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Engage! Options for Advocacy for Student Affairs Professionals

October 26, 2017 Teri Lyn Hinds NASPA

“Now more than ever, student affairs professionals at all levels of experience need to be thoughtfully engaged in a range of policy issues that have profound implications for who can benefit from higher education. Indeed, there is considerable anxiety on our campuses related to protections for individual identity, international and undocumented students, mental and emotional health, and collective affordability.” – Dr. Lawrence P. Ward, Chair, NASPA Public Policy Division

No matter your position, title, or area of expertise, as a student affairs professional there are a myriad of ways you can – and should – engage in public policy conversations for the benefit of you, your students, and your institution. While advocacy in public policy can seem like a tricky topic, this post will lay out some key terms and specific examples of how both individuals and institutions can engage in advocacy. In future posts throughout November, we’ll focus on some specific issues to provide examples and resources you can use to learn more and further your reach.

Lobbying vs. advocacy

To help clarify what we’re talking about we’ll start with defining a few key terms. Lobbying is taking a specific stand and/or advocating for specific action on a specific piece of legislation. Non-profit institutions, both public and private, are responsible for knowing the laws and requirements for tracking time and activity around lobbying as they pertain to their non-profit status. For the most part, you can probably assume that someone in your campus administration – either a member of your senior leadership team or staff dedicated to government affairs – will be responsible for making sure your institution stays within its legal bounds. Most, if not all, campuses engage in some lobbying activity, but because that activity is considered representative of your institution as a whole, it is best to make sure you work in conjunction with your campus leadership if you want to engage in formal lobbying activities as part of your official job responsibilities. Knowing what counts as lobbying, though, will help make sure that you do not inadvertently engage in lobbying activities that could be out of step with positions your institution has officially taken.

Subtly different from lobbying, advocacy is taking a specific stand on a specific issue without mentioning specific policy or legislation. Because the difference is subtle, the lines can get blurry, especially because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. For examples, grassroots advocacy can be lobbying if it targets specific legislation or includes a call to action, such as directions to contact an elected official. Advocacy takes many forms, including policy analysis, which is providing explanation, context, and education around specific issues or legislation without advocating a stance or action. Generally, most of the work you will engage with professionally will be advocacy or analysis and education on issues. If you do engage in lobbying as part of your official duties in your job, you should be in touch with your campus government or public affairs offices so they can make sure that you are consistent with their messaging.

Types of advocacy on campus

Just like there are different activities you can engage in, there are different levels at which you might engage. Your institution might take positions or stances on issues or proposed legislation, or you as faculty and staff might work internally to advocate for specific institutional policies or stances. To help you think through the different ways advocacy happens, we will describe advocacy at a few different levels: institutional advocacy; faculty and staff advocacy on campus; personal advocacy; and supporting student advocacy and civic engagement.

Institutional advocacy

Institutional advocacy consists of official positions your institution takes and generally involves strategic deliberation among campus senior leadership and government affairs staff. Outreach by campus government affairs staff to legislative staff or representatives and public statements of support for particular legislation are examples of institutional advocacy that may constitute lobbying. Similarly, signing on to letters sent to legislators from a community of institutions, such as the community letter circulated last week by ACE to advocate for legislation to protect undocumented immigrants that arrived as children, may be lobbying even though a specific piece of legislation is not mentioned. Institutions also engage in non-lobbying advocacy through their internal policies and procedures, including policies around campus conduct, freedom of speech, and campus facilities and housing. Intentional review of campus policies with specific focus on unintentional barriers for some groups of students, e.g., the University of Southern California Center for Urban Education’s Equity Scorecard, and communication about campus policies and procedures send clear messages about the values and positions of institutions.

Faculty and staff advocacy on campus

In the same way that institutional policies send messages, staff and faculty actions both on- and off-campus can be forms of advocacy. Individual staff and faculty serving on campus committees may have opportunities to influence policy review or development that would remove barriers or provide protections for historically marginalized populations, for example. Creation of safe and brave spaces on campus for groups of students to meet, sponsoring student groups, and including information on current policy conversations effecting campus members are also advocacy. Student affairs professionals may also be in unique positions to connect with community organizations, e.g., food banks, childcare centers, public transportation and carpooling, or advocacy organizations, to provide services and resources for students.

Faculty and staff personal advocacy

Anyone can personally engage in activity around specific legislation; it is not considered lobbying when done by an individual, but it is when done on behalf of a group or organization. Student affairs professionals can use their expertise working on campus and use institutionally based examples to add credibility to their personal advocacy with elected officials. When engaging in personal advocacy, you should be clear that you are not speaking as a representative of your employer or institution, either by including a statement if you're speaking or writing or adding a disclaimer in social media profiles. We cover a few other cautions about engaging in personal advocacy as a campus employee in our NASPActs Policy Basics: Your Role in Our Representative Democracy post from last spring.

Supporting student advocacy and civic engagement

Just as student affairs professionals can establish connections with community organizations to provide services and resources, they can also reach out to organizations with campus-based programs to support student advocacy and civic engagement. For example, Young Invincibles, Student Veterans of America, United We Dream, and the Southern Poverty Law Center all offer options for on-campus programs to help students engage in advocacy around issues. Promoting voter registration through programs like Campus Vote Project is a common way for institutions to support student civic engagement. NASPA members who are interested in more resources for promoting civic learning and democratic engagement should follow the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Knowledge Community and the NASPA Lead Initiative on CLDE and consider attending the annual CLDE Meeting in June 2018 in Anaheim, California.

During November, we will address how each type of advocacy might look with a couple of example issues that we are tracking under the Public Policy Agenda: immigration policy for undocumented individuals and trans student protections. We will provide a brief background on the policy conversation for those who may not already know it and then talk through options for advocacy on each issue.