- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

With one child at the University of Maryland at College Park and one having already graduated, Charles and Diane Treat were dismayed to learn the system's flagship campus might suffer major cuts in next year's state budget.
So when the two spotted Delegate-elect Luiz Simmons coming out of a Rockville diner last month, they buttonholed him, saying they feared a tuition increase and a dip in academic quality if the university was shortchanged in Annapolis.
"He hadn't even been sworn in yet. We got to him early," Mr. Treat said. "I don't think he expected to get hit up on an issue outside the diner."
The Treats' impromptu pitch was their part of a campaign by Maryland's public universities to train students, parents, faculty and alumni in the basics of lobbying. School leaders hope by putting a face on higher education, they can persuade the General Assembly not to make deep cuts in funding.
With most states facing huge budget shortfalls, other public university systems are also mobilizing their campus networks for similar grass-roots efforts.
"Institutions often feel students, parents and graduates are their best lobbyists," said Cheryl Fields of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.
The 11 campuses that make up the University System of Maryland already have been affected by budget cuts, with many leaving positions unfilled and freezing expenses to avoid layoffs.
But with a $1.3 billion state budget-deficit forecast for the coming fiscal year, schools say they may be forced to make cuts to some academic programs. The system warned last week that a 5 percent tuition increase may be imposed for the spring semester.
The university system was unable to prevent its budget from being slashed during the recession of the early 1990s. This year's higher education budget has yet to be released, but now the system developed a pre-emptive plan to ward off large cuts.
Spearheaded by the College Park campus, the "Maintain the Momentum" campaign urges anyone with university connections to contact their legislators. The school sent out 7,500 letters to alumni, faculty and others urging them to do their part.
The momentum, College Park officials said at a recent training seminar for budding lobbyists, is the college's gradual climb into the top tier of public universities.
The university has fought to boost its academic image in recent years. Admissions standards have been raised and the university has lured high-profile faculty members and research dollars. The grade-point averages of incoming freshmen have steadily risen, along with the school's ranking in U.S. News & World Report's annual survey.
About 500 people have signed up to take part, and 15 showed up for the recent seminar at the university's visitor center, one of several training sessions. Another is scheduled for Wednesday.
Each person receives a packet with a fact sheet on their delegates and state senator, background on the school, and a sample script to use in a meeting with a lawmaker. The information includes tips on where to park in Annapolis and a reminder to send a thank-you letter.
Glenn Brown plans to talk to his Anne Arundel County legislators about the impact cuts would have on his work at the College of Engineering's instructional television unit. He is not worried about his job, but predicts he wil lose the student workers who are a valuable part of his staff.
"When the cuts start coming, student employees are always the first to go," he said.
The University of North Carolina system, with 16 public campuses including the main one at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, says its three-year program has had some success.
The system put together an "Advocacy Notebook" this year that includes its budget requests, funding priorities and tips on how to approach lawmakers.
"We have definitely seen an impact," said J.B. Milliken, vice president for public affairs and university advancement. "In the last session, higher education fared better than it might have otherwise because of North Carolinians communicating with legislators."
Still, giving lobbying the old college try may go only so far when faced with the reality of budget crises. Some lawmakers say they want to help, but probably can't do much to prevent budget cuts.


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