University of Michigan alum Ben Keller was a sophomore interning at the U-M office in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2016, responsible for lobbying members of Congress on policies largely pertaining to higher education. According to Keller, the experience taught him how much influence large research universities like the University hold in impacting policy.
“I think Michigan has a ton of influence, unique influence, especially in the federal policymaking process because we’re such a large research institution,” Keller said. “We’re doing a lot of it, we’re so recognized for it. So we really hold a lot of sway.”
Keller noted that as a public institution, the University has to rely greatly on federal support, and as such must do everything in its power to ensure funding remains stable. For example, much research funding specifically comes in the form of the $514 million the University received in 2020 from the National Institutes of Health.
“We’re very dependent on those federal dollars to continue our research process going,” Keller said. “There’s every so often higher education bills that come through Congress and they have to get renewed. So we’re heavily involved in that and making sure that funding doesn’t get stripped away.”
As a result, the University spends large sums of money each year lobbying members of Congress in Washington, D.C., and — as a registered lobbying entity — must disclose all lobbying activities. In 2020, the University spent $410,000 lobbying members of Congress.
According to Keller, this spending manifested itself in the activities he was taking part in as a member of the team at the D.C. office. Keller recalled examples of this spending, such as golf outings with members of other university government relations offices and participation in events held by members of Congress attended by lobbyists.
“Whenever a Congress member or constituent group was having any sort of event around research or change in federal research priorities or money, grants, anything like that, we would want to get involved in it,” Keller said.
Sarah Niemann, a Public Policy junior studying education policy, echoed Keller’s assessment of public universities’ need to lobby members of Congress to ensure funding remains consistent.
“The larger the university that you are, and the larger the endowment that you have, the larger role you are going to play in D.C. politics,” Niemann said. “Smaller universities might not have as large of a role and so large public universities like Michigan, as far as my knowledge goes, would have a larger influence.”
The University’s endowment, valued at approximately $12 billion dollars, is the pool of assets given by the University donors. As of 2019, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Education, U-M had the ninth largest endowment in the country.
Kristina Ko, the Director of the University’s D.C. office, said that recent lobbying efforts by the University have largely been based around the Pell Grant program.
“This Congress, U-M is advocating for the higher education community-wide request to double the maximum Pell Grant award,” Ko said. “Currently, the maximum award is $6,495. Across all three U-M campuses, more than 11,600 U-M students benefited from the Pell Grant in the previous school year. The Pell Grant is the federal government’s foundational investment in higher education. However, the share of college costs covered by a Pell Grant is at an all-time low.”
Some legislators have come to depend on funding from colleges and universities seeking to influence policy. In the case of U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the University is his largest campaign donor and a source of frequent contact on policy and legislation. In a statement to The Daily, Peters referenced his office’s strong relationship with and support for the University.
“The University of Michigan is a world class institution and a major economic driver for our state,” Peters wrote. “I’m proud to work with them on issues that help keep Michigan at the forefront of innovation, like autonomous vehicle technology, expanding STEM and updating research and science law. Earlier this year, I worked to secure COVID relief funding for higher education institutions and students, and I’ll continue to be a partner to Michigan schools as they work to overcome the impacts of this pandemic.”
State officials have also said that recent policy, especially pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, was influenced by the University — though not by university government relations staff, but rather by the University’s public health experts.
According to Samantha Kennedy, the Deputy Press Secretary for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the governor’s office collaborated with U-M public health experts on combating the spread of COVID-19.
“The governor is grateful to be able to closely consult with nationally-recognized public health experts at the University of Michigan, as well as other state universities,” Kennedy said. “This pandemic has shown us that it is vital to collaborate with the best and brightest to ensure that the most up-to-date information and practices are at the forefront of the administration’s efforts to eliminate COVID-19 once and for all.”
U-M Vice President for Government Relations Chris Kolb also emphasized the frequent contact occurring between the University and state government.
“(The government relations office) tracks legislation of interest to all state universities and U-M specifically,” Kolb said. “In a legislative session, our office will track nearly 350 bill proposals and communicate to university stakeholders to solicit their views and input.”
On the local level, the University’s contribution to policy within the city of Ann Arbor is far different. In most regards, the relationship between the city and University could best be described as symbiotic, with minimal intervention of one entity on another.
According to Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor, the University intervenes minimally in matters pertaining to the city of Ann Arbor, and vice versa.
“The University is a great respecter of role,” Taylor said. “They don’t get involved in standard municipal matters, and they look for the same on the other side for us not to get involved in standard University matters. If the University has an interest in something the city is doing, adjacent properties, say or what have you, they’ll communicate it.”
One reason for this, according to Taylor, is that legally speaking, the University is a state entity on par with the Michigan legislature, due to its being established by the state constitution.
“The University has land, money and constitutional superiority,” Taylor said. “The University is not obligated to follow our rules, and so our choice to zone this, that or the other thing this way or that way is not generally of driving importance to them. The University is a benevolent actor in the community, but they act on their own because they have the legal right to do it and the resources to do it.”
However, this practice of general non-intervention is often not the case with large universities. In 2017 for instance, Michigan State University — with much public criticism — offered the city of East Lansing $20 million to not institute a local income tax. Though public universities are property tax-exempt, an income tax would’ve required MSU to pay which would be taken out of the employee payroll.
Taylor said he does not believe the University would have taken such actions to infringe on the jurisdiction of the city of Ann Arbor, even if it were to consider a similar policy.
“Michigan State (University) had a lot of commentary about whether East Lansing would institute an income tax,” Taylor said. “That was something that they engaged substantially. In order to have an income tax in Michigan, a city has to put that matter up to the voters. So Michigan State University was involved in negotiations and letters back and forth with the city, but they had a position and they advocated for that. The University of Michigan would never do that.”
The division between the city of Ann Arbor and U-M also has limited the city’s ability to influence the University’s decisions. In Dec. 2020, after the University decided to only allow a small number of students to return to on-campus housing for the Winter 2021 semester, Ann Arbor officials urged administrators to provide emergency housing for the city’s homeless population. Despite Ann Arbor city council members pressing the University to agree to the partnership, no further action was taken by the University administration.
Though the University may set a clear policy boundary between their institution and the city of Ann Arbor, they hold a significant role in lobbying at the federal level. According to Keller, however, this type of spending is par for the course in D.C. politics and manifests itself in the influence a university has.
“All this stuff just comes down to relationship building, and that’s what lobbying is,” Keller said. “If you’re trying to influence what’s going on, you’ve got to have a relationship with who’s making it happen.”
Daily Staff Reporter Ben Rosenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.