Joining the Club

June 13, 2007

Few careers in university administration are more accidental than being a government-relations officer. Most of us seem to be on more of a career drift than a career path.

When I sit at meetings with other government-relations officers, the only constant is that there is no constant. I am usually one of the few people at the table who at least has an advanced degree and has spent all of his working life on a university campus.

Some of my colleagues are lawyers. One was a chemistry major, another a coach in women's athletics, and yet another the son of a former state senator. And, of course, a number of them were either former politicians (holding office prior to last November's election) or former government employees (also in their jobs prior to last November's election).

In that diverse collection of individuals, is there any commonality to how they obtained their jobs in government relations? (First digression: Most universities would die for the diversity represented in a group of government-relations officers -- women, members of minority groups, the elderly -- we're all there.) But as far as a common element goes, it's safe to assert that the only sure one is that just about every government-relations officer had a mentor.

A mentor is useful, first of all, because the advisee may eventually be able to slip into the mentor's job. That happens quite often in government relations because it is difficult to write a coherent description for a vacancy so a mentor just lists the qualifications of his or her advisee.

But a true mentor provides a couple more things that are important: political contacts and locations of the bathrooms in the state Capitol.

A mentor also gives you access to the club, and I'm not talking a country club. I'm pretty sure there isn't a club of English department chairs or one for vice presidents of student affairs. Even though there are organizations of university presidents, they seldom meet with any real camaraderie.

But government-relations officers are very clubby. They know most everything about one another except how they each voted in the last election.

While there's no secret handshake, there is an initiation period. A new government-relations officer is supposed to sit silently for two years and just listen before he or she is allowed to offer a comment. Actually, that's not a bad policy for any new university employee.

So say that you're an instructor in a dead-end academic department like history or an administrator in a dead-end office like marketing. (Second digression: At least a history professor might rise to the level of an assistant dean, but no university marketing person ever gets promoted to the highest ranks.) Maybe you aspire to become your institution's government-relations officer.

What to do? Here are four pieces of advice:

  • Get a mentor, as described above. The obvious best way is to hang out with current government-relations officers -- if you can catch up with them.
  • Do something political besides voting. That means working for a candidate's campaign or volunteering in a legislative office. Get your feet wet. Get down and dirty. Sure, you might have to paste a few thousand stamps on envelopes, but at least you'll see what people in the field are like.

  • Be active in the public sector. Work for the United Way. Join a mental-health board. Volunteer at a free clinic. The only criterion is that whatever agency you serve gets public financing of some kind. You have to learn how public support works as well as demonstrate your participation in worthy civic activities.

  • Read up on politics. Do you know the person who was mayor of your city before the current mayor? The mayor before that mayor? Have you ever read a piece of legislation? Did you know bill texts in most jurisdictions are available online? Do you know the biographies of your city council members? Your area state legislators? Your U.S. senators and representatives? Do you know which committees they serve on?

The advantage of aspiring to work as a government-relations officer is that it just might happen. Politics, quite frankly, is more exciting than being an assistant dean. And the job probably pays more, too. One benchmark for research universities has a government-relations officer making an average of $120,000. But the people who make that much are generally the ones most successful in going after Washington earmarks. Still, the job should pay a better salary than most faculty members earn.

And, when you're in politics, you never know just how far you might go. Like all the way to the state capital. (Third and final digression: I just mean that you might have to drive to the state capital once a week and get paid mileage. Surely, you weren't thinking about running for office?)

Peter Onear is the pseudonym of a vice president for government relations at a university in the Midwest.