This May, the University announced that it was naming Mr. John Sturm, the former president of the Newspaper Association of America, as the Vice President of Federal and Washington relations. “Mr. Sturm possesses an expertise in public policy and communications that will make him valuable in the university’s mission to enhance its ‘national and international visibility,’” stated John Affleck-Graves in the press release this spring.
The appointment of Sturm to the position will help “strengthen the University’s relationships and raise its profile with key constituencies in Washington, including the White House, Congress, federal agencies, regulatory bodies, media and alumni” according to University Spokesman Dennis Brown. This move comes in the wake of Barack Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame in 2008 and the 2011 HHS mandate that stemmed from the Affordable Care Act, known to many as Obamacare.
Brown said Sturm will be, “[i]nteracting with key constituencies in Washington on matters related to research funding, higher education, issues such as student aid, and other matters – for example, tax policy that could affect the University in various ways.”
As an expensive private institution the University of Notre Dame has a vested interest in maintaining government-subsidized, low interest rate loans. Loans of this nature were recently extended by both parties in Congress. The increasing national debt and rising costs of a college education, however, might be exacerbated by the availability of these loans.
Brown did not state the exact nature of Sturm’s public policy aims were. He said that lobbying efforts are usually kept confidential and that the university wants to have a voice in Washington regarding matters that affect Notre Dame, and its “key constituencies,” mainly students and alumni.
Tax policy is an important issue as well, given Notre Dame must pay taxes, unlike state universities. Tax policy is relevant especially in relation to regulations involving businesses that most provide healthcare to their employees or face a fine. Notre Dame has filed a lawsuit arguing that this mandate to provide health care – including birth control – violates our mission and religious freedom as a Catholic university.
Lobbying may not be the world’s oldest profession, but it could be one of our nation’s oldest professions. Notre Dame’s presence or emphasis on maintaining a voice in Washington is not unusual. Most colleges and universities have a direct presence in the nation’s capital, generally important for research funding. But it is not only private universities who maintain a voice with our lawmakers. The University of Michigan, for example, receives a majority of its research funds from the federal government, specifically the National Science Foundation.
It seems strange that taxpayer-funded institutions can spend money to lobby in Washington. Lobbying is important for both research interests and public policy decisions affecting all institutions of higher education. Private and state universities, including Michigan State, Ohio State, and even Wright State have dedicated at least some portion of their budget to lobbying. Boston University was 2012’s biggest spender in this area. Although public policy remains important in the areas of grants and funding for Notre Dame, it is just as important – if not less important – than our interest in preserving the full protections of the First Amendment.
Nate Balmert can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, for any questions or concerns. When he is not engaging in philosophical debates, he is studying science in order to save people’s lives – maybe one day he will save yours.