Op-Ed by President Joe DiPietro: UT’s Advocates Vital to Steering Through Change

Category: In the Press

UT President Joe DiPietro addressing the Public Higher Education Legislative Advocacy Professionals National Conference, hosted by UT
President Joe DiPietro addressing the Public Higher Education Legislative Advocacy Professionals National Conference, hosted by UT

More than 60 officials from 33 universities came to Nashville last week for a national conference hosted by the University of Tennessee. Members of the Public Higher Education Legislative Advocacy Professionals have responsibility for grassroots political advocacy on behalf of their institutions. As such, they all face a rapidly changing landscape in which advocacy has a growing role.

Meaningful, effective advocacy is as vital to a public university as a great medical staff is to a hospital. It enables speaking with one voice, a critical element in working with elected officials and delivering advocacy messages. UT’s advocacy network is built on a strong core of passionate alumni and friends who insist on more opportunities to advocate for the university in political circles.

For some university presidents, vocal supporters can be a concern. There’s concern about the prospect of an out-of-control, off-message, disorganized group hindering your work with government entities.

I consider passionate, energetic alumni a gift. Effective engagement enables them to help achieve good outcomes. That engagement involves a few vital ingredients UT is fortunate to have:

  • University leadership support;
  • A strong government relations team;
  • Strong alumni relations; and,
  • Training and regular communication with advocates.

At UT, we embrace the energy and passion of our alumni and friends. Advocacy is addressed in one of five broad, strategic goals — making it intentional, measurable and a priority for our entire statewide system. This focus led to creation of our UT Advocacy Network, run out of our government relations office in strong partnership with our alumni association.

Our government relations team is empowered and encouraged to speak frankly with advocates. When they do, their expertise is clear and establishes credibility with alumni and friends. If a call to action on key political issues is necessary, our advocates understand it’s an urgent matter for the university.

It’s uncommon for higher ed to engage supporters so visibly and actively, but I believe we must be willing to do so. It’s necessary to put public higher ed on even footing with special interests or competing government priorities. While this risks getting caught in a political battle, sometimes that’s where the biggest impact is made. That doesn’t mean we join the fight on every issue, but on the ones that matter we shouldn’t shy away.

I’m proud of how we’re engaging advocates at UT, including one of our boldest and most visible efforts: re-evaluating our entire business model. UT faces plenty of challenges, but one that easily overshadows the rest is finding sustainable, long-term funding.

Midway through 2014, I outlined our broken business model and projected a funding gap of $377 million over 10 years. Averting that gap means changing how we do business, and we are. We’re maximizing effectiveness, efficiency, excellence and being more entrepreneurial. To keep tuition increases at 30-year record lows like this year, we must either cut costs or increase revenue outside annual tuition increases. Solving the problem should secure affordability of a public higher education at our campuses.

Beyond change within UT, there has to be cultural change involving state support for public higher education. This can’t happen without our advocates. Tough choices and hard decisions will be part of the process, and informed advocates will help us make our case.

Tennessee’s same funding challenges are happening throughout the country. Nationally, higher education’s business model is at a crossroads. There’s rapid turnover in elected officials in state governments. Out-of-state interests are growing, along with PACs and super PACs. Lawmakers more frequently dive into policy matters traditionally left to universities.

As times change, so must we. University presidents must be bold and unapologetic in embracing advocacy. Failure to do so puts public higher education at a competitive disadvantage. Fortunately, UT has a clear, strong, positive impact on the lives of all Tennesseans, and when the university’s best interests call for engaging advocates, we can find them in every political district of the state.

Read the op-ed in the Knox News Sentinel and the Commercial Appeal.

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