Florida State University President Jim Thrasher has served as a state legislator, a state party chair and now as president of a major public institution.
“I’ve seen the issue of public funding from every angle,” he said Wednesday at the Higher Education Government Relations Conference, adding that the current climate “calls on us again to go out and make the case” for higher education.
"Some of them, quite frankly, think that universities get too much,” Thrasher said.
Making the case
“There are misconceptions about what goes on at our universities, and all of the good things happening for our students,” Thrasher said. “We need to close the gap between the perception that is out there about our faculty, about our universities, about our budgets,” and the reality of the work that is taking place.
The way to do that, Thrasher said, is by “getting the attention early on of the legislators about the importance of higher education — that’s critical.”
Also, said the American Governing Board’s Emily Dickens, institutions should “host meetings in districts — you’ll actually get unobstructed time and attention that you wouldn’t get when they’re back in session.” Thrasher confirmed how much legislators love in-district meetings.
In many states, term limits make it difficult for higher ed to get the attention in the legislature that many would like, because “legislators have differing views on what they want to get done in a short period of time,” said Patrick Lindsey, vice president of government and community affairs for Wayne State University. Often, higher ed is not on that list.
Lindsey suggests "having a list of stories that you rely on of the things that are going on at your institution."
As an industry, said American Association of State Colleges and Universities Senior Scholar Bill Sederburg, “we have to regain the story, and not just be reacting all the time or on the defensive.”
Being able to clearly convey that “if we don’t get the funding, we’re not going to be able to get the faculty, we’re not going to get the students and we’re not going to be able to do the research” is also important, especially in states with high educational attainment goals. “If you try to ‘do it on the cheap,’ you’re going to get mediocre universities,” Thrasher said, adding, “and I think we’re starting to ‘do it on the cheap.’”
But understanding the audience and knowing the messaging that resonates with them is also important. For Republican-led legislatures, it is important to stress the economic impact and viability of the state, over the message of access and better educational opportunities for individual students.
Director of Government and Community Relations at California State University-Northridge Francesca Vega agreed, adding that a focus on workforce development, economic development and completion are key in Republican administrations, while “access, access, access” is big for Democrats. Being able to pinpoint on an individual level what particular legislators “care about and how do we dig deeper into the issues of their district” gives an even greater advantage, she said.
Sederburg suggested the importance of re-establishing “some connection with the governor’s office” for all institutions in a state, but particularly state institutions, and pushing “the importance of the information economy and the role of higher education in the state’s economy.”
And in defense of the liberal arts in such a STEM-driven climate, he said, go for the messaging that individual choice and the free market dictate the need for the individual to explore what interests him/her and “see what they can make of themselves.”
Sederburg added that institutions have a responsibility to do a better job of making sure students are aware of potential job paths, regardless of their disciplines, and that stronger pipelines with industry exist to help students find employment post-graduation.
Engaging other stakeholders
In some cases, it may be helpful to engage board members and other stakeholders. “When you look at a board, they’re people of substance, and there’s a reason they’re there,” said Clint Ensign vice chair of the Salt Lake City Community College Board of Trustees, who added that if you can tap into the strengths and various relationships of different board members, you can make a huge difference for the institution.
But there are a number of things to consider when deciding whether to engage board members.
First, said Association of Governing Board Vice President for Public Policy and Executive Director for Public Trusteeship Emily Dickens, board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the institution, not the person who appointed them. But for institutions in many states, appointed boards are a reality, meaning these individuals do bring with them close relationships in the state house. Equipping board members with the tools to passively advocate for the institution — arming them with stories to tell about the great things the institution is doing over a round of golf, when not making an ask — is invaluable.
But it’s also important to consider other obligations board members may have and “be mindful of board members mixing university business and non-university business,” Dickens said, adding that it is never a good idea to put a board member in a situation to have to choose the university’s interests versus another entity’s.
Board members aren’t the only ones who might be good advocates for the institution. “One of the most effective strategies is when campuses are using engagement teams” comprised of key faculty members, students and alumni who can all tell the story of the institution, said Sederburg.
“The most effective campuses have strategy for using the most effective people on campus” to convince lawmakers the institution is making a difference in the district.