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Duke's lobbying efforts in Washington, Raleigh adapt to COVID-19

Responding to new legislation, regulations and initiatives is nothing new for Duke’s government relations team, but COVID-19 has thrown a curveball, impacting the government, the University and American society in unprecedented ways. How has the team adapted?

At both the national and state level, they have continued to prioritize the policies that are most impactful for the University and its members.

“We're continuing to advocate...where we have interest. Student aid, research, immigration policy, tax policy, but in a different way, different things within those bodies of those issues because of COVID,” said Chris Simmons, associate vice president for the Office of Government Relations. 

This occurs in a variety of ways, including online lobbying, virtual coalition meetings and on-campus interactions, Simmons said. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered both how they lobby and what they lobby for.

Although Duke’s government relations team has always lobbied for increased student aid and research funding, the coronavirus has led them to ask for more aid, loan relief and research funding to help mitigate the impact on students and faculty, Simmons said. He mentioned Duke’s interest in the Research Investment to Spark the Economy Act, a bill that would distribute $26 billion in research funding.

“If COVID wasn't happening, we'd still be pushing… but it would be the traditional [way],” Simmons said. 

Another important issue taken up by the government relations team in Washington, was U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy on international students. 

ICE initially barred all international students on F1 educational visas taking only online classes from entering or remaining in the United States. The agency rescinded the policy, though it continued to apply the restrictions to newly enrolled international students

“Immigration has always been really important to us and it's something that I spend a ton of time on,” Simmons said. “But it’s been especially difficult for international students this year… from the administration putting up roadblocks to basic things.” 

He mentioned that some consulates and embassies aren’t open, making it difficult to get a visa. 

“International issues and international student issues are a gigantic issue that we’re going to continue to push, no matter what,” Simmons emphasized. 

Despites its lobbying efforts, Duke did not accept $6.7 million in CARES Act funding for student relief in May. Several factors went in the decision, including “legal and regulatory problems” with taking the money, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, at the time. 

Students Get Involved

According to Simmons, Duke students were heavily involved in advocating to overturn the ICE ruling on international students.

“I really believe the reason we were successful was because of such an outstanding student engagement… cooperation across the board with students, faculty and administration,” Simmons said. 

Two of the students most involved in this process were junior Shrey Majmudar, Duke Student Government vice president for academic affairs, and senior Tanisha Nalavadi, DSG director for international policy. 

After the initial ICE ruling, “we pretty much immediately reached out to a couple of key University stakeholders on campus to start… looking into ‘What can we do about these ICE regulations?’ and ‘How can we support our international community?” Majmudar said.

Majmudar reached out to Simmons, and was put in contact with other administrators concerned about the ruling. Both he and Nalavadi emphasized how helpful Simmons and other administrators involved were in working with students on this issue. 

“It's very clear to see that they do have student concerns at the forefront of their lobbying agenda,” Majmudar said. 

Nalavadi, herself an international student, recalled a conversation with Duke Government Relations and administration in which they asked her how the University could implement policies to better support international students. Majmudar said that the administration and the government relations team allowed them to pitch ideas as to how to enable international students to enter the country.

“[Simmons] himself realized that these policies, should they go through, would be a significant detriment to all of our students,” Majmudar recalled.

Majmudar, Nalavadi, and Simmons each emphasized the importance of each others’ roles during this process. 

“Quite frankly, students that are advocating and engaged and telling their story can be very, very persuasive and somewhat more persuasive than I could ever be when talking to legislators,” Simmons said. 

Lobbying in Raleigh

Duke’s lobbying efforts also extend to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. Doug Heron, associate vice president for state relations, represents both Duke and its health system in Raleigh. 

“Comparing us to the UNC system… there’s kind of little that legislature can do to directly affect private Universities,” he said. Nevertheless, the state legislature still plays an important role in Duke policy. 

According to Heron, the Duke’s government relations team in Raleigh mainly focused on appropriations and financial relief for the University and the health system in March and April during the first outbreak of COVID-19. On the policy side, they focused on enabling the University and its health systems to continue function during the initial outbreak. 

Similar to the government relations team in Washington, the state government relations team is continuing to prioritize old issues in new ways. For example, Heron had been working on Medicaid expansion in 2019. With COVID-19, however, it was put at the forefront of their agenda. 

Despite the various challenges of lobbying online during a pandemic, Heron said he believes 2020 was a relatively successful year for the government relations team. 

“I think that’s probably more attributable to the fact that the state legislature recognized the crisis we're facing and was looking to help us,” Heron said. 

He stressed the importance of coalitions between the state government and Duke, as well as between Duke and other peer institutions in enabling the University to achieve many of its goals this year. 

One major difference between working at the state level, as opposed to the national level, is that North Carolina’s state legislature is constitutionally required to maintain a balanced budget, Heron said. They have an incentive to use the money they receive in the appropriate fashion, he said, without deadlines as in Washington. 

“We don’t have as much gridlock as [Washington] has,” Heron said. 

On the other hand, Simmons emphasized that lobbying in Washington has gotten much harder. 

“Members of Congress have three things on their minds right now,” he said, mentioning the upcoming presidential election, Supreme Court nomination hearings and COVID-19. 

Both Simmons and Heron noted that much of what they accomplish for the rest of the year and into 2021 will depend on the results of the elections in November. 

Regardless, Heron believes that Duke should advocate for itself more in order to get legislation through.

“Duke really has stepped up on the COVID response, both University-wise and in the health system. We've been a good partner to the state,” Heron said.

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