Harvard’s Man Wades Through Washington

Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director of federal and state relations, speaks in a tense barrage of language, as though disastrously late for some very important meeting. He’s an unobtrusive presence in most rooms, entering briskly with a dark suit and meticulously combed hair and sometimes leaving even more abruptly to take a key call from Washington. He spends part of each month shuttling between Cambridge and the capital—making for a few parlous hours of the workweek when he can’t be reached by cell phone.

Casey is one of Harvard’s top lobbyists in Washington, and for the past three years the university ramifications of post-Sept. 11 legislation has topped his docket.

He often talks about running into Sharon Ladd, director of the Harvard International Office, in the Yard a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks and knowing at once that he and she would be “talking a lot” that year. Their work has, in fact, closely intertwined—not only through that term but over the course of that summer and two years that have followed.

Ladd works from the Holyoke Center, trying to minimize the number of students stranded in their home countries due to backlogs visa system. Over the past two summers, she geared up for the school year by working with students whose visa applications have gotten stuck behind national backlogs in visa processing.

Casey, on the other hand, works mainly in Washington, bringing the University’s agenda to the desks of government leaders and testing Harvard’s priorities against those of the higher education community.

He intentionally takes a moderate path, meeting requirements without complaint and working diplomatically in league with Harvard’s peers. He’s collaborated extensively with the Association of American Universities on a number of issues relating to post-Sept. 11 legislation.

Casey said early on that Harvard would use the Association’s standards as guideposts, following its lead without towing a harder line—as some voices from the faculty and student body have suggested—and risking its persuasiveness by standing out.

The Association’s priorities have remained relatively consistent over the course of the past year, Casey says—and in general they reflect the issues that have most concerned Harvard since Sept. 11. New visa-issuing and registration procedures facing students have ranked near the top of the list.

Casey has most recently been representing Harvard in a small committee composed of several of its closest peers. The group is charged with task of reporting and reviewing restrictive clauses in governmental funding for scientific research—a front of major concern for universities like Harvard, which has depended on governmental research funds for hundreds of millions of dollars since Sept. 11.

He says this project reflects a new, more intimate strategy.

“What we’re doing is trying to make new methods of advocacy that would be supplemental to, but not replacing the efforts of the AAU,” he said. “Starting small, we’re reaching out to a group of trustees to work on a set of issues we thought they might be interested in.”

Casey says he thinks this advocacy is working. He talks about a credibility that Harvard has won in the capital by keeping one step ahead of the new requirements.

“There’s a receptivity in Washington now to reach out to us,” he says.

Recent rhetoric from Washington leaders bodes well for the future, he adds. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recently acknowledged the legitimacy of concerns that the constellation of new requirements facing foreign students has made the United States a less attractive destination for foreign students.

And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice affirmed the nation’s commitment to a clear distinction between open research and classified research last year, when leaders in the academic community spoke against the reinvocation of a new research categorizations some scientists perceive as stifling.

Still, the University isn’t in a position to rest on its laurels. In spite of receptivity at the highest levels of government, lower strata of the hierarchy—arms handling the day-to-day work of carrying out the Government’s new regulations, don’t seem to be lending so generous an ear, Casey says.

The interest Washington leaders have shown for the universities’ new plight, he says, “isn’t percolating downward.”

And Casey says he expects the coming election to sap the legislative and executive branches of any inclination to address universities’ concerns as fully as they should.

“Everything will be pushed off toward the election,” he says.

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.