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Vanderbilt on the Potomac

Washington affects everything from student loans to medical protocols—but not before university advocates have their say.

by Whitney Weeks, BA’94

FeaturedSummer 2008  |  Share This  |  E-mail  |  Print  | 
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Washington, D.C.

Photo by Daniel Dubois.

Dunkin’ Donuts. Cornell. The American Frozen Food Institute. Georgia Tech. The Snack Food Association. University of Michigan. The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute. The University of Texas and University of California systems. The American Peanut Council. University of North Carolina. These are but a few of the thousands of companies, associations and universities that maintain full-time federal relations offices in Washington, D.C.

While many Americans have come to regard “lobbying” and “special interest” as dirty words, others see personal, professional contact with lawmakers as the best way to ensure that vital concerns are advanced at the federal level. From research grants to student loans, approximately one-third of Vanderbilt’s $2.5 billion annual operating budget depends directly on federal monies. And because the federal government foots the bill for much of what happens on certain areas of campus, part of the challenge lies in convincing decision makers that less is more when it comes to oversight and regulations. Vanderbilt and its peer institutions view a physical presence in the nation’s capital as crucial.


Vanderbilt Federal Relations staffers work within a stone’s throw of the Capitol Building, congressional offices, the Supreme Court, and the
Library of Congress.

Photo by Shane Stezelberger.

“The level of interaction and importance and impact of what happens in D.C. on Vanderbilt is tremendous,” says Beth Fortune, interim vice chancellor for public affairs. “Virtually everything that happens on campus–except what gets taught in the classroom–is affected by policy made and debated in Washington. Changes in tax law, the debate about Medicare reimbursement, labor issues, environmental issues, immigration–at some point all these things impact Vanderbilt.”

Since the early 1990s, Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations has existed as an embassy of the university in the nation’s capital. The office sits a block away from Union Station and within a stone’s throw of the U.S. Capitol. Its staff–all full-time employees of

Vanderbilt’s Division of Public Affairs–as well as frequent visitors from campus, wave high the Vanderbilt flag and bring a bit of black and gold to the Beltway.

Their main job is advancing legislative issues of interest to the higher-education community and to Vanderbilt, working alone as well as in conjunction with a number of associations, including the Association of American Universities and American Council on Education. For the higher-education community, the greatest concerns involve individual institutional autonomy and academic freedom on campuses. For Vanderbilt there is a more specific focus on research funding, elements included within the Higher Education Act and, at least for this Congressional session, tax issues.

With research funding awarded to Vanderbilt faculty and staff by countless federal sources, the office must carefully monitor budget hearings and budget proposals at the congressional level as well as at such federal agencies as the National Institutes for Health and the Departments of Education, Defense and Energy. When the time comes to weigh in on funding issues, the appropriate Vanderbilt representative–a dean, a department chair, or a direct recipient of the federal funding in question–can be in Washington and meeting with the Tennessee delegation on very short notice. The goal is always to make certain Tennessee’s lawmakers understand the real impact of any funding decisions– both to Vanderbilt and to the citizens of Tennessee and the country.

Dave Piston, professor of molecular physiology and biophysics, professor of physics, and director of Vanderbilt’s W.M. Keck Free-Electron Laser (FEL) Center, is one such Vanderbilt representative. He has made scores of trips to the nation’s capital, sometimes to discuss FEL medical research programs that received extensive funding from the Department of Defense for several years, and sometimes to join researchers from other universities in advocating for greater federal funding–across all relevant departments and agencies–for research in the life sciences and physical sciences.

His trips to Washington have involved meetings with program managers and budget executives at the Pentagon; numerous members of the Tennessee congressional delegation and their staffs; and staff members of various congressional committees that oversee federal policy and spending on research.

“There’s a need to educate the Department of Defense and Capitol Hill about all the great things we’re doing,” says Piston, who is also a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. “Even if people have been constantly informed, they still want to know the latest and greatest in what we are doing. You absolutely don’t want to be out of sight, which then means you’re out of mind.”

But Vanderbilt’s interests in Washington extend well beyond research funding. The federal relations staff constantly monitors policy issues encompassed in the Higher Education Act, officially known as the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R. 4137), as well as new tax guidelines targeting endowments of certain colleges and universities. From access and affordability to illegal file-sharing on campus to teacher training standards, these two areas cover an array of issues large and small.


“Capitol Hill is an oral culture, and you talk in broad strokes. You’re meeting with people who have 15 to 20 meetings a day–and that’s on top of what they’re supposed to be doing.” –Professor Dave Piston

Photo by John Russell.

And then there are the policies that touch everything else. Immigration laws affecting Vanderbilt’s international faculty and students, regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency concerning radioactive materials used at the Medical Center, and reimbursement rates for federally subsidized medical care all have been issues tackled by the Office of Federal Relations in the recent past.

While Vanderbilt’s Washington staffers keep one eye on legislation that could affect Vanderbilt and the higher-education community, they also work closely with an array of people hundreds of miles away.

“The best representatives of Vanderbilt are the people actually doing work in areas impacted by federal laws and regulations,” says Jeff Vincent, who recently retired as assistant vice chancellor for federal relations and executive director of the Washington office. “Whenever possible we prefer having administrators, deans, faculty, even students telling Vanderbilt’s story. They have credibility because they are the people impacted by what happens in Washington.”

Maybe it’s Doug Christiansen, associate provost for enrollment management, explaining how proposed changes to a student loan law will affect Vanderbilt’s students. Or perhaps it’s Beverly Moran, professor of law and sociology, meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss her research on race and tax policy. Whatever the issue, the federal relations staff believes one of its most important roles is connecting the end user on campus with Washington policymakers.

When these connections aren’t made, Vanderbilt risks being left out, says Kenneth Galloway, dean of the School of Engineering. At stake is up to $40 million each year in federal research funding and contracts for engineering education and research. Galloway’s trips to Washington are timed to coincide with the annual American Society of Engineering Education colloquium, attended by engineering deans from across the country. When Galloway meets with members of the Tennessee delegation, he makes certain his message about the importance of funding engineering research explicitly emphasizes engineering as a tool of economic development for both the state and the nation.


“At the end of the day in Congress, the words you never want to hear are, ‘We never heard from you guys,’” says Jeff Vincent (left), retiring assistant vice chancellor for federal relations.

Photo by Daniel Dubois.

Far from seeing Vanderbilt’s federal relations staff as yet another unwelcome intrusion upon a crammed schedule, U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper, in whose district Vanderbilt sits, says that having Vanderbilt’s voice among those of his constituents is a big plus.

“They are persistent and sometimes relentless,” Cooper says, “but that’s good because sometimes Congress is a bunch of slow learners, and we need reminders.”

“I can see any congressional staffer I want–but
they don’t want to hear from an association guy. They want to hear from the chancellor or the vice president for research or a faculty member.”

~Pat White, vice president, American Association of Universities

Whether finding an undergraduate student to offer testimony about an issue before Congress or providing requested information about a particular topic, the Office of Federal Relations serves as a resource for Tennessee’s congressional delegation as well as for Vanderbilt alumni in other legislative or administrative positions. Whatever the national concern, the assumption is that the topic can be addressed intelligently and thoughtfully by a member of the Vanderbilt community. Vanderbilt, say federal relations staffers, has an obligation to offer itself as a resource, to become a voice in these national conversations.

Camilla Benbow, dean of Peabody College, is one Vanderbilt voice who is often asked her opinion about legislation affecting math and science education and K-12 schools in general. She jokes that Washington is her home away from home because she is either traveling there every two to three weeks or working on an assignment at the request of someone there. Her goal, she says, is to help the senator, representative or committee craft and refine ideas that result in better policy, which in turn will truly benefit schools.

“It is a good gut check for reality,” says David Cleary, staff minority director of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee on Children and Families led by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, BA’62. “We have a close relationship with the dean of the No. 2 school of education in the country. I think that’s an important relationship to have.”

Having practitioners like Benbow join the conversation in Washington is important to the organizations that promote education, agrees Pat White, vice president of the American Association of Universities, which advocates on behalf of major research universities.

“I can see any congressional staffer I want–but they don’t want to hear from an association guy,” says White. “They want to hear from the chancellor or from the vice president for research or from a faculty member. To the extent that Vanderbilt makes its contacts available to the higher-education community, we are able to succeed. By tradition and history, Vanderbilt has always stepped up to help advance higher education.


Faculty members are viewed as the most credible representatives of the university in Washington.
Here, Carol Swain, professor of political science and professor of law, testifies before a Senate committee.

Photo by Daniel Dubois.

“Higher-education research and, indeed, institutions like Vanderbilt University and their missions, remain articles of the American faith,” adds White. “Virtually anyone you talk to understands the importance of higher education and research, not just for quality of life and quality of fellow citizens, but because of its connection to civic life, business, engineering and technology–things that contribute to national values and principles.”

In addition to advocating policy and monitoring legislation, Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations also works with campus visitors who come to Washington, helping them adjust to the peculiar warp and woof of the nation’s capital and its politics.

“Capitol Hill is a different culture from anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Dave Piston. “It’s an oral culture, and you talk in broad strokes. You’re meeting with people who have 15 to 20 meetings a day, and that’s on top of what they’re supposed to be doing. Academics really, really like what they do. They are passionate, they love it–and while that works well if you’re teaching 18-year-olds, it does not work well in D.C.”

Wyatt Smith, a Peabody sophomore from Reform, Ala., spent last summer in the city with the Vanderbilt Internship Experience in Washington (VIEW), which pairs a public service internship with academic work. For these eight weeks each summer, the Office of Federal Relations converts its conference room into a classroom for the VIEW students, their professors and guest lecturers.

“D.C. is such a place of activity, and when you’re in the area where the office is located, tons of people are coming in and out from the subway, from the Capitol, from Union Station,” says Smith. “When you walk into the office, though, it’s like walking onto campus. There are pictures of folks giving testimony before Congress, but also lots of campus photos. It was neat to walk in and always see the Vanderbilt ‘V’ with the acorn at the same time you’re in an office that is definitely high performing and geared toward the pace of Washington.”


Christina West discusses proposed legislation during a forum on federal student aid. West assumed the role of director of federal relations in June.

Photo by Daniel Dubois.

Not infrequently, the Office of Federal Relations transforms itself into a little piece of Vanderbilt for visitors. Whether serving as a classroom, a reception venue for newly admitted students, or audition space for high school seniors competing for acceptance into the Blair School of Music, the office and its staff stand ready to do almost anything when company from Nashville is in town.

Christina West, director of federal relations, has been in Washington for nearly 10 years. Having worked in nearly every Washington capacity possible–from congressional staffer to private-sector lobbyist to current director of Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations–she still considers Washington an amazing city full of incredible opportunities.

“When I get tired of seeing the U.S. Capitol, that’s when it is time to leave Washington–and I’ve never gotten tired of seeing it,” West says. “Some people are infected by Potomac Fever, and I’ve got it.”

That’s a good thing, since the coming months and years will be anything but dull for higher education. Complex issues like affordability, access, competitiveness and academic freedom loom large on the legislative horizon. Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations, the university’s embassy 600 miles to the northeast, stands at the ready to weigh in whenever necessary.


© 2015 Vanderbilt University

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