On Wednesday, The Michigan Daily sat down with Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for Government Relations, to discuss the University’s work with government officials and agencies at the local, state and federal level. Wilbanks and her office oversee lobbying efforts in areas of legislative and regulatory policy that impact the University and its operations. This transcript has been abbreviated and reordered for reader clarity.
The Michigan Daily: When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer introduces her budget in the coming month. Is there anything in particular the University will be looking for?
Vice President Cynthia Wilbanks: There are a number of issues that she has been very vocal about and I think during the campaign period she was especially vocal about. You all know that the clarion calls that she sounded for Michigan citizens including the need to improve infrastructure, our roads, etc. So I am expecting that we’ll see progress on some of the goals that she has articulated first through the campaign and secondly through the State of the State address … I’ll be looking specifically on the higher education support and certainly student scholarship support as a part of it. The way she described it in her State of the State, she was primarily focused on the student support, the scholarship support if you will, but we also get a general operating budget from the state, so we’ll also be focused on what kind of budget she recommends for higher education general operating support.
TMD: What do you see right now as a possible obstacle to pushing for legislation that would do things that would promote access for lower income students, or any students at all, to gain a university education?
CW: I wouldn’t say that it’s an obstacle that is easily identified, because if you talk with legislators almost all of them are concerned about student success that that they can point to as a good reason to invest in higher education. I would also say, though, that when you’re promoting and advocating for additional support, that means additional taxpayer dollars to support. That’s when legislators then start to prioritize where they’re going to allocate, appropriate new dollars for expanded opportunities. I would make a point of saying that it’s usually a matter of setting the priorities and for some legislators, road funding is a higher priority than funding educational programs is for another legislator. It could be support for environmental cleanups would have a higher priority than some number of activities in higher education or K-12. It’s not the same obstacle for everyone, but I do think fundamentally it’s about setting the priorities, and I know we will be working with lots of our fellow higher education colleagues to advance opportunities for students including expanded student financial aid.
TMD: How has the decline funding from the state directly to the University changed over the past few decades? How has that affected the focus the University’s lobbying efforts at the state level?
CW: We as the University of Michigan amongst all the other public higher education institutions work every single year in the appropriations process to maximize our opportunities for financial support from the state … Of course, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor campus and our regional campuses at Dearborn and Flint, we all are locked in arms in our efforts to advance the need to support higher education primarily so that as a state we can see a future where our economic stability is assured. There is a lot of evidence that says the higher the college attainment of a state’s population the better they perform, the more economic activity and productivity occurs, so we're not confused by that data. We know that it’s important, and so that’s our focus.
TMD: Can you go into detail on some of the initiatives at the city level such as pedestrian safety or approval of off-campus student housing developments in which the University has a stake?
CW: On these pedestrian safety issues there is a heightened level of both concern and, I think, attention being given to pedestrian safety … Some members of (City) Council more recently elected are very focused on pedestrian safety. Councilwoman (Kathy) Griswold is I think really bringing an additional set of eyes to what the issues might be and how there might be jointly in places where the University and the city are literally inseparable and jointly identified (pedestrian safety) as priorities for their attention.
TMD: How does the University leverage its relationship with lawmakers who are alumni? Have there been any alumni in particular who are now government officials who have been the focus of the University’s lobbying efforts?
CW: You can imagine with 148 members of the Michigan Legislature and a handful of those in the federal delegation congressional delegation, we are eager to establish relationships with them, the alums who sit in the Legislature. We can’t really think about our work without putting some priorities in place, so we look at the leadership of the House and Senate. We look at the committee members who serve on the higher education committee and the Appropriations Committee in general. Alongside of that is we’re getting acquainted and setting up meetings to meet individual members of the legislature. We’re also making note of the Michigan alums that are serving … We’re very much interested in meeting the new members and continuing the relationships with those who have a Michigan background affiliation, and I’d say it even goes beyond those individuals who have a degree themselves because we know, for a lot of them, their children are here right now.
TMD: Has the University taken any steps to push for more clean energy legislation or more support (for clean energy) from regulatory bodies like the Michigan Public Services Commission?
CW: As President (Mark Schlissel’s Carbon Neutrality) Commission starts its work, there may be recommendations that come from that work that could help to inform going forward some number of policy objectives. Some of them may be ones that the university can implement on its own. Some of the recommendations may just by definition require partnership, so that's important. And collaboration with all kinds of organizations — they could be with utility companies, they could be with other entities that are generating different sources of renewables et cetera — so I’d say that in terms of the president’s commission … will determine at that point as to whether there is some specific legislative activity that might be necessary to achieve some of those goals … There may be policies that have been debated, for instance, at the Michigan Public Service Commission that we may have offered our views on, but … I’d say that we have not had an agenda that was specifically focused on energy policy. Our individual researchers and faculty are called upon to provide guidance, information resources (and) their research on a number of proposals that the state Legislature considers, but not as an official University position.