Grassroots Gators

Gators for higher education legislative advocacy program

By Lindy Mccollum-Brounley

Though economic times typically call for belt-tightening, but the fiduciary fall-out  of Florida’s $2.6 billion  budgetary shortfall last year felt less like belt tightening and more like garroting — especially for already hard-hit sectors like higher education, in which state support has been on the wane for years.

In early 2009, as for the opening of the state legislative session loomed weeks away, state revenue and budget projections were bad and the outlook for the state’s universities looked even worse. The University of Florida, already reeling from more than $69 million in buget cuts during the previous two years, found itself staring down the long barrel of another $45- to $90-million net cut during fiscal year 2009-10. Debilitating layoffs and wide scale program closures seemed inevitable.

Foruntately, UF’s leadership had a plan and a powerful, not-so-secret weapon — the passion of the Gator Nation.

With more than 300,000 UF graduates living in 100 countries across the globe and in every state in the nation, the Gator Nation truly IS everywhere — especially in Florida. That’s the strategic premise behind the University of Florida Gtators for Higher Ecucation program. Rolled out with an e-mail from UF President Bernie Machen to UF alumni and friends in February of 2009, the program is an innovative grass roots advocacy initiative that has proven enormously successful in harnessing the passion of the Gator Nation to advocate on behalf of UF in Tallahassee.

“Since I came to UF in October of 2004, I have been approached several times by alumni who say to me, ‘We need help in the legislature. What can I do to help?’ ” said June Adams, UF vice president for university relations. “That’s what Gators for Higher Education is all about, reaching out to people who care about the universtiy and who want to help us in the legislature.”

A partnership between the university and the Alumni Association, Gators for Higher Education has, in less than one year, grown to include nearly 4,000 UF alumni and friends — a whopping 22 percent of who are UF Law graduates — who have logged ion to http://gatorsforhighered.ufl.edu to sign-up as grassroots Gators. During the 2009 legislative session lawmakers recieved more than 1,000 e-mails and faxes from Gators in support of UF’s legislative efforts because of the program’s call to action. This support contributed to the passage of an appropriations bill that avoided crippling cuts to higher education and a differential tuition bill that allows Florida’s public universities to increase tuition in inrements of 15 percent until it matches the national average. Inevitably, the budgets of the state’s public universities did suffer cuts, including a $72 million cut for UF, but the cuts were not as deep as had been expected and non-recurring funding combined with federal stimulus money helped soften the blow for UF.

“Clearl, this downturn shows us that Florida must do a better job of attracting biotech, and in general, making the switch to a knowledge-based economy. The University of Florida is uniquely positioned to help Florida make this leap.”

In addition to its nearly $6-billion annual impact on the state’s econmy, which represents a return on investment of $8 dollars for every $1 of state money appropriated to it, the University of Florida is the state’s unrivaled graduate education and research powerhouse. Ranked No. 13 nationwide among all public and private universities an No. 19 among public and private universities in research expenditures during fiscal year 2008 by the National Science Foundation, UF is among the most productive research universities in the country. Scientific discovery and the education and the education of a highly skilled workforce are UF’s unique potential for and significant contribution to Florida’s growing innovation economy.

“It is the ammount of sponsored research that differentiates us from the other universities,” said Adams. “We are uniquely equipped to generate jobs, do tech transfers and build technology incubators … all of those things that mena  alot to the state in terms of economic development.”

These assets make UF a valuable partner like Florida High Tech Corridor and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research. The Florida High Teach Corridor Council, (www.floridahightech.com) is a collaboration os state and local governments and the universities of FLorida, Central Florida and South Florida that seeks to attract and foster the growth of high-tech industries in 23 Central Florida counties. In addition, UF and UCF are academic partners with the Burnham Institute for Medical Research at Lake Nona in what the Orlando Sentinal recently described as, “Orlando’s emerging cluster of biomedical falcities, sometimes called “medical city,'” The UF Academic and reserach Center at Lake Nona will house the College of Pharmacy doctoral program and biomedical research laboratories that are envisioned to become a center of comprehensive drug develpoment.

“I think the University of Florida brings tremendous financial resources and clout because of its history and ability to bring in grants and fund research , as well as support from its very successful alumini,” said Frederick W. Leonhardt (JD74), senior partner and Chairman of the Policy Board of Directors for the Orlando, Fla., firm of GrayRobinson, PA. “The University of Florida had an important leadership role and continues to demonstrate that leadership. On the other hand , I believe the university has to reach out and form collaborative partnershipswith the other major univesities.”

UF’s effort to establish a research facility at the Burnham Institute near UCF’s medical school will be a major legislative priority for the university during the 2010 legislative session, as will expanding its presence in the High Tech Corridor. Leonhardt noted growing consensus among lawmakers that dollars invested in these collaborative initiatives will have long-range impacts to the state’s goal of boradening its economy to include high tech businesses.

“The legislature is becoming more aware of the importance of economic impact to our state’s financial success,” Leonhardt said. “I think they are interested more in economic development, financial impact, how dolalrs invested in higher education turn over the economy and how they create more economic impact because of the resources being cmartly and wisely used.”

As a member of UF’s Government Relations Advisory Committee, Leonhardt and the university’s government relations team take every opportunity to advance UF’s message of high-ROI among legislators and business leaders. Leonhardt also serves as a gubernatorial-appointed member of the board of directors for the Enterprise Florida, a public-private partenership charged with developing new jobs businesses in the innovative, high-growth industries for the state. Leonhardt said the Enterpraise Florida board of directors is comprised of business and governmental lesders with an interest in devrsifying the state’s economy and an appreciation for the value of investment in higher edcuaction and University of Florida.

“They’re aware of the Univerisityof Florida;s huge impact on the state and how things that are good for the University of Florida are good for the state’s economy,” he said. “That reciprocity is a compelling story.”

GRASS ROOTS TO GASS TOPS

Nonetheless, the upcoming 2010 legislative session and inevitable wrangling over scarce resources during the appropriations process remains a daunting prospect for UF and higher education in general. Although there are signs of recovery, Florida’s projected revenues still fall short of what will be necessary to fully fund state government and its services, and more cute to a UF budget already cut to the quick seem likely. Legislators, though working on behalf of the state as a whole, will be exquisitely sensitive to the needs and desires of their hometown constituents. The goal of the Gators for Higher Education program in this environment will be to ensure UF is positioned as the state’s flagship institution of higher learning and scientific discovery, rather than as “Gainesville’s university.”

“That’s the whole point of Gators for Higher Education,” and Jeff Jonasen (JD 88), a partner in the Orlando firm of Perez, Bruce & Johansen LLP, and the president and member of the board of directors for the University of Florida Alumni Association. “What legislators need to hear from alumni in their districts, their constituents, is ‘Mr. Legislator, Mr. Legislator, the Univesity of FLorida is important to me, and if I’m important to you as voter, as your constituent, then the UNviersity of Florida and its priorities should be important to you.’ that’s a compelling message that only alumni, only people who care about the University of Florida, can deliver to legislator.”

Jonasen, who is a member of the UF Government Relations Advisory Committee, notes the need to engage advocates statewide, especially in the more heavily populated areas of the state with larger legislative delegations, and on many different levels.

“The idea really is two-pronged from the university’s perspective,” Jonasen said. “One is to engage the grass roots, which is Gators for Higher Education, and then also engage the ‘grass tops,’ if you will. Many of our alums are involved in the political process in their communities around the state, and, of course , there is the Gator Caucus in the legislature, So, UF has a strong grass tops advocacy program, and the piece that has been missing, until recently, has been the grass roots ouece — I think we’re going to find the Gators for Higher Education program is going to add alot to the strength of out advoacy program and that every legislator in the state of Florida will be familiar with Gators for Higher Education within the the next five years.”

Advocates enrolled in the Gators for Higher Education program recieve e-mailed updates with calls to action on specific legislation. This enables the university to carefully target and time messages to avoid “advocacy overload,” a situation that can occur when advocacy is poorly-times or off-point.

“You want to be careful that you don’t allow advocacy to overshadow the objective,” said Lakeland Representative Seth McKeel (B.A. 97), chairman of the GatorCaucus, chair of the State Universities & Private Colleges Policy Committee and die-hard Gator. “It’s a big initiative to organize those who want to advocate on behalf of the university, and it’s great for the advocates to have a Web site, a central bank of knowledge about how and when they can be the most helpful — to understand what they can say, when it’s most effective to say it, and how it will benefit the university. That’s going to be tremendously beneficial to the university in the long term.”

In the hurly-burly of the legislative session, during which thousands of pieces of legislation, moving at lightning speed, will be introduced and voted on, effective advocacy can make or break a bill — as can collaborative lobbying efforts among universities in support of common interests.

“Both years that I’ve been the chair of the Gator Caucus, we have had at least one joint meeting between UF and FSU caucuses with the goal of finding what priorities are out there that are of joint interest to both universities,” said McKeel.

As examples of universities working together ot achieve joint goals, McKeel points to the collaborative effort between the UF and FSU during the last session to pass the tution differential bill and the UF and USF collaboration on medical school funding.

“Obviously, if you can get everybody on the same page about a joint priority, you’ve got a pretty good chance of making it happen,” he said.

GATORS FOR HIGHER ED, 2010

Ironically, the Gators for Higher Education program, concieved as an advocacy program to benefit the University of Florida in Gainesville, has been successful in supporting higher education statewide.

“Gators for Higher Education is not just focused on the Univeristy of Florida,” said Melissa Orth, UF director of government relations and coordinator of the Gators for Higher Education program. “It’s about promoting higher education for everyone in the state of Florida — it’a about UF, it’s about UCF, it’s about all the universities and the lack of funding, in general, for higher education in out state.”

Legislative collaborations between the state’s universities will continue to grow, Orth said, as the university partnerships in the Florida Tech Corridor, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and other economic development initiatives flourish. In addition, she anticipates more and more Floridians will become engaged in advocating for higher ed as other Florida universities followUF’s lead in mobilizing their alumni bases.

“We’ve had several insitutions reach out to us after we launched Gators for Higher Education to ask, ‘How did you do this? When did you get started? How can we do something similar?'” said Orth. “They’ve seen the success the program had during the previous session, when the program was just launched. … And, we feel like we have an opportunity to have such a great impact during the coming legislative session.”

To make it easy for grass roots Gators to become involved n the 2010 legislative session, scheduled to open March 2, the Gators for Higher Education Web site (http://gatorsforhighered.ufl.edu) provides people with a finder to identify their state legislators, legislative contact information, descriptions of UF’s legislative priorities with associated bill numbers and action dates, and e-mail templates with text containing the university’s core messages. The expectation, based on the success of the program during the last session, is that advocates will use the copy provided in their own e-mailed or telephone communications with their legislators.

“Certainly, we provide advocates with all the information and written messahes they can cut and paste into an e-mail, but we also want them to use their own thoughts and words,” Orth said. “We want them to speak from their hearts and say, ‘This is why the University of Florida is important to me.'”