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Group hopes to spread the word about UI’s impact

BY NINA EARNEST | JANUARY 20, 2011 7:10 AM

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University of Iowa officials hope a new grass-roots approach of reaching out directly to legislators and constituents will help spread awareness of the university’s impact.

Officials said the initiative — entitled Hawkeye Caucus — is to ensure constituents and legislators beyond eastern Iowa are aware of the economic and cultural future of the university, and one expert said the UI’s national prominence could make this a successful endeavor.

This kind of effort — called a “grass-roots advocacy initiative” — is important in the light of challenges facing public universities, said Tysen Kendig, the UI vice president for Strategic Communication.

“It’s essentially a strategic, targeted way to get our message out around the state,” Kendig said.
Components of the effort include sending almost-daily e-mail messages to highlight the campus’s 11 colleges and planning events and rallies to engage constituents. UI officials aim to extend the effort by bringing students and instructors to Des Moines.

The program officially began Jan. 10, the first day of the legislative session, said Peter Matthes, the federal-relations director for UI Governmental Relations.

Though Kendig acknowledged the importance of state appropriations just as the Iowa Legislature began debating a budget proposal that included several cuts to higher education on Wednesday, Matthes said the timing of the program’s implementation was unrelated to this specific legislative session.

“I think this has been something that has been part of a direction the UI has been going for quite some time,” he said.

The initiative is focused on state lawmakers, though the program has the potential to be expanded to appeal to Congressional representatives. Current university advocacy in the Legislature is conducted by the UI’s state relations officer, Keith Saunders.

The new grass-roots initiative is to serve as an additional way to communicate with legislators, Matthes added.

“I think the university always looks for ways to make sure the great things that happen on campus can find a way past the ears in Johnson County,” Matthes said.

Similar programs designed to help colleges stay in contact with elected officials and other citizens are being used by the UI’s peer institutions, including the University of Wisconsin and Penn State University.

Michael Griffith, senior policy analyst on the Education Commission of the United States, said similar grass-roots programs are common but are often more successful in larger universities.

“Just because of the name recognition, the flagship universities tend to do better in this endeavor,” he said.

But unlike K-12 funding, Griffith said, higher-education funding is not evenly distributed to different schools. Universities attempt to lobby for their individual institutions, which can drain resources from other campuses.

Kendig said he doesn’t anticipate that happening, and for now, the initiative is not scheduled to end with the current legislative session.

“The issues that we face aren’t just limited to the year 2011,” Kendig said. “We want to make sure we sustain the effort well into the future.”


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