By Erica Jenkins
Photography by Adam Brimer
In the upper balcony of the Tennessee House chamber, Carey Whitworth sat clutching the edge of her seat. It was time to see if three weeks of intense advocacy were enough to save UT’s West Tennessee 4-H Center.
The legislator leading the charge to remove the center from the state budget stepped to the microphone. He could choose to pull his amendment and the 4-H Center would stay in the budget or he could call for a vote to remove it.
Whitworth, director of UT Advocacy, and fellow UT staff with her anxiously awaited the outcome.
It was never supposed to get this far. In January 2015, the outlook was promising. After years of searching for a site to replace the former West Tennessee 4-H site at Milan—closed in 2009 due to budget reductions and deteriorating conditions—a 1,200-acre farm in Hardeman County was found. The property was considered ideal for both 4-H camps and other university functions. Securing funding was one of UT President Joe DiPietro’s top priorities.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission agreed with DiPietro and ranked the new center as the top higher-education building project in the state. Gov. Bill Haslam concurred and announced the site as part of his budget.
Two months later, an unprecedented event happened. In a closed meeting with members of the House budget committee, the 4-H center was pulled from the House budget.
DECEMBER 5, 2014: UT President Joe DiPietro advocates for the West TN 4-H Center in the Governor’s Higher Education budget
JANUARY 13, 2015: Legislative session kicks off
FEBRUARY 9, 2015: Gov. Bill Haslam includes the 4-H center in his budget proposal
MARCH 2015: UT Government Relations team intervenes and the center is restored to the budget
APRIL 2015: Legislator introduces amendment to pull 4-H center from House budget
APRIL 2, 2015: Advocacy alert issued and advocates are called to action. Over two weeks, advocates make more than 7,500
APRIL 16, 2015: Legislator withdraws amendment and 4-H center passes as part of the House budget
But higher-education building projects, always carefully vetted, don’t get pulled from the budget. They especially don’t get pulled for political reasons.
The 4-H center had been targeted by legislators who saw an opportunity. With its $16 million price tag, some legislators thought the center’s funding could be cut and divided to fund smaller projects in their districts.
UT’s government relations team learned of the cut and took steps to stop it. After some key conversations, members in attendance at the closed House budget committee meeting restored the 4-H center’s funding.
The crisis averted, the university’s team in Nashville breathed a sigh of relief. But Anthony Haynes, UT vice president for government relations and advocacy, had a feeling that a bigger storm was brewing.
Haynes was right. In a legislator’s office, a coalition was forming to take out the 4-H center. Each legislator had a different reason for joining the coalition, but all sought the same result: a budget cut that would somehow benefit their districts.
Within three weeks of the House budget vote, an amendment was introduced to eliminate the 4-H center from the House budget.
The university was prepared. This is what the UT Advocacy program was designed for—times when elected officials needed to know that UT supporters were watching and willing to speak out.
Haynes and DiPietro agreed—the center couldn’t be saved without help. Coalition members wouldn’t budge as DiPietro and the UT Government Relations team explained that the 4-H center would broadly benefit the West Tennessee economy and thousands of children.
Since the coalition wouldn’t be moved by UT leaders, the decision was made to let thousands of UT advocates weigh in. Whitworth got the green light to engage the network.
She mobilized advocates by issuing an alert via email and social media. UT Extension and the Tennessee Farm Bureau amplified the alert, relaying it to the agriculture community statewide. Over the next three weeks, UT students, alumni, 4-H’ers, friends, faculty and staff made nearly 7,500 legislative contacts using email, phone calls and social media posts.
While advocates contacted legislators, UT’s government relations hit the hallways inside Legislative Plaza, meeting with every legislator to explain the importance of the 4-H center.
University leaders wanted to make sure every member understood the political ramifications of voting against the 4-H center. The day of the vote arrived. The representative leading the charge to cut the 4-H center walked up to the microphone. “Madam Speaker of the House,” he announced. “I would like to withdraw my amendment.”
It was a moment of disbelief. Just like that, it was over. The West Tennessee 4-H center was saved.
Whitworth walked to her office with a sense of affirmation. The grassroots advocacy victory was possible because of three years of hard work, late nights traveling the state recruiting advocates a handful at a time.
“This was a critical moment for UT and higher education in Tennessee,” Whitworth says. “If UT had done nothing, if our advocates hadn’t spoken out, the process for prioritizing all higher education building projects, like the 4-H center, would have been compromised.
“In the end, our advocacy told legislators, ‘We’re watching. And we’re not afraid to speak up for ourselves and for projects we believe in. Especially when those projects will benefit so many.’ ”
Rallying the Troops
Anthony Haynes knew he had to do something. It seemed every time he met with a UT alum, he heard the same thing a coach does, “Put me in the game.”
Haynes remembered there was a time when the game was simpler. A time when the university was able to tell the legislature what it needed to fulfill its mission of educating students and serving Tennesseans, and the need was met.
By 2012, after years of eroding legislative support, the political climate had changed. It was time for a new legislative strategy to advance the university’s mission, one goal at a time.
Haynes wheeled out the whiteboard that had been the birthplace of many political strategies and went to work. His goal: Find a way to harness the power of UT voices and engage them when the university needed to send a clear message to the Legislature.
When he stepped back, the framework of UT’s Advocacy program was on the board. He pitched the program to his then boss, former UT Vice President for Public and Government Relations Hank Dye, who approved. Haynes had a strategy; he just needed someone who could execute it.
Carey Whitworth was that someone, hired by Haynes to direct the newly-established Advocacy program. He considered her unique blend of experience ideal for the job. She understood policy, had experience in the General Assembly, was a two-time UT grad who loved her alma mater, and she believed in grassroots movements.
Whitworth was tasked with recruiting thousands of advocates and building an infrastructure to educate, engage and call them to action.
The program started small. The first advocates were politically-interested alums already active in the national UT Alumni Association’s Alumni Legislative Council (ALC). A special Advocacy council was created, which included ALC members, students, staff and friends of UT. To keep council members informed on the legislative process, a blog and Twitter account were then established. While the program started small, it promised large impact.
Today, thousands of advocates make up the UT Advocacy Network and have helped the university secure critical legislative support on issues like the 4-H center.
“UT supporters were telling me they wanted to be engaged,” Haynes says. “So we created a program that does just that. UT Advocacy is designed to help supporters be heard – by speaking with one message at the right time.”
A United Front
UT’s program is one of a handful of its kind across the nation.
Higher education advocacy programs are a recent trend, but the concept isn’t new. The National Rifle Association and Sierra Club have been using grassroots campaigns to influence legislative outcomes for more than 100 years.
Higher-education advocacy faces a unique challenge that most grassroots programs don’t. For example, the National Rifle Association represents a single issue, gun ownership. Higher education advocacy must speak out on many issues–free speech, college affordability, campus safety, employee benefits and more. Its core challenge is making a broad group of university advocates aware of how one issue—like funding for a 4-H center—impacts a large number of people.
Grassroots advocacy is common in the legislative process, but universities have been slow to leverage their built-in networks of alumni, students and community supporters.
Mike Fahey is director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s advocacy program, one of the nation’s oldest. Fahey says higher education advocacy’s rise has paralleled the national discussion on college affordability.
“The debate on college affordability often sticks us between students and lawmakers,” Fahey says. “Our job is to educate both parties on the nationwide trend of declining support for higher education.”
Over the past 10 years, marked declines in state funding for public higher education have occurred nationwide. Tuition increases have been widespread and larger as institutions sought to recoup lost state funding. In Tennessee, state funding for higher education has decreased by 22 percent over the past three years, while tuition and fees at the state’s public institutions has increased only 15 percent.
“For a long time, we were stuck in the middle, too,” UT President DiPietro says. “We had huge cuts in state support that we needed to make up to keep the university running, so in the short-term, we raised tuition.”
“But that’s not fair to students or parents,” DiPietro says. “I cannot and will not expect them to keep shouldering that cost burden.”
“Our advocates are critical to stemming the loss of decreased state support, one project at a time, and helping us do that by reminding legislators of UT’s impact on the state,” DiPietro says.
Advocate in Action
UT Knoxville graduate Jim Duke has been a UT Advocate from the start.
Alumni like Duke are the core of the Advocacy network, due to its close partnership with the national UT Alumni Association.
According to Duke, the best place to develop relationships with legislators is at campaign fundraisers, where he isn’t shy about promoting the university. “I make sure that I mention the University of Tennessee to every legislator that I talk to,” Duke says.
Having legislative relationships pays off when Duke needs to advocate on university issues, such as for the West Tennessee 4-H Center. Duke says his confidence that UT leadership has the public’s best interests in mind makes him a more committed advocate.
“We may not win every battle, but legislators respect our people,” Duke says, “and I know that I can trust President DiPietro because he wakes up every day with the goal of making the best decision for UT.”
On the Horizon
Alan Janesch, director of the Penn State Grassroots Network, the legislative education and advocacy program sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association, is a respected leader in higher education advocacy. His role in launching the annual gathering of higher education advocacy professionals, known as the PHELAP (pronounced fee-lap) conference, earned him the nickname, “The Godfather of PHELAP.” PHELAP stands for Public Higher Education Legislative Advocacy Professionals.
Over the past eight years, Janesch has used his 20 years of experience in politics and advocacy to focus on the big picture. He teamed up with other higher-education advocacy professionals to establish the PHELAP conference as a forum to share best practices and grow higher education advocacy programs. To date, the network involves 30 schools.
He doesn’t have a crystal ball but predicts higher education advocacy programs will follow the technology trend toward personalization.
“Telling your personal story makes an issue come alive to a legislator,” Janesch said. “That’s what leads to effective advocacy.”
Whitworth anticipates the same trend.
“My goal is to make advocacy simple,” Whitworth says. “I want advocates sharing their personal stories and thoughts, not hunting down contact information for multiple legislators.” With the click of a button, UT advocates can be connected to legislators by social media, email or phone.
Join the Ranks
An unassuming leader and long-time coalition builder, DiPietro isn’t shy about asking supporters to speak out.
“When I walk into a legislator’s office, they expect me to advocate for the university. That’s part of my job,” DiPietro says. “But when a friend, employee or UT alum contacts a legislator, it’s powerful. You’re not paid to call or email that legislator, you’re contacting them because you believe in what the university is doing.”
With the obvious excitement that once marked his classroom lectures as a professor, DiPietro asserts that standing up for UT protects the university’s future and ensures its standing as a top academic institution.
“I want everyone, especially our legislators, to know the University of Tennessee is making a difference,” DiPietro says. “We’re producing research that people use in their everyday lives, educating the next generation of innovators and building relationships that improve our communities.
“I can’t share that message alone,” he says. “That’s why I need every alum, every employee, every friend of the university to sign up to be an advocate and speak up with me. That’s how we get there. That’s how we accomplish change–together.”
JOIN: Join the UT Advocacy network. Text UT to 52886 or visit advocacy.tennessee.edu.
LEARN: Learn about issues facing UT and tips on being a good advocate at advocacy.tennessee.edu.
CONNECT: Connect with your lawmakers and let them know you expect support for UT.
FOLLOW: Follow @utadvocator on Twitter for real-time updates.