Capitol Idea

Capitol Idea

By Dennis McCarthy

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens’s ­description of the cultural climate of London and Paris leading up to the French Revolution sounds eerily prescient. If the words weren’t so familiar, one could well believe that the author was referring to our own times.

This is a tale of two cities—Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee—and the two associate vice-presidents who represent the University of Tennessee in this season of darkness and light.

Anthony Haynes is the director of state relations and heads UT’s Nashville office. Kurt Schlieter is director of federal relations and heads UT’s Washington office. In these times of tight budgets and uncertain politics, both at home and across the nation, Haynes and Schlieter are the university’s liaisons with the state and federal governments.

Haynes graduated from UT Martin in 1988 and earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Memphis in 1990. He has been working in and around government for more than two decades. Before returning to Tennessee in 2002, Haynes worked 11 years in D.C. During that time he served as a conservation lobbyist, a congressional liaison for two secretaries of agriculture, and the deputy administrator of a federal agency. While in Washington, he also served two terms as president of the local UT alumni chapter. His Nashville office—which he shares with Connie Cantrell, his executive assistant and fellow UT Martin alumna—is across the street from Legislative Plaza and a block from the state capitol.

Schlieter graduated from the University of New Mexico and came to Washington in 1993. Apart from a 2-year stint in the legislative arena in Nashville, he has been in Washington ever since, working primarily as a congressional staffer, most recently for Representative Zach Wamp. He shares an office only 3 blocks from the Capitol Building.

Alumnus recently had the opportunity to talk with Haynes and Schlieter.

Alumnus: How would you describe the work of government relations, and why is it important for an institution like UT?

Haynes: Good government relations is a must for any public organization. We work closely with the governor and state government, our legislature, and agency officials. Kurt similarly works with the Tennessee delegation in Washington and with the federal agencies. Our proximity to the legislature allows us to be responsive to legislators’ needs, to be more service oriented. This helps, not only in securing funding but also in creating goodwill and trust, which are mandatory for maintaining good relationships with the legislature and government agencies.

Hank Dye, UT’s vice-president for public and government relations, is the third member of UT’s government relations operation. Kurt and I report to Hank. He works in Knoxville and is our link to UT’s president and key staff. He provides us counsel and commitment, he listens to the intelligence we bring back from Nashville and Washington, and he helps us formulate strategy that will enable the university to work toward the goals that the president and Board of Trustees have established.

Alumnus: What is a typical day for you like?

Haynes: I’m the go-to guy for the university in Nashville. When the legislature is in session, I’m constantly talking with legislators and staff about various issues affecting UT and the state. I try to provide the best advice and counsel on different issues that come along, and hopefully, I wind up helping craft better legislation. At the same time, I try to be a channel for state officials to communicate back with the university.

Schlieter: When Congress is in session, I spend most days on the Hill visiting with delegation or committee staff about issues affecting UT. Often I’m taking faculty members, chancellors, or President Petersen to meetings with the delegation or the agencies. When votes are taking place, everything is fast paced, and meetings with members and staff are best if they are quick and to the point. When Congress is not in session, it’s not so rushed. Often this is the best time to go deep on issues.

While it wasn’t a typical day, one of the most fun days I had happened when coaches Summitt, Pearl, and Fulmer came for an alumni event in Arlington. Senator Alexander and the entire delegation hosted a reception, and there was a huge crowd. Afterward, Congressman Duncan gave the coaches a tour of the Capitol. The coaches were mobbed, especially Coach Summitt, who was so gracious and humble. She was a rock star. Congress has many big names, but the day the coaches were there, nobody in Washington was bigger.

Alumnus: What are the big legislative issues for UT right now?

Haynes: The budget is driving everything right now. We have to continue to meet all our strategic goals despite a less-than-­desirable revenue stream. If Tennessee is to remain competitive, we’ll have to bring those jobs home to Tennessee when the economy finally improves. We have to prepare our students to compete around the world. We have to continue to advance our research in biofuels, materials science, and biomedical science.

Schlieter: As with the state budget, the federal budget affects the way we look at many issues. Funding for higher education, student loans, financial aid—these will always be major issues for us. We’re also monitoring other issues affecting students, such as digital downloading. Other hot issues include the environment and climate, renewable energy, healthcare research, and funding affecting Oak Ridge National Lab.

Alumnus: How do you work with legislators and agency officials on these issues?

Haynes: Very proactively. We don’t wait for them to call us. We seek them out. Even during the off-season I talk with five to ten legislators, or their staff, on a variety of issues every week. Sometimes I just check in with them because we haven’t talked in a while, and sometimes we’re working together on a specific issue. I don’t sit behind a desk and wait for people to come to me. I’m on the street constantly, talking to people, gauging their interest in our programs, and finding out what their interests are.

Schlieter: We try to be strategic so that when we weigh in on an issue, the delegation members know it’s important to the university. Primarily, I work with the Tennessee delegation and their staff and the committees they serve on. But we also work with many members outside the delegation because the university’s reach goes well beyond Tennessee.

We also work with the agencies, at two levels. We work with Congress to make sure they fund the agencies at a level that will support our ongoing research. We also work collaboratively with other associations and the agencies on issues that require big funding, and we try to direct some of that funding toward UT projects.

We try to be a one-stop shop for public policy, whether it’s healthcare or simulation computing or biofuels or some other issue UT is strong in. If a member of the Tennessee delegation has questions, I get the right UT people to talk with them.

Alumnus: What is a specific example of a project or a piece of legislation that came into being as a result of government relations work?

Haynes: The switchgrass biofuels project is a good example. At UT Day on the Hill in 2006, President Petersen and his new staff met with the governor. I was sitting across from the governor when he said, “I want to use the university as an incubator for some of my transformational ideas . . .. Bring me an alternative fuels proposal.” We said OK, and six months later put a switchgrass proposal on his desk. The governor liked it. He liked that we had done our research and knew what we were talking about. He liked that the biofuel we selected—switchgrass—is native to Tennessee and that our farmers and landowners could benefit from growing it. A few months later, we had about forty million dollars in the governor’s alternative fuels budget. We worked with our legislative friends to obtain that budget. And that success sent an important message to Washington—UT and Oak Ridge National Lab were able to get additional federal funding toward the project.

Alumnus: What is it about the job that you find most attractive?

Schlieter: It’s great working for UT, and it’s because of the people. People love UT. If you go to Congressman Duncan’s office, for instance, you’ll see the UT flag in the hallway. When you go in his front office, you’ll see footballs and basketballs—all signed. He truly loves his university, and other delegation members and staff do too. When I was working as a congressional staffer—before I took this job—one of my colleagues told me that there’s no better job in Washington than being a university representative. My friend was right: the people I work with care enormously about UT, and I have an immediate affinity for them. It’s like we’ve been close friends for years.

Not only am I working with people who want to work with me, I’m also representing an institution that is building a better world for all of us. Of course, times aren’t always great. Sometimes we go through a dark season, like we are now as the nation’s economy shifts into reverse. On any given day, however, I still might be getting money for a study on why babies in a particular county have lower-than-normal birth weights, or I could be finding funds for researchers who are developing techniques for treating battlefield blood loss. That research could save the life of a car-accident victim here at home. When UT gets funding for these projects, I’m a small part of that success. That’s enormously rewarding. In this job I have the opportunity to help change people’s lives for the better. That’s pretty cool.

Alumnus: Gentlemen, thank you for talking with Alumnus. Does either of you have any last thoughts?

Haynes: There’s one other aspect of our experience that I think is critical to what we do for the university. Kurt has spent time in Nashville and I’ve spent time in Washington. I know a lot about his beat and he knows a lot about mine. That shared knowledge gives UT a strength that many university government relations staffs don’t have. It allows us to combine strategies, and that’s important because the universities that develop unified state and federal strategies are the most successful in earning government support for their programs.

Kurt and I have seen the best of times and the worst of times, in both Washington and Nashville. And when times are bleak, we work together to come up with strategies that can shine light in the darkest corners. Where other schools looking into those same corners see only murky gray, we can always find a bit of orange.

A while back, one of my colleagues, a government relations liaison for a state university to the west of here, who was sporting his school’s colors of blue and gray at the time, remarked that he found it instructive that the Creator had made the sky a deep blue, except for when it was gray. I admired his perceptive observation but reminded him that for most Tennesseans the days begin and end with a burst of orange.