Road to Richmond, the College of William and Mary’s annual lobbying day at the Virginia General Assembly, took place last Tuesday, Jan. 18. This year, the College’s priorities centered on a defensive approach: to advocate against legislation that would harm the College.
In a meeting Monday evening, Secretary of the Board of Visitors Michael Fox and Student Assembly Vice President Hannah McKiernan ’17 met with students to discuss the College’s legislative priorities this session.
Fox said that one of the biggest priorities this year was to oppose legislation that would limit the amount of out-of-state students at state-funded colleges to 25 percent, instead of the 35 percent figure currently in place. According to Fox, this would be devastating to the College from an academic, financial and diversity standpoint.
The next day when students stepped off the bus in Richmond, College President Taylor Reveley characterized this policy as “catastrophic.”
Due to a budget shortfall this year, funding cuts are inevitable for higher education, but the College administration wants to avoid these cuts going above the projected 5 percent.
Despite this constraint, Fox encouraged students to lobby for increased funding in order to raise faculty salaries and to provide more need-based financial aid, for both in-state and out-of-state students.
The College administration also opposes legislation which would require schools that receive public funding to conform to a tuition-freeze decided by the General Assembly, instead of by the College’s BOV. The William and Mary Promise policy currently in place freezes Virginia students’ tuition at whatever the first-year rate is; this legislation would threaten the College’s agency in tuition rate decisions.
Finally, Fox stressed the importance of thanking Virginia legislators for the capital they approved for campus construction projects, which allowed for the renovations of Tucker Hall, Tyler Hall, and the Integrated Science Center 3, and will allow for the expansion of the Arts Complex and the construction of the ISC 4.
While there are other legislative concerns that students may be passionate about, Fox said that more partisan issues that don’t pertain directly to the College’s priorities should be avoided when speaking to legislators.
This General Assembly session is the last one before state elections in November, and Reveley said that legislators are therefore more likely to put forward legislation that makes a political statement that they might avoid in non-election years. The recent discovery of the University of Virginia’s $2.3 billion “slush fund” has also increased scrutiny of other schools that receive state funding.
The day of the lobby, Reveley spoke to students after they stepped off the bus and reasserted the College’s legislative priorities. Reveley, who is serving as the president of the council of presidents in Virginia this year, also testified on the senate finance committee that afternoon to speak about these issues. Reveley encouraged those lobbying to enjoy their time wandering around the General Assembly building and to get a sense of how law-making works.
“It’s the democratic process: the sausage-making at work,” Reveley said.
Governor Terry McAuliffe also met with the group on the Capitol steps. McAuliffe said it is important for legislators to hear directly from students and that he is incredibly proud of the investment the Commonwealth has made in higher education, including $1 billion for higher education in 2016.
“Education builds the workforce, which allows me to bring the jobs and it all comes down to students, so I think that it’s very important that they see the legislators and they say that the actions they take really impact your lives,” McAuliffe said. “And let’s make sure we have the best education system in the country. Don’t cut it. You can’t cut education. Because you’re cutting your future.”
Shannon Lewis ’20, who is from Connecticut, said she was particularly focused on the legislation that would affect out-of-state students.
“William and Mary has been incredible for me and I wanted to return the favor. As an out-of-state student, it’s especially important for me because of the new bill that is going to cut out-of-state students from 35 percent to 25 percent,” Lewis said. “It’s something that will directly have an impact on me, so I wanted to do my part to help.”
Others were drawn to Road to Richmond to observe the inner workings of the General Assembly. Katherine Jaggers ’20 and Lexi Pacheco ’20 said that they saw Road to Richmond as a learning opportunity and a chance to see if they want to pursue government work.
“I want to be a government major; I’ve always been really interested in that,” Pacheco said. “I don’t really know what I want to do career-wise, but I’ve always considered being a legislator and local government is the perfect place to start.”
Shaina Greenberg ’20 said she had some experience with lobbying, but was interested in approaching it from the College’s perspective.
“I’ve done some lobbying before, so I thought it would be cool to do it under William and Mary’s umbrella, and get some experience as an older student,” Greenberg said.
Students split up into groups walked around the General Assembly for a few hours to meet with legislators, or their legislative assistants, on key committees that dealt with the College’s legislative priorities, and leaving them with small bags of green and gold M&Ms to thank them.
McKiernan, who interned at the General Assembly her sophomore year and helped organize the event last year, said that legislators tend to be receptive to students from the College.
“I think it’s a welcome difference from what they usually see. A lot of times they tend to hear from people who are angry or people who are frustrated or people who are paid to lobby them,” McKiernan said. “And we are not, we are here because we love our school, and a lot of them know we get our money from them, and they’re really interested in hearing what we have to say.”
They then met with Senator Monty Mason ’89 and Delegate Mike Mullin, who discussed their work in the General Assembly and invited questions.
Mullin, who has a background as a criminal prosecutor, said that he hopes to prioritize legislation supporting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
On the issue of higher education, Mason and Mullin both said it was important to protect Virginia’s institutions of higher learning.
“One of the great things that Taylor [Reveley] has been so great about has been talking about an education here at the College as being not just an investment in that particular person, but an investment in the state as a whole, because when someone comes to go to school here, they stay here,” Mullin said. “So many people that go to the College of William and Mary stay on the peninsula and add to the benefits of the Virginia economy. So advocating for our colleges and universities not just as places for higher learning, but also as investments in the Commonwealth as a whole is always a good way to talk about things.”
According to Mason, one of the biggest issues in Virginia is fair redistricting, and he is working on a non-partisan redistricting referendum bill.
In addition, he hopes to encourage voter participation by promoting absentee ballot expansions and increasing reliable transportation to the polls.
“The single biggest issue for your ability to have proper representation, for the ability for you to be able to compete in competitive districts and zones, is non-partisan redistricting,” Mason said.
Mullin said that gerrymandering represented a fundamental threat to Virginia’s representative government.
“Part of the reason that people are disillusioned in their democracy and feel like they don’t have a say in their government is because you don’t have a choice in who to vote for,” Mullin said.
After hearing from Mason and Mullin, there was a reception at the Library of Virginia.
Reveley and Student Assembly President Eboni Brown ‘17 both addressed the crowd.
Reveley spoke about some of the College’s accomplishments in the recent year, focusing on its technological modernization efforts and comprehensive internationalization efforts, and the $660 million raised by the end of 2016 as part of the For the Bold campaign.
In her speech, Brown, who has participated in Road to Richmond every year since she’s been at the College, thanked legislators for the work they do to support higher education.
“We hope that you all will continue to fight for the alma mater of this nation,” Brown said.