Nearly four years ago, when Duke University wanted to create an outpost in the nation’s capital, Landy Elliott of Duke’s federal relations office tested the waters.
Elliott moved to Washington in 2010 and set up shop in a Starbucks with just her laptop. Today, she’s the director of Duke in Washington, a suite of offices that opened in 2012 to give interns, law students, alumni and faculty a base of operations in the political nerve center of the country.
Many colleges and universities have outposts in Washington. Duke’s is one of the newest. It’s also the latest development in a long tradition of Duke and the University of North Carolina to provide expertise to Congress and federal agencies, and also to make sure that official Washington knows what the schools need.
“Duke has always had an intellectual footprint in Washington,” with faculty members often on Capitol Hill to testify or otherwise provide some expertise, and a longstanding law school semester here, Elliott said. But the resource center gives the university a more prominent presence, and activity has “exploded,” she said.
Both Duke and the UNC system rank high in federal dollars received for scientific research. Duke received about $553 million and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill $545 million in federal research dollars in 2012.
But, “the actions of the federal government extend beyond funding for research and student aid,” said Chris Simmons, Duke’s associate vice president for federal relations. “We’re extremely interested in and involved with immigration policy, tax policy, fish and wildlife policies (concerning conservation and research), intellectual property rights, patent law. The list can go on and on.”
That makes sense when you consider that, after Wal-Mart, the second-largest private employer in the state is Duke, Simmons said.
The Duke in Washington office helps students and staff navigate the capital. It also offers space for Duke people to work and hold academic gatherings, such as a recent forum by the school’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions on deep-sea mining, fishing and oil and gas extraction.
“We make sure we have opportunities for Duke to make an impact and raise its profile,” Elliott said.
Simmons, who is based in Durham, said the university wants students and staff “to engage, whether it’s on gun control, or climate change, or what’s happening in Syria. We have people who think about these issues all the time.”
The other side of university representation in the capital is its lobbying, although the people who play the role don’t usually use that word.
Lobbying conjures up cash, favors and junkets, they say. Today, Congress has banned most earmarks, or money that lawmakers used to tuck into bills for a particular purpose in one member’s district. Simmons and Melissa Vetterkind are registered lobbyists for Duke, but see the role instead as an advocate for the university.
The University of North Carolina also looks on its federal representatives, one in Washington and one in Chapel Hill, as advocates.
“I’m paid to make sure that the interests of public higher education are properly communicated so that we can ensure that we have the resources that we need in order to keep tuition as low as possible and to make sure that the federal financial aid our students need is there, or any other number of issues,” said Chapel Hill-based Kimrey Rhinehardt, vice president for federal relations for UNC.
Bradley Ballou works for the university system in Washington, where he meets with members of Congress and agencies that fund research. One of his tasks is guiding visiting university officials through the protocol that’s firmly in place in the nation’s capital.
“Things as small as you don’t drop into a congressman’s office and ask to see a staff person,” said Rhinehardt, who used to work on Capitol Hill as an aide to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., when he was a member of the House of Representatives. “You always set it up and know the appointment is for 30 minutes. There are certain parameters and boundaries which are just the way it is.”
Both Rhinehardt and Ballou are listed as lobbyists by the Center for Responsive Politics. The state employee database in 2011, the latest available numbers, listed Rhinehardt’s salary as $140,028 and Ballou’s as $77,501. The Center for Responsive Politics listed UNC as spending $240,000 and Duke $263,000 on lobbying in 2013.
Rhinehardt says she’s already calling 2014 “the lost year.” Partly that’s because elections will occupy the time of all House members and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who will seek another six-year term. The budget now is largely in place for the next two years, and she said that most issues the university is concerned about are probably two to three years out.
Immigration, for example, and revisions to the law that sets financial and other higher education policy probably won’t be passed in 2014.
Still, Rhinehardt said, “You can’t just show up at the 11th hour. You need to make sure that along the way you’re communicating a clear, consistent message.”
Simmons said some of Duke’s priorities now are to continue to push Congress to increase funding for research and be more reliable about when the money will be available so that researchers can do better planning.
On immigration, the university wants Congress to make it possible for students and researchers trained at the school from overseas to be able to stay in this country after graduation, Simmons said. Current policy, he said, makes that “extremely difficult.”
Another top concern is student aid policy, including more Pell grant money and more affordable student loans, Simmons said.
On these issues, Duke and UNC work together very closely on Capitol Hill.
“As much as we compete in the field and on the court,” Simmons said, “in the halls of Congress we’re very unified and working together toward the same goal.”