By Rita Keresztesi
University of Oklahoma
While I travel to Washington, D.C. with some frequency, mostly for conferences or as tourist or to visit family, I have never been on Capitol Hill with business to do. When I read the call for applications for the African Studies Association Advocacy Award for 2019, I decided to apply. I am passionate about the causes ASA noted in their letter to encourage members to apply for the advocacy travel grant, such as international education, the humanities, and social science. I live and work in a congressional district represented by members of the House or Senate that sit on key committees involved in decision-making for federal funding for education. I am faculty member at the University of Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District is represented by U.S. Representative Tom Cole and U.S. Senator James Lankford, both of whom sit on committees on education and appropriations. I excited when selected by ASA to attend the Consortium of Social Science Association (COSSA) meeting and advocacy day, April 30-May 1, 2019.
COSSA is a nonprofit advocacy organization defines its goals as working to promote sustainable federal funding for and widespread use of social and behavioral science research and federal policies that positively impact the conduct of research. The consortium serves as a united voice for a broad and diverse network of organizations, institutions, communities, and stakeholders who care about a successful and vibrant social science research enterprise. COSSA membership includes professional and disciplinary associations (such as the African Studies Association), scientific societies, research centers, and institutes, and U.S. colleges and universities.
My involvement with international education and African and African Diaspora Studies have defined my professional and personal life for over twenty years. At my institution, the University of Oklahoma, I have led education abroad summer classes to Italy, France, Tanzania and Zanzibar. I have seen what impact international education can have on students, especially in Oklahoma where many students would not travel beyond the state or abroad on their own. I have also benefited, I was a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso during the academic year 2010-2011. Spending a year in West Africa as a Fulbright Scholar had a powerful impact on me and my career. I developed new courses and research projects. Now I teach the only Sub-Saharan film course on campus, and perhaps in the state, with an enthusiastic cadre of students each year. Upon graduation, students often go on to serve in the Peace Corps and move on to careers inspired by their internationalized education and foreign language studies.
In preparation for the conference and advocacy day, a week before traveling to Washington, D.C., I participated in a webinar held by COSSA that gave a detailed overview of the proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget. President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate funding for International Education and Title VI programs. Looking at the numbers it was clear that education in general and international education and foreign language education are low priorities for this administration. As advocates, our task would be to bring attention to the need for funding for education, to raise the caps on federal spending. The Budget Control Act of 2011 placed caps on discretionary spending through FY 2021, both for nondefense and defense accounts. Congress provided relief to the caps (“raised the caps”) every year since 2014, which has allowed research and development agencies to see modest increases. The relief measures expire in FY 2020. As members for the Consortium of Social Science Association that is supported by member associations such as the African Studied Association, attendees for the COSSA conference, seventy-three of us, would go to Capitol Hill to visit with undecided lawmakers. The webinar stressed the importance of in-person advocacy and the need to build bridges between experts and politicians. Ideology and personal beliefs often guide politicians, besides their accountability to their constituents, in making important budget and policy decisions. Our task as academics and experts is to offer scientific evidence to inform such decisions. Politicians are also interested in concrete evidence of monies well spent, therefore reporting back stories about the impact budget items make on real people and their lives is crucial. Cultivating an ongoing relationship between experts, local communities, and politicians is one of the goals of advocacy.
Of particular interest to members of the African Studies Association, the proposals by the Trump Administration include severe cuts to the budgets of the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and the Department of Education’s Title VI programs. If enacted, the budget would eliminate all federal government funding for the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) and the affiliated twenty-five centers that support critical scholarly and educational programs in twenty-nine countries. Three of the centers are located in Africa: the West African Research Center in Senegal, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies in Algeria, and the American Research Center in Egypt.
On April 30th we embarked on our advocacy training organized by COSSA in preparation for the day on Capitol Hill on May 1st. We met at 20 F Street NW Conference Center at 1:30 p.m. for our afternoon training. The meeting brought together social scientists and other science advocates from across the country to engage with policymakers in Washington, D.C. The meeting started with dividing the delegates into advocacy groups by states. Since I was the only advocate from Oklahoma, I was paired with Dr. Yolanda Flores Niemann from the University of North Texas, Denton, TX. Because of our unfamiliarity with the lay-out and workings of Capitol Hill, each group had a leader who would be more familiar with the terrain. Our leader was Christy Talbot who is member of the American Education Research Association, on location in Washington, D.C. Our team was the smallest among the day’s delegates, neither I nor Yolanda had any prior experience with advocacy. Only half the participants of the COSSA advocacy training day had previous experience with meeting with policy makers on Capitol Hill.
The COSSA advocacy training opened with remarks by the Executive Director of the organization Wendy Naus, and Chair of the Board of directors Edward Liebow, followed by Dr. Alan Leshner’s keynote address. Dr. Leshner’s address was both informational and hands-on advice concerning how to communicate with legislators effectively. He noted the importance of open communication as opposed to overwhelming politicians with expert advice and unwinnable ideological debates. His many years of advocating on behalf of science research and education on Capitol Hill animated his lecture.
The second half of the training session consisted of gaining information on the state of social science funding and group work in preparation for our day on Capitol Hill. In our groups we identified the strengths of our team, which in our case meant that each of us brought a varied set of skills and expertise to the table: Dr. Yolanda Flores Niemann is an administrator and professor of psychology in Texas, while Christy Talbot works in government relations for educational research in Washington, D.C. I am a literature and cultural studies professor who focuses on African and African diaspora studies at the University of Oklahoma. While the shared focus was securing funding in the budget for higher education, we each had our own disciplinary specialties and interests to offer. After establishing our combined strengths, we each identified specific issues we would individually discuss with the politicians: the other two members of our group emphasized the value of science in political decisions when appropriating the national budget, I focused on the importance of internationalizing education. We also made sure that we would give the politicians a chance to communicate to the academic and science community what issues they care about and in what areas and fields they would welcome our help in sending their offices supporting research outcomes.
To conclude the advocacy training, each group prepared their talking points for the day on the Hill. One of the central points was the emphasis on the tangible outcomes and advancements within our disciplines and subfields that would have impact on and contribute to national interests, such as national security, national welfare and health, among others. We also made it a priority to hear from the representatives about issues of highest priority to them in order to emphasize that it is very likely that social and behavioral science as well as an internationalized knowledge base would contribute to the discussions. We also highlighted the possible impacts federal support to higher education and research would make to our local economy. COSSA prepared documents on a state by state break-down of federal funding. For example, Oklahoma colleges and universities receive $13.1 million dollars (one of the lowest amounts nationally) in annual federal investment to social and behavioral science research. Most of this money goes to the University of Oklahoma in Norman and the Health Science Center. While many politicians support health-related research, the support is often not extended to the social sciences, humanities or international education. Therefore, the goal of our advocacy is asking for strong support in FY 2020 for federal agencies that fund and use social and behavioral science research, funding that also includes international education and research.
On May 1st we all met in the conference center for breakfast and final schedules before meeting our legislators. COSSA used the help of Soapbox Consulting to arrange for the meetings and keep the schedules up to date. Our day had six meetings scheduled, with three lawmakers from Texas and three from Oklahoma.
Our first meeting was with the office of Senator Ted Cruz, TX. His office arranged for us to meet with Joel Heimbach, Legislative Counsel, and Ariel Gordon, Legislative Aide. Senator Cruz’s office was open to our concerns, though very vague in content about the budget. His interests are mostly focused on health issues, though we were encouraged the staffers to send research results regularly on topics that have policy and budget consequences. As the Office noted, “Senator Cruz is a leader on everything and wants to know where we all are.” We left out supporting informational materials with the staffers for future communications.
Our next stop was the office of Oklahoma Senator James Lankford. Senator Lankford’s office is an oasis of artistic photographs of Oklahoma scenery, with some photos featuring the Senator hiking. Philip Moran, Senator Lankford’s Legislative Aide met with us and emphasized the Senator’s commitment to the efficient use of federal funds. Their office is very keen on getting stories back to Washington, D.C. of the successes accomplished by federal dollars. The Office is focused on the federal nexus and the national debt when determining spending. Federal nexus is generally defined as federal action, federal funds, or needing federal approval, in other words federal involvement at the level of providing funds, in our case for higher education and research. They see a positive nexus between the NIH and healthcare. Senator Lankford’s office is most interested in national security and infrastructure improvements and sees academia capable of aiming for “moon shots” with research that would not be funded by private entities. Before we moved on to the next meeting, we were pleased to learn that Mr. Moran, a graduate of Pepperdine University, is very receptive to supporting international education. Pepperdine University has a goal that eighty to ninety per cent of their students would go study abroad before they graduate. Such internationalizing educational ambition by Pepperdine University has profoundly and positively influenced the staffer’s views.
After lunch, in one of the Senate Cafeterias which had a counter for Native American cuisine (which I happily sampled), our group met with the office of Senator John Cornyn, Texas. His Legislative Correspondent Patrick Michaels received us. He informed us that Senator Cornyn’s key interests are in health care and drug pricing, telecommunication and technology, mental health, law enforcement, and civics engagement in the schools. Since I was wearing a jacket made of African fabric, Mr. Michaels noted that he recognized its significance and message. He noted how memorable it was when he took a course at the University of Georgia on Yoruba religions.
The next stop was in the office of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, whose Legislative Correspondent Devin Barrett greeted us. Ms. Barrett is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, a connection that created a very cordial environment. It was exciting to see one of our graduates work on Capitol Hill. In our conversation we learned that Senator Inhofe is very concerned about the direct connection between commerce and NSF funding, the practical linking of research to industry. The Senator has a particular interest in Africa, he has traveled to the continent over a hundred times. He is an advocate of U.S. – Africa trade and attends the Africa Dinner every year.
In the afternoon we went to the office of Representative Michael Burgess and met with his Legislative Assistant Michael Yancey. In the office we were treated to cold Dr. Peppers, a welcome refreshment at this point of the advocacy day, and to a phone charging station, badly needed and delightfully found. By then we covered close to four miles, walking through the tunnels from office to office. Because the office was occupied, Mr. Yancey met the three of us in the hallway. Since he did not have much time for us, Dr. Niemann and Ms. Talbot reiterated our concerns with raising budget control caps, then we explained to him what social science research has to offer to concerns he raised about school safety and parents’ fears about researchers gaining undue access to student data. Mr. Yancey emphasized another concern about higher education: the high rates of student debt and how universities should share the financial burden and risks with students and their parents. He was conveying the Office’s views on “useless” small liberal arts college degrees in comparison to the benefits of for-profit schools or the excellence of the National War College Mr. Yancey currently attends. Mr. Yancey repeated his and the Representative’s concern for students to get a better education that would yield a job within six months of graduation. Before we moved to our last meeting, we congratulated Mr. Yancey on his upcoming wedding.
The final stop was a nice surprise, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma met with us in person in the company of a photographer and his Legislative Assistant Carter Cloud. Ms. Cloud is a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma, I was very pleased to see her in the Washington, D.C. office. Representative Cole’s office is a living museum to Chickasaw culture, with photographs of him in the company of tribal members, and the gifts he displays in the large beautifully decorated and curated office, such as Pendleton blankets and a peace pipe. When asked about his support for raising the caps in order to secure funding for international education and social science research, he assured us that he had it all under control and that he was a staunch supporter of education. Furthermore, when I shared with him the benefits of taking Oklahoma students abroad, to Europe and East Africa, and that I was a Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso, he noted his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in History and his Fulbright Scholarship to England to study Victorian history and culture. Before we left the office, and left our informational materials prepared by COSSA as we did at every office, Representative Cole had his professional photographer take our group picture for the record.
All is all, it was an eye-opening experience for me and my group: to actually talk with politicians about issues we care about and which are in urgent need of continued funding. Having learned how the budget approval process works and meeting with senators’ and representatives’ offices, I gained some profound insights about the process. It is clear, politicians are eager to hear from their constituents, their voters and academia. They are also very concerned with the practical outcomes of our research and the benefits locally. Our group leader Ms. Talbot reported on our day on Capitol Hill to COSSA, we were an effective and informative group that made a memorable and positive impact on all six offices, an experience I would definitely like to repeat in the future.