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Columns

The Harvard Lobby

How does Harvard decide what to lobby for?

By SANDRA Y.L. KORN

80 percent of students who voted in last week’s referenda voted “yes” on a questionasking whether Harvard University should advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. “Comprehensive immigration reform” refers to a federal plan to, among other things, provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans—including the family members of the young adults who have already qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provides a means for undocumented students and veterans to reside in the country and find jobs without fear.

This referendum made sense for all the reasons stated by its sponsor, Harvard College Act on a DREAM. They argued in the UC’s “pro” statement that Harvard previously supported the DREAM Act, which has now become part of a larger comprehensive immigration bill; that “hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the country” already advocate for comprehensive immigration reform; that  “if immigration reform fails to pass this year, the 40 undocumented students currently at the college will be left with no legal avenue to adjust their immigration status.” Yet I still find it interesting that there was such a strong student consensus that Harvard should support comprehensive immigration reform—which might include spending money to lobby US Congress.

After all, what does it mean for our university to engage in lobbying?

Of course, Harvard is a political actor in many ways. Our university makes political statements through where it invests its massive endowment; it makes a political statement withits treatment of workers on campus; it makes a political statement with the research it funds and the faculty it hires. Yet it also quite literally spends between a quarter million and one-and-a-quarter million dollarseach year directly advocating for policy changes. Harvard’s top administrators, the Office of Federal Relations, hired lobbyists, and a contracted law firm all spend timelobbying the federal government and the state of Massachusetts on behalf of our university.

Harvard is certainly not the only university to engage in lobbying the federal government. Even in its highest-spending year recently, 2007, Harvard was outspent by both California State University and Johns Hopkins University. But Harvard’s huge endowment as well as its influence as a huge academic institution means that it can put a lot of economic and moral clout behind legislation that it cares about.

In the past, Harvard has justified its lobbying by saying that it advocates for causes connected to its mission of education and research. This is why, two years ago, President Faust travelled to Washington, DC along with an undocumented Harvard undergraduate to promote the DREAM Act—which would have protected dozens of Harvard students every year from the threat of deportation. Faust also repeatedly wroteletters to all representatives to US Congress whose districts include Harvard (includingSenators Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, John F. Kerry, and Scott Brown, and Representative Michael E. Capuano), publically advocating for the DREAM Act. According to OpenSecrets.org, which draws quarterly reports from the Senate Office of Public Records, Harvard listed the DREAM Act on its lobbying disclosure form in 2009, 2010, and 2012.

Many of the federal bills Harvard lobbies for have clear connections to the research and education mission of our university: they create pathways for highly-skilled immigrants to obtain visas, strive to reduce student loan interest rate hikes, and sustain the federal research funding that Harvard’s faculty relies on. Some of the bills Harvard support may be in our university’s interests even if they don’t align with the generally-liberal political values of Harvard’s students and faculty: For example, President Faust signed her name to a letter advocating against sequestration of science research funding that suggested instead that entitlement programs were “a primary source of long-term spending growth” that should be addressed in a deficit-reduction plan.

While Lawrence Lessig might warn against the increasing influence of money in Congress, I do believe that given the nature of today’s politics, Harvard’s million-dollar lobbying structure has the potential to do a lot of good. But, in an increasingly corporatized university, it can also be dangerous.How does Harvard decide what bills connect to its mission as a University? Essentially, this requires an act of deliberate boundary-drawing by Harvard, certainly a subjective process. What directly relates to education and research, what does not? What would it mean for Harvard to support bills deregulating workers’ rights, or bills decreasing endowment transparency?

There’s no strict standard behind what falls within Harvard’s purview and what does not—which leaves room for student advocacy to make a difference in what Harvard lobbies for. Harvard College Act on a Dream helped convince Faust to support the DREAM act four years ago. Hopefully, student advocacy will follow through on last week’s referendum on comprehensive immigration reform and Harvard will turn its lobbying power to this important issue, too.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House.  Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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