UW News

January 7, 2010

New director of state relations ready to meet challenges of ‘incredibly difficult’ legislative session

Margaret Shepherd’s first foray into politics was in ninth grade, when she served as vice president of her class. “My sole claim to fame was getting hairdryers for the girls’ bathrooms,” she said.

From that experience she derived a lesson: It may be fun to have an elective office, but it’s more fun to work behind the scenes. It’s the route she’s followed ever since and will continue as the UW’s new director of state relations. In that post she’ll be working to push the University’s agenda in the Washington state Legislature.

Shepherd is no stranger to the legislature. Before coming to the University, she served for two and a half years as a budget analyst on capital budget and transportation issues for the Washington State Senate Democratic Caucus. In that role, she worked with legislative members to draft legislation and do political coordination and strategy for the senate democrats.

She had applied for that job “on a whim,” after working in grants and contracts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and as a fundraiser at Community Capital Development. At the time, she had no professional experience in politics and didn’t know anyone in Olympia, but she thought the job sounded interesting and that it would tap some of her core abilities.

“Once I got into it I loved it,” Shepherd said. “In state politics, you have a fair amount of influence because of the size of state government. Being able to work one-on-one with legislators, being able to help write policies that get implemented is a pretty amazing feeling. For all the grind of the political process, it’s an incredibly fulfilling job to have. You get a real sense of accomplishment in the end.”

She hopes to have that sense of accomplishment at the end of this year’s legislative session, which starts on Jan. 11, but she recognizes that this will be “an incredibly difficult” year. The challenging economic times that brought a 26 percent cut to the University’s budget last year continue, and the possibility of more cuts looms. In this environment, the University’s main agenda consists of three items:

  • Restoration of the state’s need grants program, which was cut out of the governor’s budget.
  • Authority to set tuition for resident undergraduate students (the University already has that authority for graduate and nonresident students).
  • Consolidation of local revenue accounts for capital projects.

The first item is critical to the success of the Husky Promise Program that allows students without the financial means to attend the University. The other two are about giving the University a “greater ability to manage its own resources,” Shepherd said. The second item, being able to set all tuition rates, within appropriate limits, makes sense if tuition is to be a greater source of income for the University than state appropriations, she said.

The final item has to do with a number of accounts into which income for the University flows. There is, for example, a building fee students pay as part of tuition that has its own account, and another for the University’s share of license fees paid by timber companies for logging in the state. The University would like to consolidate all such accounts into one centrally-managed account that could allow it to get cheaper financing for its construction projects.

“The University is trying to be solutions oriented,” Shepherd said. “So in asking for tuition setting authority and in asking for the capital account consolidations, it’s looking for ways it can set itself up to be more financially stable in these kinds of economic times.”

How will she go about working on this agenda? It’s all about relationship building, Shepherd said. She’ll be talking to legislators on both sides of the aisle, conferring with representatives of other higher education institutions in the state and also connecting with faculty and students to make sure their stories get told.

“It’s important for Olympia to understand the very real impacts of budget cuts,” Shepherd said, “and nobody feels those more strongly than the students and the faculty. So telling their stories and getting the word out through them is essential to our success.”

Although she’s working for the UW’s interests, Shepherd is not an alumna. She went to Seattle University for her undergraduate degree because at the time it was the only institution in the region offering a bachelor’s in public affairs. She recently completed her master’s in public administration, also at Seattle University.

Nonetheless, she’s ecstatic to be coming to the UW. “The University is an extraordinary institution that has a wide-ranging reach,” Shepherd said. “I was attracted by the diversity of issues I’ll get to work on and the people I’ll get to work with. I like the state policy environment, and this position allows me to continue to be engaged in Olympia and grow those relationships.”

Since coming on board Dec. 1, Shepherd has been spending her time getting to know the campus community. She’s also been immersed in the development process for the University’s legislative agenda. This is a “short session” for the legislature — only 60 days — and, Shepherd says, the University has a big agenda.

But she’s looking forward to having those conversations with legislators. “I think we’re at a critical moment for higher education and the University,” she said. “I think we have a real opportunity to redefine how we look at higher education and do something pretty dramatic. This isn’t about the short term. It’s about setting a foundation for the University to be successful in a new economic reality.”