NU officials use PAC to flex their political muscles

Money talks – but for non-profit universities like Northwestern, it can’t talk politics.

Federal law prohibits non-profit groups from forming committees to support political candidates. But a 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education report suggested another way for schools to make their voices heard.

The report noted that university employees could create “non-connected” political action committees supporting the ideals of higher education, as long as they don’t use university resources to pay for expenses.

When Bruce Layton, a government relations specialist for NU, read the Chronicle report, he saw an opportunity to create a platform for higher education interests. Two years later, Layton helped found the University Public Issues Committee, an Evanston PAC. This group is a federal PAC and is not affiliated with NU – Layton insisted on talking to The Daily after university business hours – but has gathered contributions from several NU trustees and administrators, including University President Henry Bienen and Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick Ryan.

UPIC’s executive committee is responsible for selecting candidates to support. The majority of the executive committee comprises alumni, and Layton said he is the only employee of the university on the executive board. University employees are allowed to contribute to UPIC. As of Feb. 6 the group had received more than $17,000 in donations for the 2006 election cycle, which includes 2005, according to data released by the Federal Election Commission.

The impact of these groups tends to be small, said Lawrence Rothenberg, a former Kellogg professor who studies interest groups. PACs can give up to $5,000 to a candidate and up to $15,000 to a national political party.

Such groups make elected officials aware of what schools like NU are concerned about, Rothenberg said. This is important because the university itself cannot be political “in any way,” said Layton, UPIC’s secretary. “During elections, (NU) can’t favor one candidate over another.”

But UPIC can. In the 2006 cycle, the group has donated a total of $4,500, split between Democratic and Republican candidates. UPIC contributed by buying tickets to fundraising events. The top recipient was Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who received $2,000 from UPIC. Other donations included $1,000 to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and $1,000 to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.), who is seeking re-election this year.

UPIC contributed to these candidates because they’ve supported higher education, Layton said. Hastert supports doubling the National Health Institute research budget. Blagojevich and others worked to make college more affordable for low-income students.

The group hopes to file as a state PAC so that it can donate money to state candidates. Federal PACs can donate a small sum to state candidates.

“The state government is an important funder of higher education,” Layton said.

Reach Deepa Seetharaman at [email protected]