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Facilitators in Government Relations advocate for MSU and higher education

Liam Boylan-Pett

Three-time MSU alumna Kathy Wilbur is Senior Vice President for Government Relations at MSU. Katie John is Associate VP for State Relations and an MSU alumna, too.

“We are advocates for the university,” says Wilbur. “We have a federal operation in Washington DC. Those two or three people work with Congress and the administration and the various departments and agencies. In Michigan, Katie and I work the state legislature. That's where we receive our largest sum of money on an annual basis for operational dollars to run the university. But it's not just budgetary. We respond and react to legislation that's introduced that could impact anybody on this campus. There are a lot of interesting voices that we have to make sure we hear from.

“We are very engaged in our local community, too. We have a community representative who works with the cities of Lansing and East Lansing and Meridian Township, the Lansing Regional Chamber, and groups like LEAP (Lansing Economic Area Partnership) and CAPCOG (Capital Area Council of Governments). Then we have our Spartan Advocate Program, which really has been a very significant grassroots effort to allow us to have other people advocate with us. People know what Katie is going to say when they see her darken their door. They know what I'm going to say. They know what Sarah's going to say in Washington DC. It can be more impactful if you have an advocate who is calling or writing in from Roscommon, Michigan, for example, who understands the value of other voices being heard to legislators and policymakers about the impact MSU has on the entire state. That's a very key effort led by Jeremy Reuter. He's doing a great job. We have about 3,000 advocates, but we're always trying to grow that number.”

Kathy Wilbur
Kathy Wilbur

Government Relations isn’t the most visible office at the university,” adds John. “Sometimes people don't know we exist. Or if they do, they're maybe a little confused about what we do. We are indeed advocates for the overall mission of the university, but we also can help facilitate relationships. If you need help finding the proper contact at MDOT, chances are someone in our office will have a contact who can help put you in touch with the right person or help facilitate a meeting. A lot of our job focuses on relationships and trying to have a network that is beneficial to the university.”

“To Katie's point, I don't want people to think that's just true at MSU that many people don't necessarily think of government relations or know we exist,” continues Wilbur. “I worked with Katie while she was at Western. I was at Central Michigan for close to 16 years. It’s the very same attitude there. It's not the people’s business to wake up and think about government relations or about who we have a relationship with or where we get our money from. We understand that, but we can be very useful to people. Katie's absolutely right. We are facilitators and advocates. We want people to know that. Take advantage of us.”

Wilbur and John recap the current state of the budget and state support and say it was “a great year.” They talk about the establishment of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship Program.

“This was a huge bipartisan effort,” John says. “Both the governor and the legislature really came together to negotiate a huge lift for students. It's $250 million for the graduating class of '23. They will be eligible, depending on their family contribution, for up to $5,500 per student to further their higher education career. It’s nice to see that even in these strenuous political times when elections are taking place across our state, that still in Lansing they can get the work done when they put their heads together. We were really pleased.”

“It’s a big lift because it really makes a different statement,” adds Wilbur. “This really is a very significant statement. We hope it continues, but we're working with a term-limited legislature. Many of the folks who voted for this are leaving as of December 31. We hope we can continue the advocacy and convince folks of the validity and the importance of programs like this.”

Katie John
Katie John

Wilbur and John talk about redistricting and the coming election and how it might impact MSU. And they describe the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research’s Legislative Leadership Program (LLP) that invites new members of Michigan’s House of Representatives and Michigan Senate to engage in interactive small-group sessions with university faculty in the brief time between election and their first legislative sessions.

“Coming to work at an institution like MSU every day, you see how it impacts people's lives,” continues John. “It's easy to advocate for an institution like that. But frankly sometimes, I think especially downtown in Lansing, we have an uphill battle. I don't think that everyone fully understands higher ed and its impact. They may draw conclusions or have assumptions that aren't 100 percent accurate. We have an opportunity with a large incoming class of legislators to really demonstrate that value and to dispute some of those myths that are out there about higher ed.”

“What we're experiencing, not just in Michigan but across the country, is more of a questioning of the value of higher education in general,” adds Wilbur. “Katie talks about it with our legislators, which is true. We have many legislators who have not themselves attended college. They're saying, ‘Look, I got myself elected to the Michigan State Senate and didn't need a degree to do this.’ And they don't. They are hearing that from some of their constituents as well. ‘Boy, a college education is expensive. What's the real value for my kids Susie or Harry? Why are we doing this?’ That is a question higher ed has to ask itself.

“That is something that we really have to try to answer and respond to and have great examples. There are no better advocates than our own students who come in with varied backgrounds who can walk into Legislator X's office and say, ‘This is why I went to school. This is what I am finding of such value. By the way, I have a job all lined up. I don't graduate for another nine months, but I'm set.’ It's those kinds of cases that we have to be always aware of and making.”

“Again, we always encourage people to reach out,” adds John. “We are there to help. We're always happy to hear from faculty, staff, and students. If you have an issue or think we could assist, please reach out.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.