When Congress considered how to spend the 2008 defense budget, RIT didn’t leave matters to chance. Disclosures filed with the Senate show the institute paid The National Group $140,000 to lobby Congress on the defense bill and five other budget bills over a six-month period in 2007. When the bill reached the floor for a final vote, it contained, among hundreds of earmarks, $2 million for the “Defense Modernization and Sustainment Initiative, Rochester Institute of Technology.”
The National Group claims they have won RIT $60 million over 15 years. In return, $280,000, a little over half of RIT’s $440,000 lobbying budget for 2008, was paid to the group.
Like most other schools, RIT depends on millions of dollars from federal and state budgets delivered by appropriations bills. Relationships with the elected officials who control these appropriations can be, almost literally, currency for RIT, so the institute develops them. Through tailored communications, campus visits, private lobbyists and independent associations, RIT builds connections to lawmakers.
Tax laws, RIT’s charter and institute policy are very clear: RIT itself cannot play politics. But there’s a loophole: elected officials are also politicians, and RIT representatives are also private citizens. Relationships sometimes extend beyond official business.
People acting on behalf of RIT are prohibited from donating to candidates, but the same people may donate when acting as individual. A political action committee funded by institute trustees has donated heavily to candidates this year, and key representatives for the institute have been donating for much longer.
The laws and lawmakers that RIT seeks to influence are pursued through two tracks, according to Deborah Stendardi, vice president for Government and Community Relations. The first track is primarily through membership in the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) and a similar New York State commission. The NAICU is comprised of schools that advocate for more student aid, tax policies that encourage college attendance and a regime of regulations that favor their purpose. RIT works with the NAICU to shape, and then advocate on behalf of, policy agendas that benefit independent colleges and universities.
The second track is primarily through RIT representatives and private lobbyists. The focus, Stendardi says, has been on money for buildings and research. The National Group is part of that track. In addition to The National Group, filings show that RIT paid a separate law firm a little over $71,000 in 2008 to lobby in New York state.
President William Destler and Stendardi are also registered as state-level lobbyists. Nabil Nasr, assistant provost and director of the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies and the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS), is as well.
When building relationships with lawmakers, Stendardi starts by informing them of how many RIT employees and students are from their districts. She arranges visits by lawmakers and works to convince them of the institute’s worth. “I bring them to campus,” Stendardi said. “[I] have them meet key people, have them see our facilities, have our researchers talk to them about some of the work that they are doing, and most importantly, I think, if they get us some funding for a particular project, [we] let them know what we did with the funds.”
The institute tries to identify where national or state goals match institute initiatives and lawmaker interests. On bioscience, sustainability, nano-power and homeland security, and especially on economic development and jobs, the forces have aligned. The result: millions for RIT programs and a door to further opportunities.
“When we seek these federal appropriations, what we’re really hoping to do is to build a long-term relationship with some of these federal agencies,” said Stendardi. “We don’t look to these appropriations as ‘Give us the funds, and we’ll do this work, and thank you very much.’”
Defense modernization is a long-term project at RIT funded in part by the Office of Naval Research, one of the agencies Stendardi says RIT has built a relationship with. The project seeks to use advanced techniques and sensors on military equipment to prolong usable life.
The most visible recent success has been GIS, the sustainability institute that Nasr directs.
RIT received $10 million from Paychex founder B. Thomas Golisano to start. Based in part on an economic impact study that said the center might create 6,000 local jobs, RIT persuaded New York state lawmakers to secure an additional $12 million in aid. Then the institute won a competitive federal competition, which Stendardi said was not lobbied on, for $13 million more.
Contributing to Candidates
The “Institute Policies and Procedure Manual” says in part, “RIT will not, and no affiliate acting directly or indirectly on behalf of RIT will, participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” It cites federal law for tax-exempt education organizations and RIT’s Charter, both of which prohibit political activity, as reasons why.
Representatives of the institute, however, are free to get political when not acting for the institute. The policy directs anyone with questions to contact Stendardi’s office.
The Technology Research and Innovation PAC (TRIPAC), a political action committee, began operating in January of this year, federal election disclosures show. By October, the committee had received $11,500 in private contributions solely from members of the institute’s Board of Trustees. At least 12 members of the board have contributed including Destler, who donated $1,000 in March.
“That was set up by individuals who are interested in higher education in general,” Stendardi said. “They are interested in economic development and supporting higher education in general. They did not do that as trustees. They did that as individuals.”
TRIPAC has since funded a number of candidates. One donation for $1,000 went to Rep. Louise Slaughter, longtime democratic representative for New York’s 28th district, and another $1,000 went to Tom Reed, republican candidate for congress in New York’s 29th district.
Stendardi has been privately donating to candidates for years. In 2007 alone she donated more than $12,000, state and federal records show. The recipients of her donations run the gamut from District Attorney Mike Green to Slaughter; from the Monroe County Democratic Committee to the Monroe County Republican Committee. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you really become friends with individuals, and you want to support the people that you believe in,” said Stendardi.
When Slaughter received the RIT presidential medallion earlier this quarter, she called Stendardi a mentor. Stendardi later told Slaughter that, if anything, it has been the other way around.
Stendardi says that it’s a credit to RIT that the institute receives as much lawmaker attention as it does. “Our legislators receive a vast number of requests, and the fact that they often will choose RIT as a priority speaks to the value and importance of the research and programs that we have here,” she said. “We all should take great pride in this kind of recognition.”