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US: Universities opening offices in D.C. to raise profile

University of Notre Dame

A crop of universities is claiming new real estate in Washington as part of a push to expand higher education advocacy in the nation’s capital. The University of Notre Dame, Duke University and Northwestern University are for the first time establishing offices in D.C. or hiring in-house lobbyists to be stationed here to coordinate government relations.

The push comes as universities look to get more involved in a broad range of national policy issues, and the days when a member of Congress could be counted on to insert an “earmark” in the budget to help an institution have gone.

Major universities have long relied on Washington law and lobbying firms to advocate for them on policy matters and research funding, but those lobbyists typically represent dozens of other clients in various industries. It is rarer for a university to hire full-time, in-house lobbyists and base them in D.C.

Starting next week, former Newspaper Association of American President John Sturm will be the first such person at Notre Dame, sharing office space with the university’s outside lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates. Northwestern plans to open a Washington office for government relations next month with a new hire whose duties are “still under discussion,” the school said.

Duke has had in-house federal relations specialist Landy Elliott subletting space at D.C. law firms and hotels for 18 months, but only last month did the university open the school’s first permanent D.C. office at 1201 New York Avenue NW.

The movement reflects a shift by the universities to raise their profile in D.C. as they play an increasingly vocal role in issues that extend beyond the traditional realm of higher education — such as immigration reform, tax law, small businesses and economic development and patent legislation.

“Notre Dame has traditionally been a leading Catholic undergraduate teaching university, but it’s also working to become a preeminent research university,” said Sturm, a 1969 Notre Dame graduate. “Some of the thinking behind this is to enhance the visibility of Notre Dame in Washington in terms of research funding, but it goes beyond that. Notre Dame wants to engage at a greater level with the federal government. We will be active on issues that affect higher education, and that can come from many different directions.” 

An expanding agenda

Notre Dame’s lobbying spending has stayed relatively flat, hovering around $200,000 annually for the past nine years, but the range of issues the university is lobbying on has expanded from education and federal budget appropriations in the late ’90s to issues involving health, environmental cleanup efforts, foreign relations and science and technology, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since Congress last year suspended earmarks — which allowed members to add funds for specific projects — the lobbying industry has shifted much of its energy away from Congress and toward the executive branch. Before the moratorium, D.C.-based lobbyists for universities could focus on the top handful of earmarks universities wanted to pursue. Now, lobbyists have to work harder to cultivate more relationships within the federal agencies, said Rich Gold, head of public policy at Holland & Knight.

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