The Michigan Daily sat down with Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president of the Office of Government Relations, to discuss the University of Michigan’s efforts to work with officeholders and agencies at the local, state and federal level. Wilbanks and her office manage interactions with government officials in regard to legislative and regulatory policy that affects the University and its programs.
Organization including corporations, political action committees and nonprofits hire lobbyists to influence government officials and agencies by advocating for or against certain policies. Wilbanks said the University’s strategy for working with lawmakers and government agencies takes a personal approach.
“In this office, it’s relationships that are really the foundation of our work,” Wilbanks said. “We use opportunities that are both formal and informal to establish those relationships and they come in lots of different settings, so it’s not always going up to the state capital, it’s not always visiting with offices in Washington. It’s a variety of ways that we work on those relationships and the same is true for the community relations work.”
Major universities like Harvard and the University of Chicago have offices in Washington, D.C. to oversee their federal lobbying. The University has had one since 1990, one of only a few institutions to do so at the time, which Wilbanks said put the University ahead of the curve.
“We manage the interactions with the members of Congress,” Wilbanks said. “We partner lots of campus faculty and staff who have their own interests in federal policy, try to help them advance their interests.”
Lobbying in Higher Education
Higher education has come to inhabit a prominent place in the capital’s lobbying scene. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Oct. 24, the latest reporting deadline, the education industry spent more than $58 million on federal lobbying in 2018, employing a total of 991 individual lobbyists. The top spender was the Association of American Medical Colleges at $3,370,000, followed by $920,000 from the Apollo Education Group, which owns the for-profit online degree program University of Phoenix. The University of California system ranked third, with $900,000 in expenditures. The University spent $385,000 on federal lobbying in 2017 and, according to Wilbanks, $290,000 in total in 2018.
Following the inauguration of a new class of elected officials earlier this month, Wilbanks said her office has remained consistent in its approach to working with politicians and government agencies.
“You don’t walk in with an agenda right away, that’s not our favorite thing to do,” Wilbanks said. “Our first thing is getting acquainted: We’re here, we’re going to be really interested in getting acquainted, you know, you have legislative priorities, we have legislative priorities, they are not going to be terribly different than what we hear from other universities, but we’re here in the capital so you’re going to see more of us, and what you’re trying to do is just build rapport.”
Research funding is one of the University’s main policy goals. In fiscal year 2018, research expenditures totaled a record $1.55 billion, more than half of which came from $852 million in federal funds. Given the school’s status as the top public research university, Wilbanks said securing funding for those programs was a priority.
“That whole research agenda is really important for the University,” Wilbanks said. “I could pick out individual policies, but it’s really policies that support expanding opportunities for our researchers, our faculty to be successful in pursuing really interesting ideas that benefit the public good, so that’s sort of number one.”
Like other schools, the University focuses on issues that impact institutional operations beyond research money, such as education policy or health care financing. Wilbanks said state and federal tax policy was another one of her office’s interests.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in December 2017, introduced a tax on the endowments of private colleges, affecting schools like Harvard and Cornell. Wilbanks said the change did not apply to the University’s nearly $11 billion endowment, given its status as a public institution.
“Many of the private universities were affected by it,” Wilbanks said. “There’s one thing that most private universities are focused on right now: repealing that certain section of the tax policy.”
Dealing with New Controlling Parties
In the midterm elections, Democrats won the House of Representatives while Republicans defended their majority in the Senate, leaving the chambers of Congress divided between the two parties.
Wilbanks said her office was comfortable advocating for policy objectives with members of the majority and the minority party as needed, but noted the partisan split between the Republican-controlled state legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who was elected in the “blue wave” that swept the state’s top elected offices.
Whitmer was a state representative from 2000 to 2006 and served in the Michigan Senate from 2006 to 2015, where she was the Senate minority leader for four years. Wilbanks said she already had a working relationship with Whitmer.
“This is the first time in a while that we will have a governor of one party and legislature in Michigan of the other party, so we’re going to learn how to navigate and what the interests are in the legislature in the majority and the governor who is of the opposite party, but we know the governor,” Wilbanks said. “I worked with her when she was in the state legislature.”
Although Wilbanks said the University’s policy agenda was not particularly dependent on officials’ party affiliation, she added the new partisan makeup could alter the landscape for certain pieces of legislation.
“There may be issues in the U.S. Congress, for instance, that the U.S. House is going to be really supportive on, but you have to get it through the Senate and the Senate still is the opposite party,” Wilbanks said. “There’s going to be some challenges. If life doesn’t bring you challenges, then you’re going to be bored and I don’t want to be bored. We look forward to it. It’s exciting in many ways.”