education as one of their top priorities, although most tend to focus on K-12 Education.
If you were to rank what’s important to the public, in terms of what their tax dollars are spent on, K-12 education would most probably be first, followed by firefighting services, then police, and lastly, higher education.
People care about what directly affects them, especially in hard times and public sentiment is being driven by these difficult times. The public is distrustful of government. The public wants services but is not supportive of raising tax revenues to pay for them. This is currently the biggest challenge for states: public expectations versus the services states can realistically deliver given the revenue shortfalls.
Messaging is especially important these days. This is one of the lobbyist’s chief concerns in getting buy-in from decision makers. He or she will attempt to identify what is relevant to constituents and then shape the message around it. For example, the focus might be on the California State University system, and more specifically, Cal State Fresno, rather than the broader “California’s Higher Education system.” Or, rather than the traditional general approach that “higher education makes for a better citizenry,” the emphasis would be on how “higher education helps create jobs and improves the economy.” It’s part of what has to be an ongoing effort to educate the public – to cast the issues in ways that make them relevant in order to generate interest and support.
There are many technical issues relating to education that require constant effort to educate the public and lawmakers. And, because of legislative term limits, lobbyists have to continually educate new members on the nuances of college funding and educational policy issues.
What are some of the topical, even controversial, issues under discussion currently?
Well, I’ve touched on some already. From the standpoint of a college or university, greater demands and less money as well as the call for more accountability, better outcomes, greater student success in terms of fewer dropouts, faster graduation.
Performance funding, student evaluation of teachers’ performance, a growing movement to penalize rather than reward colleges – these are all big right now. Others include escalating tuition and cost of books, access to financial aid, the ability of students to complete college in timely, economically feasible manner, use of technology, construction of new buildings and other capital improvements, mission or program prioritization to name a few.
What special skills should universities and colleges look for in a lobbyist?
A lot of people see lobbying as primarily building and working relationships. Of course, relationships are an important part of the job, but I have a bias that it’s more than just relationships.
Much of what we do to be effective lobbyists requires being very analytical. Having a technical understanding of why the regulation was created in the first place, why it’s there, and its potential impact on your client. Taking a formulaic regulation or statute and “tweaking” it, using this technical knowledge to legally recreate the regulation in a way that’s advantageous to the client, protecting and supporting the client’s best interests.
Another skill that a lobbyist needs – particularly when it comes to public education – is an understanding of public budgets, the overall process of how decisions are made, and how to position a college within that public budgeting system in order to maximize funding.
What should a college or university know when contemplating whether to work with a lobbyist?
A college or university should have an external strategic plan. It must look at all the variables and be clear where it wants to go and how the lobbyist can help it get there. The plan must be realistic and should communicate to all parties what the expectations are. The college must also know that a lobbyist does more than simply lobby on legislation. The lobbyist strategically positions the college within the political framework of those state lawmakers, agencies, and interest groups that interact and can impact the college.
What would benefit a lobbyist to know when working with a college or university client?
Clear designations with respect to communication, analysis and decision-making, i.e., who needs to be included in the discussions, what the top issues and priorities are, access to the appropriate data for analysis as well as how the process for making decisions works and, ultimately, who has the power to make them.
Things move very quickly in the political arena and the lobbyist has to have immediate access to the data he or she needs. The lobbyist should have clearly designated personnel within the institution who can respond decisively to his or her requests as well as those assigned to follow up with key local decision makers.
The lobbyist also has to have a clear understanding of the personalities of the major decision makers of the college and the direction that those decision makers want to take the college. The lobbyist’s job is to take the college in the direction that the college’s leaders have chosen which requires an in-depth understanding of all the ins-and-outs along the way.
Patrick McCallum is President and Founder of Sacramento-based McCallum Group [www.mcallumgroupinc.com], a California lobbying firm with clients in Higher Education, Healthcare, Business, Energy, Real Estate and Financial Services. He is also President and Founder of College Brain Trust, [www.collegebraintrust.com] a consulting group that assists educational institutions with strategic planning and implementation. He can be reached at (916) 446-5058 or Patrick@mccallumgroupinc.com