In 2013, Washington State University opened an office in Washington D.C. to elevate its profile, strengthen its relationships with the state congressional delegation and forge new ties with federal agencies and administrations. It was part of a wave of universities establishing a full‑time presence in the nation’s capital around that time.
After years of successfully relying on earmarks for federal funding, the universities had to change their approach when Congress banned those targeted spending provisions. WSU was looking for new strategies to land support for research, technology, and access and opportunities for students.
“In the absence of earmarks, how do you make your case to support programs? You do it by building coalitions that meet the goals of the institution, the federal agencies, and our members of Congress,” said Glynda Becker‑Fenter, who has represented WSU in Washington D.C. since 2012 and was recently named assistant vice president for federal engagement and advocacy. “These coalitions allow us to show our federal partners that we are working hand in hand with our stakeholders in the state, the country and the world.”
Though Becker‑Fenter is the only WSU employee who’s a registered federal lobbyist, the majority of her time is spent creating alliances of other universities, corporations, nonprofits, and industry associations to advocate as a group for desired goals.
This strategy of stakeholder engagement was originally implemented at WSU by Colleen Kerr, vice president for external affairs and chief legislative officer, in the university’s State Relations program. Kerr hired Becker‑Fenter to achieve the same objectives with the university’s federal program, based on the latter’s experience in state and federal political campaigns, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in the White House and at federal agencies during the George W. Bush administration.
“We both had the same belief that there’s tremendous opportunity for WSU at the federal level by more strategically partnering with our stakeholders,” Kerr said.
Coalitions score wins for WSU
The strategy has been successful for the university:
- In 2013 WSU and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were named by the Federal Aviation Administration to lead its $40 million, 10‑year Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and the Environment initiative. Advocacy by WSU helped drive the creation of the center, with the federal office working closely with the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture. That action, in turn, opened the opportunity for WSU to pursue the competitive designation as the center’s co‑leader. The coalition is made up of 14 other universities, including Stanford and the University of Washington, and is advised by a committee that includes Airlines for America, Alaska Airlines, Boeing, GE Aviation, Honeywell, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Weyerhaeuser and the World Wildlife Fund. WSU’s Office of Federal Engagement and Advocacy also used the strength and breadth of the coalition to stop efforts to kill the program in the recent reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.
- In 2016 WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health and the Washington Global Health Alliance created the Pacific Northwest Antimicrobial Resistance Coalition. Faculty and leadership at the College of Veterinary Medicine and WSU’s federal office were instrumental in this effort. The alliance of universities, hospitals, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations is developing strategies and securing funding to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Coalition members are working with experts from the Centers for Disease Control to connect community-level data from “hot spots,” where antimicrobial resistance commonly emerges, with data on its global spread and entry into the U.S. healthcare system. Through this collaborative, global-to-local effort, WSU has been able to demonstrate to the state delegation a return on investments in CDC programs – a strategy that gives WSU and its partners more opportunities to compete for funding in the future.
- The College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Science also worked with WSU’s D.C. office and the Washington State Department of Agriculture and agricultural producers, growers and processors over 18 months to support passage of the Farm Bill. The $867 billion Farm Bill legislation includes money for a wide range of activities, from research to rural development. It’s expected to bring millions to various WSU programs that assist agriculture stakeholders around the state. It’s also the foundation for USDA research and development funding, of which WSU is the top recipient nationally. In addition, the Office of Federal Engagement and Advocacy worked with Washington’s congressional delegation and grain and potato industry representatives to support funding for a new USDA Agricultural Research Service building to be constructed in Pullman.
- WSU’s Office of Federal Engagement and Advocacy has worked with other universities and national associations to support WSU’s most important resource: its students. The coalition has championed federal financial aid and TRIO programs that serve individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, protected health care coverage for graduate students, and ensured research stipends are not counted as income. The office helps WSU students system‑wide have a voice in the “other Washington.”
“Partnering with stakeholders to address common issues with shared solutions has brought important financial resources to the university,” said WSU President Kirk Schulz. “I believe there are many more research areas at WSU that we can grow significantly in the future with enhanced advocacy.”
Strategy amplifies WSU’s impact
Three things need to align to make this engagement strategy work: an area of student need or research excellence at WSU; the presence of in‑state stakeholders; and leadership from the state’s delegation.
Once launched, project scope reaches far beyond traditional lobbying. WSU scientists, for example, might create research whitepapers to get federal agency staff interested in a potential project or to build a case for federal funding with Washington’s congressional delegation. It could also mean writing opinion pieces or letters to the editor, convening roundtable discussions with elected officials, or using social media and advertising.
Success means that WSU scholarship and research translates into public policy, amplifying the university’s impact, helping WSU fulfill its land‑grant mission and meeting the goals of the Drive to 25.
Kerr said lobbying is still part of WSU’s Office of Federal Relations, but it’s a small part of a big spectrum of engagement and advocacy.
“Lobbying is making the ask,” she said. “But to ask someone to do something and be successful in that request, you have to have an ongoing relationship and common goals and objectives. And that’s what WSU is doing.”