Lobbyists Guard Harvard's Interests From Lawmakers

To many, Harvard is an ivory tower collection of academics and students far removed from the rest of the world.

The fact, however, is that the University must confront the confusing realities of national and state politics all the time. To protect its normal routines from government regulations, Harvard works through three "legislative agents"--also known as lobbyists.

The lobbyists are employees of the Department of Government, Community and Public Affairs, and their jobs are enormous: to watch national and state legislatures for policy changes which could affect the University.

The issues that affect the University can vary from the matters of national fiscal policies to the minutiae of research policy or even import law.

Take for example, the problems that arose when Harvard hired a music professor from Germany last year.

The new professor needed to import his pianos, which was not a problem. But the ivory keys, banned according to import regulations, were a different story.

Enter Harvard's Washington based lobbyist Nan Nixon. She worked feverishly to find a way around the import rules. Ultimately, however, the professor's keys stayed behind in Germany.

Despite the occasional failure, though Harvard's lobbyists are generally successful at protecting the University's interests, according to Jane H. Corlette, acting vice president for government, community and public affairs.

"We do basic research about issues to determine whether they might affect Harvard," Corlette says. "We then decide whether we might lobby for them.

Corlette says that it is to Harvard's benefit to form alliances with other institutions affected by potential legislation.

"The game of politics is in numbers of votes," Corlette says, and lobbyists garner legislators' votes by making contacts with universities in their districts.

In fact, Kevin Casey, director of state relations and a registered legislative assistant for Harvard, says that Harvard's most important role in policy making is not in lobbying directly for the University. Instead, Harvard often joins with other universities to advocate policies for mutual benefit.

For example, Casey will meet this month with members of the National Association of Research Universities, one of several Washington-based higher education associations which lobby Congress on educational policy, to discuss strategy for dealing with Clinton's funding of the space program.

"It's important to show them that [a given issue] is not only important for Harvard but for BU, MIT, and Boston College," Corlette says. "We almost never go in and ask for things that are specific to Harvard."

Although Harvard has many alumni in Washington, notably Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 (D-Mass), theUniversity can be perceived as well-off and not inneed of assistance--in both Massachusetts andnational legislatures.

"On a state level, [Harvard] is perceived aswell-off and generally more able to absorb costson our own," Casey says. "It's better to go inwith a colleague for a state university likeUMass."

"You have to present the University warts andall, but it's hard to go in looking like you'rejust asking for money," Corlette says.

At the federal level, lobbyists also work withgroups of universities, finding strength innumbers and common goals.

Brett Lief, director of financial aid policyfor the National Association of IndependentColleges and Universities, of which the Universityis a members, says Harvard and nearly 800 othercolleges and universities sponsor collectiveefforts to alter educational policy before it isimplemented.

"For example, a few months ago, the governmentwas coming out with regulations to assess thefinancial strength of colleges and universities,"Lief says. "The first set of regulations wereawful, and when we met with the Department ofEducation's chief financial individuals, we couldsee that they didn't understand how independentcolleges accounted for themselves."

Lief says he worked closely with Nixon,Harvard's Washington-based lobbyist and directorof governmental relations, to coordinate a meetingbetween the Department of Education and theHarvard bursar's office to create a set ofregulations which better suited the needs ofindependent institutions.

But Harvard lobbyists do not make lobbyingdecisions alone. Although the University'sadministrative bureaucracy is often accused ofbeing overly complicated, Corlette and herassociates say Harvard's departments and officeswork well together to determine Harvard's policyon a national level.

Casey, whose job it is to keep Harvard abreastof issues in the state legislature, says that asimportant as conveying Harvard's policy goals tolegislators is watching pending legislation for apotential impact on Harvard.

"When some quirky issue arises, such as whocould control fossils in an archaeological dig inMontana, we find out who is involved in it atHarvard and get their opinion," he says.

Lobbyists say they rely not only on policy fromabove but on the professional advice of Harvard'sprofessors and staff.

"[As a lobbyist] you become a quick study onissues as they arise, but our expertise is thelegislative process," Casey says. "The experts [onthe issues] are the people at the Med School."

Nixon and Casey say that once an issuearises--either at the prompting of Harvardadministrators or in response to pendinglegislation--their work with legislators and theirstaffs begins.

Legislation affecting Harvard ranges from thedisposal of low-level nuclear waste at medicalfacilities to efforts to ban medical research onanimals, Corlette says.

Nixon in Washington

Because of the need for prompt action on avariety of different issues, Harvard establishedan office in Washington D.C., Corlette says.

Nixon, who specializes in financial and studentaid, says her job is to serve as an intermediarybetween the policy decisions of Harvard's centraladministration and those of Congress.

"Issues arise in two ways," Nixon says. "Theycan come from the University or can arise inCongress."

But Nixon says her long-distance relationshipdoes not alter the essential aspect of herjob--lobbying.

"I basically do the same thing people inCambridge do, but I don't have to get on a planeto go to work," Nixon says.

Although her one-room office, which she sys sheshares with her secretary and another staffmember, is far from the confines of Harvard,telephone calls are answered with afamiliar-sounding "Harvard University."

Nixon says that while callers may be surprisedto find a Harvard office so far from home, shemaintains close contact with President Neil L.Rudenstine and with the deans of the University.

"Once an issue arises, the president, the vicepresidents or the deans figure out what the policyshould be for the University and then we starttalking to people on Capitol Hill," Nixon says.

Nixon says she usually first approaches anissue through a staff member because of the heavydemands of a legislator's time.

She then follows the item of interest throughthe various stages of the legislative process,attending hearings, mark-up sessions and debates.

"We follow and work on [legislation] at anygiven one of these steps," Nixon says.

The attention Harvard pays to legislationbefore it becomes law pays off in time saved lateron, Casey says.

"[For example], we watch conflict-of-interestlegislation, animal care regulations, changes inhealth care policy and regulations on the disposalof low-level radioactive waste," Casey says, "Wework with staff people so that what theyaccomplish is not too cumbersome or too expensivefor Harvard to work with."

Nixon says a good deal of her time is spent inmeetings determining policy and lobbyingstrategies rather than in conversation withlegislators themselves. But she adds that she alsospends some time at the Capitol waiting for achance word with senators and representatives.

"In the past, I've spent a lot of time in the[Capitol] hallways," Nixon says.

Harvard's commitment to lobbying seems to payoff in the eyes of Harvard faculty andadministrators, several of whom say that effortsto prevent legislation from becoming cumbersomeare frequently successful.

Elizabeth M. Hicks, assistant dean ofadmissions and financial aid for federal andspecial programs, says she worked closely withNixon and Hicks on the recent direct lendinglegislation which will allow students to borrowmoney from the U.S. Department of Education.

Hicks says she and Nixon made Harvard's supportof the direct lending proposal "very public," andhelped to shape the debate which eventually led tothe passage of the legislation.

Corlette also says Harvard played a significantrole in developing the direct lending legislation,despite a counter-lobby paid for by banks whichfeared losing the fees they collected from thegovernment subsidized loans.

"It was interesting because we were up againsta formidable, high-financed lobby [representingthe banks]," Corlette says.

Other University officials agree that thedepartment plays a key role in shaping policywhich affect them professionally.

Paul C. Martin, dean of the division of appliedsciences, says that his work with Casey assuresthat projects in his department will not becomebogged down in bureaucratic entanglements.

"Most of our discussions are reactive and notproactive," he says." [We discuss] concerns aboutlegislation before Congress that would impede whatwe're doing."

In the end, however, lobbying for Harvard isoften about money.

Martin says his primary interest in Harvardlobbying is as a means of ensuring that fundingorganizations such as the Federal ScienceFoundation maintain a proper level of funding forwhich Harvard researchers may compete.

"Harvard is careful not to seek federal fundsbut to go through a peer review process inconjunction with some organization," Martin says."We scrupulously insist on a peer review process."

Casey says that he seeks continued funding fororganization which fund Harvard researchers, arole he sees as appropriate for a researchuniversity.

"We don't advocate earmarked funds, but wouldsupport the proper level of funding [fororganizations]," Casey says. "Our people will befunded in the grant applications process."

Wendy M.Seltzer contributed to the reportingof this story.Talk Soup: the Lobbying Process