Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor
Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor

In Focus: NU-affiliated political action committee makes ‘friends’ with lawmakers

Evanston P.O. Box 62 may seem indiscriminate among hundreds of others in the city’s ornate post office. However, it’s registered with an organization that spends thousands of dollars annually dispatching its members to cocktail hours and lunches in Illinois’ high-end restaurants and hotels.

That’s not only for its members to sample hors d’oeuvres. It’s about reaching into the political world.

The University Public Issues Committee, or UPIC, doles out much of its money for members to attend political fundraisers. There, they have the chance to socialize with some of Illinois’ most influential local, state and federal lawmakers.

Despite being one of more than 2,000 Illinois political action committees — which pool money to support candidates’ campaigns — UPIC has unique financial ties. More than 99% of UPIC’s money comes from Northwestern trustees and other University affiliates.

Past donors include some of NU’s largest benefactors and high-level officials. Former Board of Trustees Chair Pat Ryan, former University President Henry Bienen, trustee Judd Weinberg and current Board of Trustees Chair Peter Barris are some of many influential figures who have contributed to UPIC.

Since 2004, the group has donated to politicians such as Evanston Mayor and former Illinois state legislator Daniel Biss and Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (Communication ’93). UPIC has also sponsored campaign events for politicians, including former Chicago mayor and Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Communication ’85).

“It’s not well known, and for a reason,” UPIC treasurer Bruce Layton said, referencing UPIC given NU’s educational nonprofit status. “We have to maintain that wall of separation between the University and the political world.”

The University and UPIC’s overlapping administration, interests and donor base present a myriad of gray areas. For some, organizations like UPIC spark concerns of breached policy, conflicts of interest and undue institutional influence. For others, UPIC’s relatively small checks do little to push the political needle in a fundraising environment dominated by wealthy donors.

‘A way to make friends’

NU is prohibited from participating in “any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office” as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, according to University policy.

Yet, for almost two decades, more than 100 of the University’s current and former trustees, former senior administrators, faculty and alumni have fed small but consistent donations through UPIC to local, state and federal politicians’ campaigns. The contributions range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Layton, who is also a former special assistant for government relations to NU’s president, started UPIC more than 19 years ago. He said he wanted to create a way for the University and the higher education community to engage more in the political process.

“It’s a friend-making operation,” he told The Daily. “It’s a way to make friends.”

Layton retired from the University in 2021 and is still a listed officer of UPIC, according to the PAC’s 2021 Federal Election Commission filings.

Other individuals affiliated with NU who have operated the political committee include Paul Schultz (McCormick ’84, ’85, Kellogg ’89) and Jennifer Kunde, the current interim special assistant to the president for government relations.

In her capacity as an NU employee, Kunde said UPIC and the University’s government relations office do not have formal communications.

Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor

Kunde said UPIC exists to serve higher education interests and use donations to “counteract” other groups’ opposition to federal work study, Pell Grants and other higher education funding.

“People have to run for office by raising funds from other people,” she said. “Until that system changes, this is the world we live in.”

Since its inception, UPIC has raised more than $545,000 from about 120 donors, according to the most recent FEC filings. Of that total income, at least 93% came from NU’s current, former and life trustees, according to The Daily’s data analysis. About 6% came from other University affiliates, including current and former professors and former administrators. It has spent almost $483,000 on candidates as of July.

‘Their problem, not mine’

Nonprofit organizations like NU are barred by federal tax law from participating in political campaigns. In practice, these nonprofits are prohibited from directly making donations to candidates, parties or other political committees, according to Shanna Ports, senior counsel for campaign finance at the Campaign Legal Center.

“501(c)(3)s are charities, so they’re supposed to stick to their charitable purpose,” Ports said. “To get the benefit of this tax-exempt status and to attract donors by offering them this tax-deductible contribution, they have to abide by these limits.”

Nonprofits can, however, spend some of their money lobbying public officials or communicating with decision makers to advocate for policies. NU has its own lobbying arm through both its government relations office and hired lobbyists, which act as liaisons between the University and elected leaders.

Unlike NU’s lobbyists, UPIC maintains a “wall of separation” from the University in a few key ways, making it a non-connected PAC under federal law, Layton said.

To determine whether a PAC is non-connected, the FEC generally considers whether the committee is “financially supported” by the nonprofit. “Organizational independence” is also a factor, according to a July 2023 FEC advisory opinion.

The committee does not receive direct University funding and requires no approval from NU administrators before making political choices, Layton said.

Still, NU senior leadership knows that UPIC exists. Kunde and Layton confirmed current President Michael Schill as well as former University presidents Henry Bienen and Morton Schapiro are aware of the committee’s existence.

Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor

Whether UPIC’s position as a PAC with a donor base of primarily NU affiliates matches the legislative intent behind the prohibition on 501(c)(3) political donations is a “philosophical question I can’t really answer,” Layton said.

Biss, Evanston’s mayor, received $9,000 in donations from UPIC while serving as a state representative and senator from 2011 to 2019, according to FEC filings. For part of his tenure, he served on the Illinois House Committee on Appropriations-Higher Education. 

Biss told The Daily he had the “impression” that UPIC was affiliated with NU. For him, that affiliation raised questions.

“What is the governance of an organization that is, by tax law, necessarily independent of the University but also is kind of seen as affiliated with it?” Biss said. “What does the word ‘affiliated’ mean?”

He did not hesitate to take the donations, though. Those questions were “their problem, not mine,” he said.

‘A game plan’

A March 2002 report titled “Now you can start your own PAC” inspired Layton to consider creating UPIC. Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the article concluded that a decade of FEC advisory opinions had made it easier and more appealing for colleges to participate in the political process through setting up non-connected PACs.

“I suppose we always thought about how we could do it,” Layton said. “This gave us a game plan.”

Outside of his work in NU government relations, Layton asked an election-lawyer friend to help him set up UPIC. After Layton discussed forming the PAC with NU trustees, the committee filed its organizational paperwork with the FEC in July 2004.

UPIC is directed by an executive board of seven members who pick which candidates to support, Layton said. He added that the board includes himself, Kunde, a second NU staff member, an NU trustee, an election lawyer, a lobbyist and a financial executive. While Layton did not name the other executive board members, he said they are all NU parents or alumni.

Each election cycle, UPIC’s board meets to discuss which candidates to fund. According to Layton and Kunde, selected candidates typically fall into three categories: those who support higher education and research goals, officials who represent districts where NU community members live and University alumni.

In total, UPIC has disbursed almost 38% of its contributions to University alums, which Layton said can help “increase the influence of the University community in government.” This includes prominent state officials like Welch (D-Chicago), Illinois’ House speaker.

Still, UPIC’s support is just a drop in the bucket for most candidates. In Welch’s case, UPIC has donated $31,000 to his campaign over almost two decades — compared to more than $14 million he raised in the third quarter of 2022 alone, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

UPIC’s money usually goes to incumbents and candidates who have held some prior political office. Additionally, though the group does not have an official partisan alignment, UPIC donates most of its money to Democrats because of Illinois’ left-leaning politics, Layton said. Overall, about 83% of UPIC donations went to Democratic Party candidates.

Layton said while he and Kunde don’t expect UPIC’s donations to have a substantial effect on elections, it’s great to have another “friend in Congress.”

‘You have to do the same thing’

UPIC’s setup is rare in Illinois, according to David Tretter, president of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities. Tretter’s statewide organization advocates for private, nonprofit higher education interests through lobbying and communications. It represents more than 50 private institutions including NU, the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago.

Tretter said he wasn’t aware of UPIC or any political committees like it in the state.

The Daily contacted government relations personnel at several Illinois colleges and universities to verify whether they were aware of PACs making donations to candidates to promote their institutions’ interests.

Representatives at Northern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, the Southern Illinois University system, Roosevelt University, Loyola, Illinois State University, UChicago and the University of Illinois system wrote they were not aware of any such PACs affiliated with their respective institutions.

UPIC has donated almost $4,000 more to non-federal Illinois candidates than Tretter’s group has, according to a Daily data analysis of publicly available records. Tretter said he is unsure whether university-specific political committees like UPIC sway the government to support some schools rather than others.

“I guess that’s possible,” Tretter said. “To me, there are some built-in guardrails.”

Because legislators prioritize bringing resources to schools in their districts, Tretter said it’s unlikely that proposals favoring certain institutions slide through the general assembly without pushback.

But, how affiliates of individual private schools engage politically isn’t up to him, Tretter said.

“I can’t tell them no,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m saying, look, ‘This is what we’re doing for the good of the whole order, and I need your support on this.’”

The Daily found at least five PACs similar to UPIC across the U.S. that have consistently made federal contributions in the interest of public and nonprofit private schools since 2005. The groups have disbursed an average of almost $311,000 since they were established as of July, according to campaign finance data from the FEC.

However, college-specific political committees across the U.S. operate mostly at the state level. In Michigan, PACs tied to the University of Michigan system, Ferris State University, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Central Michigan University and others have been active since 2008. Most started organizing before 2005.

Robert Boyce, treasurer for the Friends of Ferris PAC, said his organization’s donations have helped secure government funding for a new library and student center at Ferris State.

He pointed out that other higher education institutions are in the game too, putting pressure on Friends of Ferris to keep up.

“If other people are going to approach the politicians, you have to do the same thing to stay on equal grounds,” Boyce said.

‘Show your face, shake the hand’

Layton said UPIC makes many of its donations at or for fundraisers.

It’s a strategy interest groups often use to gain access to candidates, said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at watchdog group Public Citizen.

“If it’s done in person, you get to show your face, shake the hand of the lawmaker and get to know him or her better,” Holman said.

Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor

Public Citizen broadly opposes corporate influence in government, he said, adding that PACs have “disproportionate power” in politics and tend to represent institutions, not individual voters.

Not all PACs similar to UPIC have used this strategy of donating in person — and Holman said it may have hurt their efforts.

Citizens for Higher Education, a state-based PAC started in 2002, mainly represented the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s interests. They had a policy of donating money via cover letter only and never in person, assistant treasurer John Wallace told The Daily. 

Wallace said the policy was meant to make sure “there can be no question of any quid pro quo,” such as a political favor given in exchange for money.

Wallace does not recall the PAC’s money being used to attend fundraisers, either. While members of the PAC may have attended such events, they would likely have done so in their individual capacity, he told The Daily in a Nov. 16 statement.

Over its 12-year lifetime, Citizens for Higher Education spent more than $1.4 million. It caught the attention of local critics, who said the PAC was garnering financial legislative support for the Chapel Hill campus at the expense of other colleges in the state, according to the Triangle Business Journal in 2006.

Wallace said advocacy for Chapel Hill benefitted all schools in the system. Over time, the PAC’s purpose evolved to promote the general interest of all public higher education in North Carolina, he said.

In 2014, the PAC’s leadership decided to shut down Citizens for Higher Education. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC had opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate political spending, minimizing the impact of smaller PACs like Wallace’s.

“We were very successful until about 2010,” Wallace said. “In the years thereafter, the ability to make contributions and help support those candidates that favored public support for public higher education was greatly diminished.”

Since 2014, Citizens for Higher Education’s leaders established 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) organizations that have evolved into Higher Ed Works, which Wallace said advocates for policies beneficial to higher education across North Carolina. The group doesn’t lobby or make campaign contributions, Wallace said, instead relying on research and “nonpartisan communications.”

Holman at Public Citizen said Citizens for Higher Education’s policy of never making donations in person may have stifled its success.

“As much as I admire (their policy), because they’re not trying to get the quid pro quo, they will tend to be less effective,” Holman said.

Layton told The Daily UPIC members are “not asking for anything” when they attend political fundraisers, meaning there is no possibility of the type of quid pro quo Wallace and Holman mentioned.

‘Getting good will’

The political impacts of UPIC’s campaign contributions are difficult to gauge, Layton said.

“A $1,000 donation gets us the opportunity to go to a fundraiser and get before a candidate — that’s all,” he said. “It’s just political participation, just being involved in the process.”

Lawrence Rothenberg, a political science professor at the University of Rochester who formerly taught at the Kellogg School of Management, said donations from education PACs like UPIC tend to have a small impact on overall legislation — a sentiment he also told The Daily in 2006.

However, he said, donations can sometimes help interest groups gain access to legislators, especially at the state level.

“You are getting good will … some belief of future access,” said Rothenberg, who researches interest groups. “People have done experiments in various ways to say ‘If you’re a donor, you’re more likely to get access to an elected official than if you’re not a donor.’” 

Outside of higher education organizations, other political contributors across the U.S. — many of which have less stringent limits than traditional PACs — have affected education policy through donations.

For instance, The Club for Growth is a conservative organization that advocates for the closure of the U.S. Department of Education and the end of the federal government’s role in education. Its super PAC, which can spend unlimited money, has raised north of $29 million between January and September.

Moreover, universities are currently under political attack, Layton said. State politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have made moves to overhaul higher education institutions like the New College of Florida. DeSantis appointed trustees who fired the sitting president and disbanded the school’s diversity office.

“Groups like UPIC can help dispel political leaders’ views of the academic world as aloof and out-of-touch and can be useful in mitigating attacks on colleges and universities,” Layton wrote in a Nov. 8 statement to The Daily.

Even in a hyper-politicized environment, higher education continues to receive ample government support, Layton said. Institutions are especially successful in raising money for biomedical research initiatives, for example, when universities rely on their connections to engage political leadership, he added.

In a system where organizations compete for only so much money, the marginal advantage one group gains over its counterparts can be important, according to New Trier Democrats president Patrick Hanley.

“The value of favorable regulatory treatment is so high that companies are willing to spend, even for the off chance that they might either help someone who would be supportive of them make it into office or keep that door open to them,” he said.

State Sen. Laura Fine (D-Glenview), who has received $7,500 from UPIC since 2014, said her understanding was that UPIC represents the University. Fine’s district includes NU’s Evanston campus.

Fine said donations don’t change how she approaches her job.

“If they donate to me, that’s up to them,” she said. “But that’s not going to change the way I worked on legislation.”

Similarly, Mayor Biss said the donations he received from UPIC didn’t affect the way he approached his work in Springfield. UPIC’s donations were minimal compared to the total funds Biss raised as a legislator: at least $8.8 million, according to data from Illinois Sunshine.

“Personally speaking, I spend a lot of time disappointing my donors, voting the way they didn’t want (me) to,” Biss said.

In 2017, Biss co-sponsored a bill that closed tax loopholes for private equity and venture capital firms, earning him a letter from an investment executive asking him to return more than $5,000 in donations.

He speculated UPIC may have donated to him because he represented the Senate district in which the University is located. Calling himself a “take every meeting” politician, Biss said he’s unsure if UPIC needed to donate to him for NU to get his attention.

Layton agrees that NU is prominent enough to get public officials’ attention without donating to them, drawing on his experience in NU’s government relations office.

Biss said past UPIC donations don’t affect how he approaches his role as Evanston’s mayor either. To him, going against his constituency’s priorities because of decades-old donations would be “political suicide.”

‘Working for the same goals’

Lobbying is usually more impactful than campaign contributions for interest groups like colleges and universities, Rothenberg said.

“A lot of (the lobbying) is undoubtedly to get the dollars Northwestern wants for its various programs,” he said. “That’s really going to be much more where the action is, certainly at the national level.”

Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor

NU and its hired lobbyists have spent more than $13.5 million on lobbying since 1998, according to data from OpenSecrets.

The University’s government relations team has worked with state officials to obtain funding for transportation construction around NU’s Chicago campus, the Querrey InQbation Lab and other projects, according to a statement from Kunde in her capacity as an NU staff member.

Still, the age of PACs is far from over.

“They wouldn’t be making campaign contributions if they thought they weren’t having any impact,” Holman said.

Layton and Kunde maintain UPIC’s donations have no intended or incidental effects on the success of NU’s lobbyists.

However, it is unlikely that organizations like UPIC keep their lobbying and political contribution branches completely separate, said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois. The organization works to increase public participation in government and address the role of money in politics, according to its website.

“They’re working for the same goals,” Kaplan said.

‘Giving credit’

UPIC has donated more than $10,000 to candidates so far in 2023.

The PAC remains small, Layton and Kunde said, and doesn’t plan to expand its presence in the political world. UPIC doesn’t aim to broaden its donor base — overwhelmingly University trustees — outside of the NU community either.

“Our lane is super small and super narrow,” Kunde said. “We don’t see ourselves as big players.”

Which game UPIC is playing still isn’t quite clear.

As Kaplan, Holman and Hanley said, donations often help small political committees gain access to candidates. Plus, Hanley said, candidates and their donors frequently discuss policy positions and legislative goals at fundraisers.

But, Layton said, UPIC members do not talk “legislative strategy or revisions” with candidates at fundraisers. The group’s donations only serve to “thank” candidates for policies they’ve promoted, he added. To him, that gratitude can “reinforce” the policies that the candidates and PAC support.

Layton said people need to understand the politicians on the other side of a political transaction, though he then walked back his categorization of contributions as “transactions.”

At the end of the day, he said, each of UPIC’s donations are just nice gestures for politicians.

“It’s not a transaction,” Layton said. “But we’re giving credit to people who want credit for what they do.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @william2tong

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