A look at the Office of Government Relations, Northwestern's link to the world of politics.

Photos by Jessica Mordacq

In a wood-paneled room on Capitol Hill, Feinberg School of Medicine Assistant Professor Jaehyuk Choi captured the attention of several dozen elected officials. Choi was one of three clinician-scientists nominated for the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health Trailblazer Prize last October, recognized for his lab’s groundbreaking work on the identification and therapeutic treatment of autoinflammatory diseases and cancers. He spoke about his discoveries and outlined the time-consuming and often frustrating processes of applying for federal grants to make such work possible.

At the end of the presentation, he pulled up a slide of thanks — not for his research team or family, but for Congress.

It only took Choi three years to make such a breakthrough. But the foundation for his recent work was 23 years of federal funding that enabled him to enter and afford college, make his way through medical school and his residency, complete his post-doctoral training and become a junior faculty. With even a single lapse in this chain of grants, scholarships and awards, Choi says he likely would not have been able to develop potentially life-saving treatments.  

“We need this continuous funding to keep the pipeline of new investigators coming through,” Choi says. “This is impactful, there’s a high return on investment, and it really isn’t a one-time thing. Every year is an investment into this pipeline that can last 20 years from trainees to [become] fully established investigators.”  

In the same room was Caitlin Leach, director of federal relations for Northwestern. She helped Choi prepare for his presentation and hosted him in the nation’s capital. As the University representative to D.C., Leach coordinates faculty visits to inform elected officials of the work being done at Northwestern and to advocate for research funding and higher education. To Leach, Choi’s story is emblematic of why Northwestern not only works to bolster sustained federal funding for scientists, but also to help students along the path.  

“To me, this was the illustration of why it’s important for the government-university partnership to exist — for research universities to educate undergraduates all the way through to doing research at the end,” Leach says.  

Leach is part of the team that communicates between all levels of government on behalf of the University through the Northwestern Office of Government Relations. It is through this channel that the University maintains its status with the world beyond Evanston. The liaisons work both alone and with other universities to express Northwestern’s position on certain policies, keep tabs on relevant legislation and promote Northwestern as a resource for elected officials.

At each level of governance, the priorities differ. Jennifer Kunde, executive director and the liaison to the city of Chicago, oversees educational programs to ensure the University is in compliance with regulations. In Springfield, Director of State Relations Laura Farr builds relationships with state politicians and advocates on issues like student aid and higher education regulations. At the federal level, the Office coordinates with other universities to advocate on topics like research and immigration.  

“Government is very important to Northwestern,” says Bruce Layton, special assistant to the president for government relations. “It is the single largest source of research funding. The tax exemption that we enjoy underpins everything that the University does. So we have to have, for both those reasons, a good relationship with the government.”

Good Neighbor, Great University  

At the city level, Kunde coordinates with 22 colleges and universities that have a “footprint” in Chicago to promote educational programs and reforms.

The Office supports programs in K-12 education as part of Northwestern’s “Good neighbor, great University” campaign. Such programs aim to create more stable pathways into Northwestern and strengthen Chicago public education systems. Northwestern Academy supports students from Chicago public high schools applying to top-tier universities. In 2018, 160 CPS students enrolled in the Northwestern Class of 2022, and every one in the Northwestern Academy Class of 2019 graduated.  

In addition to bolstering pre-collegiate education, Northwestern serves as an incubator for talent from all over the world and convinces graduates to stay in Chicago. In 2018, 24 percent of incoming first-years were from Illinois, while 48 percent of graduates found their first job in the state.  

“We’re a magnet for talent,” Layton says. “People are our most important product.”

Defining Priorities  

In Springfield, Farr spends the legislative session meeting with elected officials, coordinating with other Illinois universities on joint initiatives and representing Northwestern. According to Farr, as many as 6,500 pieces of legislation pass through the state legislature in a single year. Much of her job entails monitoring these proposals to ensure that the University supports favorable legislation and work with lawmakers and other organizations to lobby against bills that could negatively impact Northwestern.  

“You might hear people talking broadly about some issue, and then you have to chase down that lead,” Farr says. “You have to filter information — basically to vet it — to make sure that it’s realistic so that folks up here can make good decisions about the things that we do.”  

Layton and his staff convey information about current legislation and the state of aff airs at all levels of government to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and his senior staff. They then make decisions about how to navigate legislative issues and make sure the University remains in line with regulations.  

For example, lawmakers in Illinois are currently considering bills to legalize gambling and the recreational use of cannabis in the state. But universities like Northwestern must comply with federal marijuana laws and protect student athletes who could be impacted by gambling allowances. Layton and Farr keep tabs on these bills, speaking with lawmakers about the potential dangers and working within coalitions of other Illinois universities to make sure the bills contain favorable language.  

In Springfield, Northwestern’s connections to the government extend beyond the Office of Government Relations. There are six alumni in the Illinois state legislature: two senators and four representatives from both undergraduate and graduate programs. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is an alumnus of the law school and previously served as a University trustee and member of the Board of Governors for the law school. The Northwestern Pritzker School of Law was named for his grandfather after J.B. Pritzker donated $100 million. Though Farr says Pritzker expresses no favoritism toward Northwestern in his politics, the close connection means the governor and other alumni in government posts seriously consider the University’s position on many issues.  

“I do think we have a friend in Springfield,” Farr says. “Whenever we have a benign place in the General Assembly, we have really great relationships with them, and they care about what happens on campus. I don’t know about preferential treatment, but they do care about our interests, and they do what they can to make sure we feel well-represented.”  

Though the success of Northwestern’s advocacy often depends on political realities and the availability of funding, it is important that liaisons develop strong relationships with lawmakers. The Office helps elected officials see the connection between their policy priorities and the opportunities and resources available through Northwestern. Accomplishing this goal requires the University liaisons to make sure information is shared between both parties, even if that means catching them in the hallway.  

“Some of it is kind of like stalking,” Farr says. “You’re waiting for people outside of their offices to have 10 seconds to talk with them about an issue that you care about — trying to make it memorable so that when they go into the chamber to vote, they remember that 10 second conversation you had.”  

These conversations allow Farr to speak on the University’s interests. But she also finds satisfaction in providing information from Northwestern faculty or her own research to legislators so they can better represent their constituents.

Collaborating For Change

Maintaining these relationships pays off. With each election, there are shake-ups in the representatives who hold office. Sometimes, these changes can have a substantial impact on lawmakers’ activity and the environment in the capitals. Though this has been broadly true in D.C. over the past few years, Leach maintains that the core issues remain the same.  

“Honestly, the issues that the American public care about, and the issues that Congress cares about, have a lot of similarities, regardless of the party,” Leach says. “The issues that Northwestern cares about and the values that Northwestern has don’t change.”  

During these transition periods, liaisons work to develop personal connections with new lawmakers and offer Northwestern’s faculty and students as a resource to them.

As a tax-exempt institution, Northwestern is required by law to have a designated staff to maintain its government connections. The University’s tax election requires it to operate within a $1 million cap on official lobbying activities. But while Farr and Leach are registered lobbyists, much of their work in Springfield and D.C. is not considered lobbying, but rather advocacy, the broad promotion of a cause rather than focusing on specific legislation. This allows University expenditure on lobbying to fall below the $1 million limit.  

When it comes to broad issues like student financial aid and immigration, there is only so much Northwestern can achieve by acting as an independent entity. To amplify its voice, Northwestern collaborates with other universities and organizations to share practices and collectively strategize on how to best approach certain issues.  

At the national level, the primary coalition is the Association of American Universities, a conglomerate of the 62 research universities that attract the largest amount of federal research funding. Representatives from these universities help shape higher education and science policy, and promote the role of research universities nationally.  

“We collectively work with all the other universities to increase funding for federal research agencies with the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Leach says. “If there’s more money for [the National Institutes of Health] overall, then there’s more biomedical research happening all across the country in universities like Northwestern.”  

Leach leverages these associations to propel the priorities laid out by Northwestern senior staff. In the last congressional session, she and representatives from other Illinois universities advocated for legislation that protected DACA. Though the topic of protection for child immigrants is often partisan, the coalition focused narrowly on how the bill would impact students and lobbied in support of both Republican and Democratic versions of the bill.  

Participation in large university-based associations is a less critical component of state-level advocacy. But collaborating with organizations like the Big Ten and education think tanks allows Farr to better understand certain issues and strategize how to approach them.  

“We try to find out what other universities in other states even are doing to influence what kind of policy decisions we might support at the state level,” Farr says. “There are a lot of universities within the state, and each one of them has a little bit different kind of flavor campus. There are a lot of commonalities, and we like to get together to work on those whenever we can.”

Research Funding  

In the science arena, individual researchers and institutions often compete for federal funding for their projects. But when lobbying the government at the federal and state levels, Leach says research universities band together for the common goal of supporting the entire higher education community.

Northwestern receives funding from a plethora of federal organizations; biomedical research agencies are the largest source of Northwestern’s federal funding. Researchers across the country compete for grants from government organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) and depend on these federal funds to cover the costs of operating laboratories and paying scientists’ salaries. Since only 80 to 90 percent of NIH grants written by researchers were funded last year, scientists like Choi can spend upwards of three hours a day writing grants to fund their operations in order to compete for the grants. To make it possible for such researchers to work, it is critical that science agencies maintain strong budgets.  

“I think it’s the responsibility of scientists to stay engaged politically,” Choi says. “And this means everything from supporting the funding that has made our science possible to thinking about how science affects government . . . I think of myself as having an obligation to society. In some ways, I think of myself as a public servant.”

While offering Northwestern-grown expertise to government operations increases the University’s clout, it is also the expectation for federally funded research institutions. For decades, the U.S. government has relied on the talent of university researchers, funding their work through agencies like the NIH and the NSF, rather than establishing government laboratories to conduct research in every field. In return, these experts share their findings with the government and the public so anyone can benefit from discoveries and information.  

“Part of the contract is this work advances societal answers, questions that advance all Americans. This is funded by the American taxpayer,” Leach says. “You want to get the research findings out to the community, to policymakers, to regulators, so they’re using evidence to make decisions.”  

Over the past decade, Northwestern’s annual sponsored research budget has increased by 60 percent. Just last year, Northwestern received $519.5 million in federal government awards, the largest amount in University history. This increase over the 2017-2018 fiscal year included $328.3 million from the NIH, a growth of 13 percent. This recent surge in research funding is due partially to the availability of federal dollars. But Leach also credits much of the success to the University’s ability to attract high achieving students and faculty and prioritize research internally.  

“I can’t tell you how many times I bring faculty out to have meetings and I’m just amazed at the work that’s being done … to hear about what their passion is, and learn about how that’s been fostered at Northwestern in our community,” she says.

Sharing the Good News  

Faculty members are often invited to D.C. to testify before congressional committees and share their expertise with lawmakers. The Office keeps tabs on policies up for debate, and makes the connection between campus and elected officials.  

“Generally, elected officials and policymakers have a lot on their plate ... so we need to take our message to them,” Leach says. “They wouldn’t understand what’s really happening here unless we all kind of go and share the good news.”  

Leach and Farr bring many of those talented students and faculty to the state and national capitals to share stories on projects they’re working on or recent breakthroughs they’ve made. In Springfield, Farr sometimes hosts students who share their own experiences with issues like financial aid and immigration policies to help elected officials better understand them.  

“It helps when you’re able to tell great stories, whether it’s research that’s going to save lives or students that are starting companies or giving back in different ways and becoming leaders,” Kunde says. “We have good stories to tell.”  

With constant fluctuations in federal and state budgets, representatives in office and proposed legislation, it can be challenging to keep up with the many policies that have the potential to impact Northwestern. But through the Office of Government Relations, Northwestern maintains its presence in governance at every level, serving as the necessary link between the University and the political world.  

“It’s important that we have a presence at the state level to help facilitate understanding between what we’re doing here in our own little corner of the state and what’s going on in Springfield,” Farr says. “We can provide so much information that can help make our state better, we can remind people that we exist so that they can benefit from a Northwestern education . . . we would miss out on a million opportunities if we weren’t present.”