Helpful summer homework: Are you ready for Congressional reckoning?

Policymakers' increasing scrutiny has transformed the role of large universities’ federal relations teams and required even the smallest of schools to prepare for congressional scrutiny.
Natalie Farr Harrison & Kent Holland
Natalie Farr Harrison & Kent Hollandhttps://teamavoq.com/
Natalie Farr Harrison is a senior vice president at Avoq, an audience engagement and branding firm. Backed by 15 years of experience working in the U.S. House, Senate and executive branch, she advises clients on a range of Capitol Hill policy campaigns. Kent Holland is a partner at Avoq, leading their higher education practice for student enrollment, crisis communications and reputation management.

Long gone are the days when colleges and universities could visit Capitol Hill and expect universal support for campus grants. Today, when higher education leaders speak with members of Congress, they’re not greeted with promises of more funding but rather a barrage of pointed questions about antisemitism on campus, their endowments, DEI policies and more.

In short, what happens on campus shapes Congress. This shift has transformed the role of large universities’ federal relations teams and required even the smallest of schools to prepare for congressional scrutiny. In an era where a handful of social media posts can lead to a Capitol Hill hearing, developing a plan before a crisis is critical.

With Republicans poised to take control of the Senate in November and a handful of Democrats growing more skeptical of higher education, there’s no reason to expect Congress to wholeheartedly embrace colleges and universities in the coming months and years. Instead, college presidents and their staffs should use the next few months to develop a strategy for responding to five key issues:

Combatting antisemitism

With last school year marked by pro-Palestinian protests and recent polling showing Jewish students feel unsafe on campus, Republicans at the state and local level now have a laser focus on antisemitism. University leaders will want to be prepared to explain—in detail—how they’re protecting Jewish students and preventing antisemitic harassment on their campuses.

Shifting federal fiscal policies

Members of Congress are increasingly interested in how universities fund their endowments and what those funds are used for. Congress already created an excise tax on certain endowments in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  The current environment will only spark further conversation on taxing these funds. Simultaneously, House Republicans have promised to closely analyze federal funding for universities following this spring’s protests. This combination of factors creates a uniquely difficult environment for higher education institutions seeking federal funding.


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Mitigating Chinese influence

One of the few areas of agreement on Capitol Hill over the past few years is that China’s growing dominance poses a threat to the U.S. Now, a bipartisan set of policymakers have turned their focus to colleges and universities that partner with China, as reports of the nation running covert influence campaigns on campus grow more common.

More than 200 schools had a collective 2,900 contracts with Chinese businesses—worth $2.32 billion — between 2012 and 2024, according to the Wall Street Journal. Expect Congress to call for more information about these deals because of concerns about national security and IP theft.

Managing DEI

Many Republicans argue that DEI programs are ineffective at best and actively harmful at worst, leading to more divisiveness and rising antisemitism on campus. Higher education administrators should be ready to discuss their programs—and face tough questions about them.

Promoting free speech

Protecting free speech on campus is a perennial topic of concern for Republicans, but Democrats now, too, are growing uneasy about campus climates that discourage open debate. As with several issues on this list, the recent protests have reenergized these conversations, meaning college representatives must have answers prepared about their efforts.

With students home for the summer, campus leaders should use the time to develop a holistic strategy for managing their reputation on Capitol Hill. Just as students who study for finals do better, so too do higher education leaders who have a plan for the congressional attention that will soon be coming their way.

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