Capitol Hill closed, but Cornell’s engagement efforts continue

Supporting engagement efforts in Washington, D.C., by faculty, staff and students is central to the Office of Federal Relations’ mission – even more so now as the coronavirus pandemic has limited opportunities for face-to-face advocacy.

Since Capitol Hill closed to visitors in March, the federal relations office has continued to ensure that Cornell stays top of mind during the policymaking process.

The Washington-based office, made up of federal relations and public affairs staff from the Division of University Relations, serves as a liaison between faculty, staff and students and the federal government – both Congress and the policymaking arms of executive branch agencies. Additionally, the office promotes and amplifies Cornell’s thought leadership among nongovernmental organizations, such as think tanks, trade association and nonprofits.

The office’s efforts include organizing meetings for faculty, staff and students with congressional offices, assisting with faculty testimony at hearings and facilitating briefings for policy influencers within and outside of government.

“We rely on experts on campus to help us understand and better convey what proposed policy changes and funding cuts or increases would mean for Cornell,” said Dianne Miller, senior director of federal relations. “In the case of federal student aid, we can tell legislators how many students receive Pell Grants or explain the formulas we use to distribute our Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Work Study allocations, but facts and figures can’t tell the whole story.

“We bring students to Washington, or arrange Zoom meetings, so they can explain exactly how financial aid is making it possible for them to attend Cornell,” Miller said. “By telling their stories, students offer legislators real-life examples of how investments in student aid are returning dividends in the form of future Cornell-educated leaders.”

The federal relations office has facilitated virtual connections with congressional staff, such as the July lobbying effort made by Cornell McNair Scholars. In a typical semester, the office also coordinates an advocacy day for Cornell in Washington students to complement engagement with policy through course work and internship experience.

In addition to advocacy on Capitol Hill, the office interacts with executive agencies such as the departments of Agriculture, Energy and Defense, as well as funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. The office organizes individual meetings between faculty and federal agency representatives, and participates in briefings on a variety of issues relevant to Cornell. For example, the federal relations team helped Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement pivot from a planned in-person visit to a virtual meeting with the U.S. Department of Energy, during which the team discussed Cornell’s efforts to support clean energy businesses through commercialization.

“It can be beneficial for faculty to connect with program officers at executive agencies so that the officers are up to speed on where the frontiers of research are in their topic areas,” said Kristen Adams, director of federal relations. “Our work with federal agencies not only keeps the executive branch apprised of Cornell’s research, achievements and needs, but we assist in making connections for the university and faculty on potential opportunities moving forward.”

The D.C. office also promotes Cornell’s thought leadership in policy circles by engaging with think tanks, nonprofits and trade associations. These groups can attract audiences of policymakers and industry leaders and offer additional avenues for highlighting the work of Cornell faculty, staff and students. In September, Todd Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, gave a presentation on geothermal energy in a webinar hosted by Resources for the Future, a nonprofit dedicated to the intersection of energy, the environment and economics.

The federal relations office has adapted to a new normal, which includes more Zoom calls and fewer face-to-face interactions. However, the pandemic has increased the number requests for information, advice and access to experts, Miller said, as legislators work their way through policy issues magnified by COVID-19.

“The D.C. office is more important than ever because the overwhelming majority of recovery programs and funding is flowing from the federal government,” said Miller. “As policy issues pop up on a regular basis, it’s critical that Cornell have a steady presence on the ground to help navigate the COVID-19 landscape.”

Rachel Rhodes is a public affairs and media relations specialist for Cornell University.

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Rachel Rhodes