University lobbies for research, aid

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, USC spent $580,000 last year lobbying the local, state and federal government on issues including Cal Grants, academic research funding and health — a $260,000 decrease from the previous year.

’SC in DC · At the national level, the university generally campaigns for financial aid, such as Pell Grants. Lobbyists at all levels ensure that lawmakers are informed of USC’s research, when relevant to bills. - Photo courtesy of USC

Many nonprofit universities use a portion of their budget to lobby for issues affecting the university. USC outspent many universities of its caliber in 2011, with Stanford’s expenses totaling $330,000 and New York University’s totaling $400,000.

USC lobbies at the federal level in Washington, D.C., at the state level in Sacramento and locally in Los Angeles. Though each office works independently, the issues they focus on often overlap.

David Galaviz, the executive director of local government relations for USC, said the university focuses on financial aid, funding for research and other issues that impact students.

“It’s not lobbying in a traditional sense of something nefarious, it’s more lobbying for university priorities — either research, student aid or just day-to-day infrastructure needs of the university,” Galaviz said.

Locally, projects such as the redevelopment plan for The Village at USC, are high on the university’s  respective agenda, while broader issues such as financial aid are more important at the state level.

Veronica Villalobos, the executive director of state government relations in Sacramento, said her office focuses mainly on financial aid because it directly impacts students.

“The governor came out with a budget proposal last week that would cut the Cal Grant for students in nonprofit universities by over 40 percent,” Villalobos said. “Over 1,800 USC students receive grants that would be cut.”

Protecting students at private universities from financial aid cuts can often be an issue in state government, Villalobos said.

“A lot of the time, nonprofit educational institutions are forgotten because the legislature often relies on public universities,” Villalobos said. “If there is a bill that gives loan forgiveness to students in medical school, for instance, a lot of the time the first thought is to target UC students instead of USC students who also need loan assistance.”

The university also campaigns for financial aid at the national level, such as Pell Grants, USC Executive Director of Federal Relations Jennifer Grodsky said.

Academic research also factors into the lobbying process, Grodsky said. The university shares its research with legislators to keep USC involved in the legislative process.

“If someone at USC is doing research on something like bullying, we will connect them to lawmakers working on a bill about that subject so they can make a better bill,” Grodsky said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can share our expertise.”

Connecting lawmakers to researchers helps the government keep the university in mind when they write bills about higher education, Villalobos said.

“This way the research doesn’t sit on the shelf, and the legislature sees the university as a public resource,” Villalobos said. “Otherwise you can get forgotten, and that’s not good public policy.”

Though the topics the university focuses on vary, the motivation to keep USC engaged in the political conversation stays constant.

At each level of the process, lobbyists said the most important factor is keeping the university involved.

“My job is to make sure the university does not exist in the vacuum, but that it’s tied into the city and county of Los Angeles and that the university is an active and engaged member of civic life,” Galaviz said.

Getting the university involved in city, state and national projects also helps USC become a bigger player in legislative decisions.

“We want to contribute to the conversation,” Villalobos said. “We’re the largest employer in Los Angeles, we’re a health care provider, and we have a lot of different roles impacted by the state.”

As USC becomes more involved with lobbying at all levels of government, Grodsky said she sees legislators paying more attention to the university.

“Policy makers are really looking to anchor institutions like USC,” Grodsky said. “President Nikias is not only a leader in Los Angeles but also a national leader. So if he says something is an issue our students are facing, the government is going to pay attention.”

Though the bills that pass with help from USC’s lobbying efforts are a significant plus, gaining the government’s attention might be the biggest benefit of lobbying, Grodsky said.

“You have to have a voice,” Grodsky said. “You want to have a seat at the table. There are so many decisions made every day that impact us.”