Despite pandemic, volunteer UMN advocacy soars

The number of students, faculty, alums and others lobbying the state Legislature on behalf of the University nearly doubled last year, though most students are no longer on campus.

Samantha Hendrickson, City Reporter

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down university campuses nationwide, limiting services and programs across the system, advocacy for the University of Minnesota skyrocketed in 2020.

Compared to 2019, correspondence with lawmakers from UMN Advocates — a group composed of students, faculty, alums and others — nearly doubled. The number of new members increased by 137% and more than a third of advocates returned to lobby on behalf of the University for state funding.

These advocates support the University by asking, and sometimes testifying at the State Capitol, for financial investment from the state Legislature, said Mike Miller, University Legislative Advocacy Coordinator.

The process is not new, but Miller said this year’s approach was.

“You can present all the facts and figures. But if it doesn’t tug at their heart, they’re not gonna do anything,” Miller said. So instead of data, Miller and his team made sure to tell stories of “actual students experiencing actual consequences” of lack of University funding. This included sharing the impacts of issues like weak infrastructure, food insecurity and COVID-19.

Last October, the Legislature passed a $1.87 billion bonding bill, and $75 million of that bill went to the University of Minnesota — undercutting the school’s request by approximately $240 million. With pandemic-related shortfalls, the University’s state budget request this year is the lowest it has been in at least two decades.

While strategy and other advocates had their part to play, it is the current students that really helped drive up the numbers. “They answered the call completely,” Miller said.

Bri Sislo-Schutta, government and legislative affairs director for the Minnesota Student Association, said that MSA knew once the pandemic hit, any best-laid plans for student advocacy would no longer work.

Students, Sislo-Schutta said, needed more from the University, and therefore needed more from the Legislature.

“COVID-19 exacerbated a lot of already-existing needs on campus,” Sislo-Schutta said. “It’s created this increased engagement because we are having to really utilize a lot of services that our institutions provide for us. I think students have an even deeper reason now to kind of be engaged in that work.”

Even though they did not experience the pandemic as students, alums still remained passionate about advocacy in 2020, said Alumni Advocacy Director Adam Yust.

“Alumni are building long-term relationships with their legislators on behalf of the University to be great advocates,” he said. “They deeply care about the University, and they want their degree to mean something.”

Though he graduated from the University last spring, alum Jude Goossens, who is now working as a medical technologist, still keeps close ties to his student advocacy roots in MSA and more, and plans to do so no matter where life takes him.

“I have fond memories of the University, and will always speak highly of it and the need for its role in the state,” Goosens said. “Whether in a coffee shop in California, or the state Capitol in Minnesota … I will definitely be supportive of the University.”

At the end of the day, Sislo-Schutta said the advocacy work is not so much about a campus or a system, but about the students themselves.

“I’m an advocate for the University, but from a student’s perspective,” Sislo-Schutta said. “I will always put student interests above everything else.”