On November 10, 2016, University President Drew G. Faust called a meeting. Two days before, Donald Trump, a reality television star and real estate mogul turned Republican presidential candidate, had won the nation’s highest office. At Harvard, alarm bells were going off.
Trump may not have run on an explicitly anti-Harvard platform, but over the course of the campaign, he had taken aim at a number of University priorities. He had promised to get rid of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—an Obama-era policy protecting undocumented youth—ban Muslims from the country, make sweeping changes to the tax code that could imperil Harvard’s finances, and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency.
While Faust and Harvard administrators cannot take a partisan stance, Trump’s victory represented a major threat to the University’s mission.
So Faust huddled in Massachusetts Hall with the deans of Harvard’s 12 schools to begin to hash out a plan of action. Harvard had been preparing for the upcoming change in administration, but by many measures, Trump’s victory was unexpected.
Soon after, Faust said in an interview with The Crimson that she would be “ramping up” her advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C. Traveling to Washington was nothing new for Faust: Harvard maintains a staff of lobbyists in an office in D.C., and Faust regularly makes trips to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers. But a Trump presidency required more.
In the following months, Faust would travel to Washington three times—two additional trips than in a typical year—to meet with at least 11 lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Faust wrote an op-ed defending humanities funding in the New York Times and spoke on media roundtables, and Harvard filed two amicus briefs challenging Trump’s executive orders.
“There were certain assumptions that the federal government and universities together would be the bedrock of discovery in the United States,” Faust said in an interview in May. “And then you see an assault on that that says everything you assumed can no longer be assumed.”
“So it’s important now to articulate things we didn’t think we had to say,” she added.
The partnership between universities and the federal government traces back to World War II, when Harvard played a pivotal role in forging what became a driving force behind American innovation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who graduated from the College in 1903, commissioned Vannevar Bush to write a report about peacetime scientific research efforts. Bush proposed that the federal government provide funding to universities in order to “insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”
Bush’s special deputy at the time was then-University President James Bryant Conant, class of 1913, a man who personified the budding collaboration between universities and the federal government. While president of Harvard, Conant chaired the National Defense Research Committee, advised President Harry Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, opened up Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks property to international leaders drafting the United Nations Charter, and participated in post-war talks on international control of nuclear weapons.
Under Nathan M. Pusey ’28, who succeeded Conant as president, Harvard came to further rely on the federal government to fund its research.
“The university no longer expects to avoid involvement in public affairs, for it is by now all too clear that free institutions and free political institutions are interdependent and their futures intertwined,” a 1961 pamphlet titled “Harvard and the Federal Government” reads.
By the time Derek C. Bok stepped down from the University presidency in 1991, long-time Harvard lobbyist Nan Nixon had moved to Washington and opened the precursor to today’s Federal Relations Office. Located in a suite at 499 South Capitol Street, the office is less than a mile from the Capitol. While small, it serves as the hub of Harvard’s lobbying activity—its eyes and ears on the front lines.
The office has seen four presidential transitions since its opening. During these oftentimes intense periods of change, lobbyists must get to know a new set of faces and often watch warily as newcomers to Washington get their bearings.
“One of the things that happens anytime you have a new administration—the first six months are particularly chaotic, because you’ve got new guys in town, and there’s normal stuff that’s happening, there’s stupid stuff that’s happening, and there’s some potentially dangerous stuff happening,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education’s Division of Government and Public Affairs.
He described the atmosphere in January and February as “a time of rumors and uncertainties.”
It’s up to Director of Federal Relations Suzanne Day to guide Harvard through these uncertainties. Sporting a FitBit on her wrist, Day is a woman on the go: her job requires trekking to Cambridge at least once a month, attending regular meetings with higher education associations, and keeping tabs on proceedings at the Capitol.
Day worked as a congressional staffer for about 14 years—the last ten in Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd’s office, where she specialized in education policy and worked with colleagues across the aisle on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act twice. Day, a self-described “student aid geek” armed with extensive knowledge of legislative procedure, joined Harvard’s lobbying team in 2000.
Jon Groteboer and Peter DeYoe round out Harvard’s D.C. team. Groteboer, the University’s other registered lobbyist, focuses on research and budget appropriations, while DeYoe works as a legislative assistant.
“There’s just three of us and we’re very much like a team,” Day said. “We overlap each other’s issues a lot, we bounce ideas off each other.”
Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications Paul Andrew oversees the office from Massachusetts Hall. Kevin Casey, a former Harvard lobbyist and now a Harvard Public Affairs and Communications associate vice president, provides guidance to the D.C. team as well.
Harvard also consults with lawyers from O’Neill, Athy, and Casey—a boutique firm focused on lobbying—although Casey said the outside lawyers mainly serve as a “sounding board” and do not represent Harvard in any official capacity. The $550,000 Harvard spent on lobbying last year primarily went to paying this firm and the salaries of the Federal Relations Office staff.
Day keeps a “running list of people” she wants to catch up with on her frequent trips to campus, depending on the issue of the hour: the Financial Aid Office if it’s student aid, the Office of the General Counsel and the Harvard International Office if it’s immigration, or faculty if it’s research funding.
"You can be worried about everything, but we try to calibrate what we think is actually in the realm of possibility on the Hill and then engage to make a difference," Director of Federal Relations Suzanne Day said.
During the lead up to Trump’s inauguration, Harvard’s D.C. office was abuzz, preparing for what seemed to be a seismic shift in the way the federal government approached higher education. Their concerns seemed to be well-founded after Trump issued two executive orders barring immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries and a “devastating” 2018 budget blueprint that slashed research funding.
“We realized that this would be a time where it would be important to have a presence there to be making the case for the University, so it would be a time of heightened activity,” Andrew said.
Knowledge of trends in Washington and the ability to see through political grandstanding helps Harvard’s lobbyists discern and prioritize the issues that will likely have a tangible effect on the University.
“I think what we try to bring to it is also a sense of what’s realistic to be worried about,” Day said. “You can be worried about everything, but we try to calibrate what we think is actually in the realm of possibility on the Hill and then engage to make a difference.”
Once the team has made an issue a priority, Day said they strategize about when to meet with congressional staffers, watch hearings online or from the Capitol galleries, and arrange joint meetings with colleagues and lawmakers.
“A lot of it is about kind of taking the pulse, and knowing what’s going on,” Day said.
In his Harvard lab, applied sciences and biomedical engineering professor Kit Parker develops technologies to help alleviate brain trauma. He relies on money from the federal government to fund his work.
When Faust invited Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine who sits on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee to campus, Faust knew she had an opportunity. The D.C. office was aware that Collins was interested in Alzheimer’s research, and Day proposed that she pay a visit to Parker.
Faust said the tour of Parker’s lab was a success.
“She said this very explicitly to me, she went away with a lot of stories she could tell to colleagues she’s trying to convince to support science,” Faust said. “Storytelling is such a powerful weapon for persuasion. So having people actually being able to say ‘When I was in this lab at Harvard I could see the organ-on-a-chip beating away and I knew that had been discovered and that it would be improved.’”
“That can be very vivid,” she added.
At an Institute of Politics event after her lab tour, Collins told audience members, "If our leaders would work together and commit to a multi-year increase for NIH funding, and propose ways to expedite new treatments and drugs through the FDA, that would make a real difference.”
The D.C. office acts “almost [as] a concierge service,” Casey said, pairing lawmakers with faculty whose research fits their interests. While federal relations officers usher lawmakers through labs to showcase Harvard’s most promising projects, the visits also give professors themselves the chance to advocate for their work.
“My research group is about one step away from going out and knocking off liquor stores to pay for this kind of science,” Parker said. “And between NIH and the Department of Defense, it’s been an absolute disgrace. And I lay that down on Senator Collins and every one of these people that comes through here.”
Harvard received around $600 million in research funding from the federal government in 2016—the single largest source of research funding at the University. Congress appropriates money to agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, National Endowments for Arts and Humanities, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Defense.
"My research group is about one step away from going out and knocking off liquor stores to pay for this kind of science," Biomedical Engineering professor Kit Parker said.
With Trump in office, federal research funding faces a less than certain future.
“Harvard is one of maybe 25 schools in the country that gets more research funding than student aid funding,” Hartle said. “So Harvard in particular has a very big concern with federal funding.”
But communicating that concerns requires careful consideration. Because Harvard is a 501(c)3, tax-exempt organization, the law forbids the University from taking explicitly partisan stances.
“As a general philosophy that the University has, we express views very clearly on things that bear on our core educational mission,” Harvard General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano said. “We can’t hang from Massachusetts Hall a political banner saying we support this candidate or that candidate—that would raise tax-exemption issues.”
Instead, the federal relations team works to craft a message that emphasizes the nonpartisan importance of the work researchers and students at Harvard do. Beyond setting up meetings with legislators, they send articles from the Harvard Gazette—a publication run by HPAC—that highlight examples of faculty and student achievement.
When members of Congress started to call the tax-exempt status of Harvard’s $35.6 billion endowment into question, Faust sent them a detailed memo, making the case for preserving that status. The Gazette covered this as well.
With immigration policy, Harvard has waded into increasingly politically charged waters as it advocates for broader protections for undocumented students.
When immigration authorities detained undocumented student Eric Balderas ’13 at an airport in 2010, Faust called Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. Faust had publicly supported the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation Durbin co-sponsored that, if passed, would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth.
Durbin helped Balderas get permission to remain in the United States and testified about Balderas’ case on the Senate floor, according to a Durbin aide. Faust and Balderas later visited Durbin in his office in the Capitol to thank the Senator in person.
Anxieties among undocumented students heightened after Trump’s election, and Faust pledged to continue advocating for the Bridge Act—a newer, bipartisan piece of legislation Durbin and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham introduced in January.
“I know where her heart is on this, and I really appreciate her leadership in bringing together other university and college presidents and signing a letter in support of the DACA program and the Bridge Act,” Durbin said in an interview, calling Faust a “national leader.”
Hearing firsthand accounts from university representatives of students impacted by federal policy helps inform Durbin’s legislative efforts.
“We spend a lot of time in Washington working on education, talking about the opportunity it creates; they bring the issue home—they explain what their students are facing, and talk about the policy needs,” he said.
More recently, when Trump’s travel bans stranded several Harvard affiliates abroad and stoked fears among those on campus, Harvard took its message to the courts, filing amicus briefs in two cases challenging the order.
“While the Executive Order is currently limited to seven countries, its damaging effects have already been widely felt by American universities,” the second brief reads.
On a rainy April afternoon, Faust steps out of a black Cadillac Escalade and into the Dirksen Senate Office Building for an appointment. Earlier that morning, she had made the case for government support of higher education at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., and now she was headed to meet with lawmakers to make that same argument.
Faust typically travels to the nation’s capital in April to attend the AAU’s semi-annual meeting of university presidents. But this spring, she made two additional trips—one in January and one in February.
Faust is perhaps Harvard’s most compelling champion. Though her background is in the academy and not politics, members of the lobbying office carefully consider how to best leverage Faust’s status and harness her persuasive abilities.
“I think that we’re also always thinking, what is the right moment of impact? What is the right time and opportunity to deliver, to make our case in the right areas?” Andrew said.
The D.C. office works with Andrew on scheduling Faust’s itinerary, strategically timing both who she meets with and when.
“We have been busier, really busy,” Day said. “With President Faust here a lot this year, we’ve been much more focused on sort of organizing her time.”
Day said the office is well acquainted with the “built-in rhythm” of appropriations season: the President typically submits a federal budget request to Congress by February, she said, and the budget passes by Oct. 1. But in recent years, Congress has struggled to reach spending agreements on time.
“That was why it was important for President Faust to be in Washington early in the year, understanding that the FY17 budget was still in play and she wanted to make a forceful case for the partnership and for research funding,” Andrew said.
Andrew said there are four categories of lawmakers that the University actively engages: alumni, members of key House and Senate committees, congressional leaders, and the Massachusetts delegation. Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Massachusetts, wrote in an emailed statement that she has met with Faust on a number of occasions..
"With President Faust here a lot this year, we've been much more focused on sort of organizing her time," Director of Federal Relations Suzanne Day said.
A congressional aide to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said Faust and Markey have been “longtime friends and meet very often.”
Day said Faust writes congratulatory notes to Harvard alumni elected to Congress, and added that the D.C. office tracks nominees who are alumni as well.
Representative Ronald J. Kind ’85, a Democrat from Wisconsin who remembers cleaning Harvard toilets for Dorm Crew, met Faust on one of her trips to the Hill. He said she seems to have a “wider jurisdiction” than most university presidents given Harvard’s strong alumni base in Washington.
“She does have a nice little Harvard alum community here in Congress,” Kind said. “I’ve noticed when she does come she tries to touch base with Harvard grads, both undergraduate and graduate grads, who are serving in Congress or in the administration, and I’m always happy to sit down and meet with her when she does come.”
On her most recent trip to Washington, Faust met with Representative Scott Taylor—an alumnus of the Extension School—Senator Al Franken ’73, and Senator Maggie Hassan, who Faust called a “faculty brat” since her father was a Harvard professor.
Taylor, a newly elected Republican member of the House from Virginia, is a member of the House Appropriations committee.
“If he could have any influence in advancing that case in appropriations, it would be extremely valuable,” Faust said. “So I want to make sure he understands what matters to us, and what matters in terms of national policy to universities more generally.”
Faust often takes this macro-approach, thinking of the current climate with regard to higher education as opposed to just her own institution.
Harvard is a member of both the American Council on Education and the Association for American Universities. The ACE has functioned as an umbrella association for colleges and universities around the country since 1918, and the AAU is a more selective subset of research universities. Harvard’s federal relations team attends each association’s monthly meetings, and Faust travels to Washington each year when the AAU convenes the presidents of its member schools.
Universities compete constantly for students and faculty, but in their political advocacy, it pays to stand united, particularly during a turbulent time.
“The only tool we have is the ability to speak with a unified voice,” Hartle said. “Colleges and universities do not have PACs, they don’t do fundraisers, they don’t do issue advertising, and they’re not particularly good at getting votes on Election Day. The only way we can influence policy is…speaking with one voice.”
Harvard’s lobbyists are prominent in the higher education advocacy orbit. Hartle has known Day for almost 30 years, since the two worked together on the Hill. Day also often works with lobbyists at peer institutions, like Joyce A. Rechtschaffen, Princeton’s director of government relations.
“Suzanne is one of the people if I want a second opinion on something, if I just want to run something by, she’s one of those I turn to,” Rechtschaffen said.
Rechtschaffen said Faust’s efforts benefit schools across the country.
“President Faust is a great spokesman for higher education in Washington,” Rechtschaffen said. “She uses the Harvard brand in a wonderful way for all of us, all of higher education.”
That brand carries political weight in Washington, Kind said, adding that Faust is “very well-respected” in Washington.
“I respect the institution very much, and have been willing to work with the leadership at Harvard, even though I didn’t attend the university. So I think the reputation of the school has an impact on their ability to lobby,” Durbin said.
The future of Harvard’s political advocacy seemed bleak at times in recent months, but Faust remains optimistic.
For one, the fiscal year 2017 spending bill, passed in May, increased NIH’s funding by $2 billion and appropriated $2 million more for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. While Trump has yet to release the full version of his 2018 budget proposal, Faust said the 2017 spending bill “bodes well” for research funding.
Now, Hartle said associations and university lobbyists across the country are gearing up for a budget fight marked by “political brinksmanship” this fall, when Congress will finalize the budget for fiscal year 2018.
“We’ll see the president’s budget come out on May 22 or May 23, and we’ll have to marshall our arguments and our best stories,” Casey said.
On the immigration front, Durbin said it is fortunate that Trump has not eliminated DACA, but the status of the Bridge Act is still uncertain.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which authorizes programs like Pell grants, student financial aid, and work study, is also up for reauthorization this congressional cycle. Day said it will be a major area of focus in the months ahead.
Lawmakers have not stripped the tax-exempt status from large university endowments—at least for now.
Still, if one thing is certain about the current political climate, it is that nothing is certain.
“You have to be careful in Washington to never predict,” Day said with a laugh. “I mean we’ve all learned that, right?”
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.