Mark Burnham, MSU vice president of governmental affairs
Interview conducted April 1, 2011 in the Hannah Administration Building
Q: (Paraphrased) What makes up higher education funding and why is it important? How do you lobby for these dollars?. A: (Exact transcription) In addition to the state funding, the federal financial aid funding equates to almost a half a billion dollars a year in funding that flows through the students into the university. And we do another 350 (million dollars), roughly, (in) research funding from the federal government so that's a whole separate and actually larger chunk of money. The funding from the state is actually very important but if the 15 percent cuts proposed by the governor go into effect will be roughly 240 (million dollars) for base budget for the operations of the university and a little less than 60, probably closer to 50-something (million dollars), for Ag Extension and ag research. So we're now at a point where the state funding has dropped below our research dollars or close to it. So it becomes an interesting challenge. So we have to work on both the state and federal level.
Obviously, we support stable funding for the university from the state because one of the biggest challenges is volatility. And we've been, over the past decade, watching a precipitous decline in funding from the state. Michigan is now, and it depends on which survey you're going by and which time frame, but we're somewhere between 37th and 43rd in terms of our support of state universities, and if you go by per capita basis, we're second to last in the support level that we provide from the state to universities. And during the last 25 years we've gone from the state funding covering roughly 75 percent of the operations to now we're - I think with this budget proposal we're gonna be around 25 percent. So the whole idea has flipped on its head and sadly there's been a loss of the public's perspective on the value of higher education. I think this administration does understand the need to increase graduation outputs, the number of people who are actually graduating in the state, to attract business, but they also are dealing with a budget structural deficit, which is incredibly difficult. And basically what President Simon has said to the governor is we'll be a part of shared sacrifice, but the deal is this is the end of a death by a thousand cuts. We really have to get to a point that's a baseline we can grow from, and not just go, ‘And how much are we losing next year?' So it (has) been a painful prospect to approach this, but we did look forward and saw it coming a couple years ago. And thankfully we had a couple years, because of the funding from the federal government, to prepare for it before the state funding finally fell off. So we were preparing for 13 percent, and the actual reduction was 15, but definitely within the ballpark range.
In terms of how we do our job, a lot of it is developing relationships with individual members. It's hard here in the state because term limits are so short that you don't have a lot of time for institutional memory. And some members dive right in and learn as much as they can as fast as they can. And some members are like, ‘Meh,' learning the intricacies of higher education is not going to further their career, so they don't spend the time. And that's an individual member's choice and you have to kind of work in that environment.
The tools of the trade are pretty consistent wherever you are and whatever organization you're working with. You spend a lot of time on the phone or in person meeting with folks. And for us, a critical element is getting information and hard data in front of the them, because the biggest challenge in dealing with folks that are new is they come in with perceptions of institution which may be 25 years old, from when they were looking to go to college, or they may be based solely on their experience with the agriculture programs but nothing on the other side of the fence. So getting information in front of them that helps them understand the breadth of the university and the level of quality that we have today, which we don't always find that everybody knows that we have 26 programs in the top 10 in the country, and we have four this year that are rated number one and it's not in agriculture - it's nuclear physics, it's education, it's organizational psychology. (They are) things that aren't necessarily the areas they were expecting it to be and because they're last real engagement with the university may have been when they were 19 years old (and) looking to go to college. And they weren't looking at graduate programs; they were looking at undergraduate. So helping them understand the level of quality (and) the sheer size - we're now 47,000 students, which is an increase of 2,000 students from five years ago. And that's a huge undertaking. The university has transformed over the last 20 years. And I think it's in a position to grow in a healthy way and continue to maintain the quality, but it requires the state to be a partner with us. So a lot of times we're trying to provide data and explain what's going on, and sometimes it's debunking myths, sometimes it's changing perceptions that are based on anecdotes: ‘Well, someone somewhere didn't get in and didn't get all their credits transferred, so the whole system must be broken.' Well, so let's take a look at that. The transfer students historically can get 80 percent of their credits transferred and accepted at the university, and maybe 10 percent of it - only 10 percent - is based on analysis that the quality or content of a class wasn't sufficient. A lot of it is because it wasn't related to the major - it's like you used up all your electives and you're kinda there. So it's getting that data in front of them and when you can do that, then you can help them understand kinda what you're trying to get to. But we as an institution have a long-term view of the world.
We've been here 150 years, we're gonna be here another 150 years. That is not the traditional viewpoint of a businessperson, who if they're looking ahead, they're looking 18 months ahead, because that's where the market is. It's just a difference in culture between industry and education. But because we've had the long view and we've done multi-year budgeting and we've had a plan for what we're gonna do down the road, I think it's enabled us to grow, and particularly President Simon and the trustees, to be able to grow the institution in a healthy way and to be able to manage difficult economic times in a way that you know, hurts, because it always hurts to have to cut programs and raise tuition. It's something they don't want to do, it's also one of those things but they also have to protect the institution. And so you know under helping the state understand that you can't cut us 15 percent and then complain about the fact that we've cut programming or we've raised tuition. It's one of those - we made it the last several years (that) the policy of the board was if the state met its expectation of what the funding would be there would be no tuition increase.
And the tuition increases have been almost a dollar for dollar increase related to the state's cut. So it's a big challenge.
Q: You mentioned before that it was kinda a ‘death by a thousand cuts.' Do you think that this year (has) been the end of that, that that's been negotiated out, that this would be the end?
A: The intention of the governor's proposal if you take it as a whole - not just education (but) as a whole - is to eliminate the structural deficit so that we're not 12 months from now in a situation where they have another billion dollar hole to fill, which is what we've been doing. And they've filled it previously with one-time money and budget gimmicks. If the governor is able to successfully get a package in - and I don't know what the final package will look like that gets signed into law - that eliminates the structural deficit, then I think we're in a point where we can say that we're not going to see additional cuts from the administration. Course, you've got to deal with the legislature too. But we'll be in a situation where any balanced budget the governor will propose funding that's at least stable, which is not something we've been able to look at. If however, they don't come to a conclusion that actually balances the budget going forward - and not just deals with it this year but actually for the next fiscal year puts us on a sustainable path where we wont have a structural deficit next year. If they don't do that, then this may go on. So that becomes a challenge.
Q: What has it been like switching - I know you've been in Washington for a while so it (has) been a little different for you, but we've had Governor Granholm for eight years and it (has) been a much more Democratic House and Senate, and switching over to a very Republican administration on both the executive and legislative branch. How do you change your approach when talking to the different parties?
A: In Washington, it (has) happened three times in my career in both directions. One of the things is the university is not inherently affiliated with any party. Individuals within the university may very well be, and are. But as an institution, we work with the state, whoever's in charge. And it takes some time to convince whichever party just took over that we weren't in cahoots with the previous party, but we were working with the institutions of the state, and we're prepared to work with the institutions of the state with the new administration and the new legislature. And that takes communication, it takes time. They have to develop trust. It also means that we are deliberately nonpartisan in our communication. We may work with a member of the legislature who happens to be a Democrat or happens to be a Republican, but who understands our issues and pushes on those things. And you also find that by and large there's bipartisan support that research and education are two of the critical elements the state needs to right the ship, economically. And even when times are good, those are two elements that really drive the economy of the state. So we're in a situation where as an institution, we're nonpartisan and we have bipartisan support of our mission.
And so we find we have to spend a lot of time managing and developing new relationships across the spectrum. We can't only pay attention to the party in power at the moment - we have to develop relationships with the folks who are out of power because you never know when it's gonna flip.
And it's one of the challenges that I think it's easy for some individuals to say this is my friend or I like their politics, so I'm gonna go and be really close with them and not pay attention to the other party, I don't need to worry about them. And one thing I've seen over time is eventually the pendulum swings the other way and eventually things change. And you have to be prepared for change, you have to be looking ahead, you have to reach out to folks on both sides of the aisle, and frankly we can be a convener, at federal and the state level, to bring people from opposite sides of the aisle together to support policies that make sense for the state as a whole. So we served that function in past administrations. I'm sure we'll serve that function in this administration.
Q: As far as kinda coalition building and working with other people to get what you, to have more power than you could have as an individual, who do you work with the most?
A: Well, sometimes that's depending on the subject. We work with the Presidents Council for public universities, we work with the University Research Corridor partners, we work with the agriculture community on Extension and agriculture issues. We work with, depending on the subject matter, we may be working with the medical associations, whether they be hospitals or doctors or nurses or whatever, depending on the legislation that's in front of either the state House or the federal. We work a lot at the federal level with our Big Ten colleagues, with national associations. So a lot of those partnerships are subject matter dependent.
Q: Who do you find you have a hard time - tend to work against? I know that I talked to some people at the Presidents Council and they were saying that corrections was a big (opponent), not because you were opposed to corrections but because they share your budget money. Do you find yourself kinda butting heads with some other groups?
A: Well, whenever you're in funding strains with other organizations, it's not so much that you're working in opposition to them, but you have to make sure that you're in some cases defending your space, in other cases making it clear what the priorities are. And let's talk about corrections for a second. We don't have a problem with the agency. But there are priorities that have been set in the state which are directing and on an autopilot basis they're putting more and more money into the corrections budget, and it's now bigger than higher ed and community colleges combined. And so you're like, ‘Well, is that smart?' I mean really. Actually it's higher than education as a whole including K through 12, I think. And it's like, ‘Well, are you going to spend it educating ‘em or incarcerating ‘em?' And the problem of course is well, we now have this problem that we have a lot of people we put in prison at a higher rate than we do in other states, now what do we do with them? Because the recidivism rate for somebody who's been incarcerated is much higher than for somebody who's been diverted, even if they committed a crime but were diverted to other forms of punishment other than incarceration. So they have to figure out how to fix that so you're not continuing to feed the beast that creeps bigger and bigger and bigger. At the same time, you have members who are afraid of, you know, letting loose lots of criminals, and doing so, and the answer is not a sort of one size fits all. But back to your more question - who do we butt heads with the most? We try not to butt heads with any particular group the most. The honest truth is that there are people who will take pot shots at the institution because they don't like some of our class work - coursework - they may not like some of our areas of research, they will not like the fact that we're just part of the budget and they want to get our part of the budget to fill their needs. So I mean a lot of it, it's situational - you don't necessarily know that you're always gonna be in opposition to a particular group. And sometimes because an event occurs and upsets a bunch of people, and now you've gotta deal with that. So we're happy to work with almost anybody. And you know the problem with anybody who does lobbying for an institution, state and federal, you spend a lot of time just trying to defeat bad ideas. And I think the way the proposals that come out to fix a problem of the moment, but they don't provide sustainable solutions because they don't take the broad view how does this work in relationship to everything else. It's just we don't like this so fix that. It's a whack-a-mole. You knock it here and three things come up over here, and it's like we have to address things systemically. So it's not necessarily that we would oppose a specific concept, it's just the implementation is the problem. It's like if you want to fix a problem, let's fix the problem with a solution that actually works for more than 12 months. And a lot of times it's the but, so - if there's something we battle mostly it's a lack of knowledge, or a lack of the broad view of how things actually work.
Q: Do you find that getting research and hard data in front of people is the best way to kind of lobby them?
A: It's one way that can be very effective, but it doesn't work with everybody because some people just don't want to hear it. And some people you just can't convince enough of their constituents that that's the actual data or that that's still - when you run into certain circumstances, even the member will agree with you, but they're not going to vote with you because they're not going to get enough for their public constituency to understand it in that way. They're not going to support you. And some things are very emotional, so stem cell research or climate change research. There's an emotional view that sometimes overrides the data in front of you.
Q: Who do you talk to the most? Like how do you go about doing your job - do you speak mostly with legislators, do you speak mostly with their staff, because they have kind of the behind-the-scenes power, or do you talk mostly with other universities? Who are the people that you're talking to on a day-to-day basis?
A: Well, you have to talk to all of them. And especially at the state House where they don't have a large staff, they may only have one or two. You wind up interacting a lot more with the House member the most. At the Washington level, it's almost exclusively staff except when there's a real need to meet with the member themselves, just because they have larger staffs, more substantive expertise than they're able to support at the state level. So you have to work with the members, you have to talk to the members of committees, you have to talk to their staffs, you have to understand where they're coming from on an issue, and you have to try to help them understand where you're coming from. And I think again, most people are trying to do the right thing. But a lot of time they're reacting to anecdotes or partial information, and that's where the data can really help. But sometimes you don't even know where the data they do have came from and you're trying to reanalyze it, figure out well this is the number they came up with, figure out how they got it. And then you gotta come back with okay, this is what it is. And that sometimes takes a lot of interplay back and forth with the staff.