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Margin Notes

Why shouldn’t universities hire lobbyists?

Universities have interests and needs, and it is incumbent on them to communicate these to government in an effective manner.


I feel there is a bit of hypocrisy being shown by those who claim to be shocked – shocked! – that some universities may be hiring lobbyists to advocate on their behalf. As reported by the Canadian Press earlier this week, provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath revealed that nine Ontario colleges and universities had spent close to $1 million on lobbyists to influence the government.

Much as we don’t want to think about it – like the image of one’s parents having sex – universities lobby, as disturbing as that may be.

And, like just about any other organization, universities occasionally resort to the use of contract help. If you don’t have the expertise or human resources necessary to accomplish a task, you hire someone to offer advice or to help you out. Areas that immediately come to mind where this may occur include institutional research and analysis, communications, marketing and recruitment. Why should lobbying be any different?

According to a local newspaper, Wilfrid Laurier University, one of the universities named, said they hired a lobbying firm for a little more than a year because, at the time, they didn’t have a full-time government relations person on staff. The University of Waterloo, meanwhile, said it hired a lobbying firm to help it with a federal funding issue because the university didn’t have a government-relations specialist with sufficient familiarity with the federal bureaucracy.

Laurentian University said it hired a lobbyist to help with the university’s bid to open a school of architecture. As reported in the Sudbury Star, a spokesman for the university said the Laurentian administration determined it would be cheaper to hire the firm to hold day-to-day meetings with government than it would be to hire staff and pay their travel expenses to work on the architecture school proposal. In other words, the university determined it would be a more efficient use of funds.

Some have claimed that it is simply unseemly for universities, which receive much of their funding from government, to use public funds to lobby for more public funds. But that’s a bit of red herring. If these universities had, in fact, hired additional personnel to engage in these activities, rather than contracting from outside, how would that have been any different?

Don’t get me wrong: like many Canadians, I am a bit queasy about the whole idea of buying access to politicians. However, last time I checked, lobbying is a legal activity and universities – like any organization – would be foolish not to take advantage of it. Universities have interests to defend and needs to be met, and it is incumbent on them to communicate these to government in an efficient, effective and professional manner.

If you think lobbying should be banned outright, fine, that is a legitimate position and we can have that discussion. But until it is banned, I don’t see why universities shouldn’t be able to hire lobbyists to advance their cause.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Joey Coleman / October 7, 2010 at 11:34

    It’s legal, yes. Nobody claimed it isn’t.

    Is it proper for a public institution, which pays millions of dollars to its ever-expanding senior administration and thousands to its lobbying organizations (including the organization which operates University Affairs) to supplement with outside lobbyists?

    My answer is no.

    The spin from Laurier and Waterloo is easily countered.

    In the case of Laurier, it is true they didn’t have a person dedicated full-time to solely lobby government. They have many well-paid administrators and staff who are paid to lobby government as part of their job descriptions. Combining the percentage of these individuals job descriptions that are devoting to lobbying government, I’m confident the FTE is much greater than 1.0.

    If I believe Waterloo’s claim they ‘didn’t have a government-relations specialist with sufficient familiarity with the federal bureaucracy’, I’m forced to wonder why their former president is now the titular head of that bureaucracy.

    If Laurentian was not using any of its internal staff resources to lobby senior levels of government then there is justification for cost savings.

    The fact is that using lobbying firms is seen as a more effective method of securing government funding for specific projects.

    You are correct that it is hypocritical to act surprised about this widespread practice.

    Much like the golden handshakes that university presidents enjoyed (most infamously the $1.4 million that cash-strapped McMaster University is giving to former president Peter George in 14 installments of $99,999), once attention was drawn to the practice, the administrative branch of the PSE sector changed its practices.

    Were the golden handshakes legal? Yes. Were they in line with the public’s expectation of how universities should spend their money? No.

    Same here.

  2. Alex Lougheed / October 7, 2010 at 13:28

    Given the return on investment from lobbying, it seems like a sound investment. Do the optics go against what the public would expect? Sure. But imagine a world where universities didn’t pay to top up their government relations. You might get policy in the sector out of touch with the realities. That’s not good for anyone.

    The fact that it’s outside lobbyists I don’t think changes much. That’s no different than, say, hiring HR consultancy firms to make sure a department is up to speed with best practices. In this case, best practices are rhetoric, research, and relations.