How Berkeley is finding its voice in Sacramento

On Jan. 8, the day Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced his latest budget proposal, he simultaneously declared a fiscal emergency for the state of California. The response from the Legislature is expected to be a short-term fix that will include a combination of complex solutions, including cuts, delayed expenditures, and changes to the tax structure.

UC Berkeley, meanwhile, is responding to its state-induced fiscal emergency with a coordinated budget-advocacy effort, led by the Office of Government and Community Relations and involving stakeholders across — and beyond — the campus.

“Even if the university avoids mid-year cuts, as seems likely, we may become increasingly vulnerable in the 2010-11 deliberations,” says Kieran Flaherty, Berkeley’s director of state-government relations.

As many who follow the budget cycle can attest, this is when it gets interesting. But for the government-relations staff, January didn’t mark the beginning; it was more like the midway point.

“As soon as the ink was dry on the 2009-10 budget, we were back in the district offices of our target legislators with campus delegations that included students, staff, faculty, alumni and administrators,” says Chris Treadway, the office’s executive director. “Those visits represent only a fraction of the interaction we have with members throughout the year, but they are meaningful because we draw from a broad range of perspectives to deliver the message of the ‘value’ of the university.”

That diversity of perspectives helps make Berkeley what it is. But it also complicates the university’s task of speaking to legislators in a clear, unified voice. That’s why, since the beginning of the spring semester, Treadway’s team has been gathering stakeholders together to find the focus and consistency needed to make Berkeley’s budget-advocacy activities as effective as possible.

“We clearly have a lot of people in the campus community who care deeply about the university’s future,” she says. “We felt it was important to bring these people together to think about how to coordinate our efforts.”

The effort is paying off. “Some great ideas have come out of having us all in the room talking to one another,” says Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor for public affairs.

“I am involved with this group for three reasons: advocacy, communication, and engagement,” explains Catherine Cole, a professor of theater, dance, and performance studies. “As a campus community, we need to do a better job on all three fronts in order to be successful with the larger goal of convincing California to reinvest in public education.”

During weekly lunch-hour meetings, envoys from the offices of government relations, public affairs, and budget meet with faculty, staff, and students to brainstorm and share information. And while the constituencies of each of these groups aren’t aligned on every issue, they have been able to find some common ground. All are committed to saving public universities and putting pressure on Sacramento to stem the state’s long-term disinvestment in higher education.

The gathering also expands once a month to include external groups like the Berkeley Foundation, Cal Parents, and the California Alumni Association. “We value all of these groups as partners,” Treadway explains. “The more voices we have in Sacramento, the stronger our message will be.”

Responding to a desire for better education about the issues, the group came up with a “road show” in which staff from Public Affairs, the campus budget office, and government relations offer their version of Budget Advocacy 101 to various campus groups. The presentation gives an overview of the budget process with both the political context as well as some messaging ideas. They’ve already taken it to the Deans and Chairs Retreat, the Cal Parents Board, and the Student Advisory Councils on Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, and have more forums scheduled with students, faculty and staff.

Members of the working group and representatives from each of their constituencies are also scheduled to begin tabling on Sproul Plaza in early March. “I think it sends a powerful message to Sacramento that we can have students, faculty, staff and administrators sitting together at a table on Sproul Plaza advocating for support of the university,” Treadway says.

She acknowledges that students, faculty, staff, alumni, and administrators are never going to agree on every point. Still, she says, “it’s critical that we find areas of common ground, and work together on the key components of our advocacy strategy.”

One action the group will be recommending to passersby is to check out the California Alumni Association’s Cal Advocacy website. A toolkit available at the site provides links to key messages, help with connecting to elected representatives, details about upcoming events, and a signup to receive alerts whenever there’s a need to get messages to Sacramento.

“We’re not here to dictate exactly what people should be doing, but we can give some recommendations about who the key members of the Legislature are, and when the important advocacy days are,” Treadway says. “Then we hope they’ll craft their own messages of why funding public higher education matters. The more personal the message, the more effective it will be.”

To learn more about Berkeley’s budget-advocacy efforts and how you can get involved, visit the Cal Advocacy website.