In my almost eight years as president of Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, New York, the time I spend in governmental relations has steadily grown in importance, and — if my conversations with colleagues are any indication — my experience is not an isolated one.
Successful presidents must be active and informed advocates at the local and state level with a network of relationships that buoy their colleges, and because of the increasing importance of federal funds to add and expand innovative programming, community college leaders must also create and sustain strong relationships among their federal delegation and within governmental offices in Washington, D.C.
Despite the centrality of this work, it was not a central part of my preparation as a leader in higher education. Like many who come to the presidency, I had been a provost. The nuts and bolts of direct and focused advocacy, of budget hearings and legislative meetings, of governmental relationship building and messaging, were foreign to me. Looking back, I can see that my learning curve in policy and advocacy was more of a rocket launch, and the lessons learned on this journey — sometimes the hard way — are worth sharing.
In my role, I am required to present our college’s budget each year to the county legislature, appearing before two legislative committees in open session to offer testimony and respond to questions. These committees then provide recommendation on our budget to the full legislature.
After my first budget vote — which was successful but not entirely smooth — I reached out to the legislators and asked what they wished I had done differently. The responses were remarkably consistent: with a change in college leadership, they were hoping for a different approach to their engagement in the budget process. To prepare effectively, I had to listen effectively and pay attention to what was being requested. This wasn’t over-reach: the legislators were not interested in preparing the budget, but they wanted to be prepared to receive it. A very fair ask.
Since that first year, MCC has begun the budget cycle much earlier. With a small team including our CFO and governmental relations liaison, I meet with the county executive, with majority and minority leadership, with majority and minority caucuses, and with any individual legislator who might have questions. We want them to ask questions, to raise concerns, to ask for detail. This process takes time, but it is time well spent.
When I finally present our budget in committee, it is a familiar document. Legislators are not surprised; nor, thankfully, am I.
My goal in building relationships with our elected officials and their staffers has been to build their comfort in telling me the real state of affairs. As much as I might want to hear that our state budget ask is going to be a cake walk, it is more important that I hear getting it across the finish line will likely be a food fight.
A few years ago, I was surprised when I was visiting a congressional staff member who stopped in mid-conversation and said, “Anne, I like you, but I’ve got to be honest, I simply have no idea what’s going on at your college. It is just not on our radar at all. You should change that.” Ouch. Not what I was expecting, but I took it as a (painful) opportunity and pressed her. What would make a difference? What if we sent newsletters? She paused, “Whatever you do, it needs to be brief and to the point.” Lesson learned: provide information … succinctly.
Since that day, MCC has sent our local, state and federal delegation single sheet, single topic monthly briefings that include a mix of data, student stories, program descriptions and contact information for relevant college staff. Representatives have sought me out to share how much they value these sheets. They know what MCC’s doing to address pressing issues in higher education and always have a ready example in hearings, speeches and discussions.
We now supplement these briefing sheets with emails that provide information in even more manageable chunks: a profile of an award-winning professor, a description of an access to benefits platform, the demographic break down of Pell Grant recipients. The strategy has worked. Recently, a local official told me he loves Tuesday mornings, because that’s when his MCC email arrives.