UF Government and Community Relations: Sharing UF’s story with stakeholders

Earlier this year, UF Vice President for University Relations Jane Adams retired after 13 years of service to UF. As part of the search to fill her role, UF created two new leadership positions, one of which is vice president for Government and Community Relations. UF alumnus Mark Kaplan recently began in this role, supporting UF’s increased need for strong local, state and federal government and community relationships as it seeks to become a top-five public university.

Kaplan previously served as the global head of Public Affairs and chief communications officer for The Mosaic Company, as well as chief-of-staff to Gov. Jeb Bush and executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corporation. He is the current chair of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

As part of its increased commitment to government and community relations, UF opened a Washington, D.C., office last spring to facilitate its federal outreach and named Sarah Mathias its director. Mathias was director of the University of California system’s Washington office and has worked with the U.S. State Department, the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration and the U.S. Senate.

UF at Work recently spoke with Kaplan and Mathias about their new roles and responsibilities.

Why were you interested in joining UF?

Kaplan: UF is my alma mater and my wife’s alma mater, and my youngest child is a student on campus. I’ve worked in and around public policy and the government relations process from various angles; I’ve worked in the legislature and for the governor’s office, run a state agency, advocated on behalf of clients as a lawyer and led government relations for a major company. It’s all taught me about various aspects of functioning well in the government world. The opportunity to come back home and put what I’ve learned into practice on behalf of something that is very important to me, my family and my state is really exciting.

Mathias: What first interested me in the position was the opportunity to be part of such a preeminent land-grant university. The comprehensive nature of UF provides many opportunities to insert the university’s voice in the national issues of the day. We are in the privileged role of being stewards of the federal dollars intended to advance scientific breakthroughs and patient care, for example, and to support our students.

Can you talk about your new roles here?

Kaplan: I am trying to bring a heightened focus to activities that have been going on at the university for some time. As a state university, we’re highly dependent on the federal and state governments and our relationships in our communities. The importance of each of these partnerships has grown over the years. President Fuchs recognized that increased importance and recognized the need to put increased energy behind that. For me, the local, state and federal set of activities is a natural continuum of relationship-building, telling our story and trying to shape the environment that we work in.

Mathias: I am helping Mark enhance the Washington, D.C., component of our government relations program, which includes our interactions with Congress, the White House, federal agencies and all the other influential bodies that touch upon higher education and research. Through building relationships, providing information and actively participating in discussions, we can augment and protect UF’s interests, and bring back to the university important information about opportunities that exist on the federal level to support our mission.

What does it mean for UF to now have a presence in D.C.? What does that allow us to do that we weren’t doing before?

Mathias: A physical office in Washington allows the university to more easily be part of those conversations that only happen in D.C. It provides added opportunities to share UF’s and Florida’s expertise and opinions at critical points in the formulation of laws and regulations. It also gives UF a central meeting space in Washington—a place to gather visiting faculty, administrators and alumni and from which to share information about the university.

Kaplan: The office is possible in large part due to a great partnership with Dr. David Norton and the Office of Research. Without them, it would be much harder to do this work in the way that UF deserves. They help attract research funding to UF by connecting our faculty to units of the federal government that are funding research and have a vested interest in UF’s work. We are grateful collaborators and partners in this.

How has your time here been so far?

Kaplan: It’s been great—it’s fun to be back on campus. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and kind. It feels familiar but I recognize there’s an awful lot I have to learn, and people have been very kind with helping me do that. I’m immersing myself in the nuances of university life and learning about the issues that are important to UF and its stakeholders.

Mathias: I agree completely. I’m honored to represent UF, grateful for the generous support of the university for our program and delighted to be part of the great extended Gator Nation in Washington. Every day starts and ends here in D.C. completely differently than I expect; it’s been a fascinating six months.

What have you been focusing on? What are your priorities and goals for the coming year?

Kaplan: My focus at this point has been getting to know the university and its priorities, and connecting with the policymakers and thought leaders who are going to have a big hand in our success going forward. Our priority in the state government in Tallahassee is continuing to cultivate an environment in which we have the resources to become a top-five public university. We can’t do that without the active support of the legislature and governor. We need to make sure we’re demonstrating value, being good partners and continually earning the support needed to be a truly premier university.

Mathias: Our focus has been on broadening our relationships and maintaining lines of communication with the key policymakers and opinion leaders here in Washington. We are also currently in temporary office space, so we are working to open our permanent office later this fall and planning, with the UF Alumni Association, some fun outreach events to kick off the official opening of the UF D.C. office.

Can you talk about the process of gaining trust and confidence from community partners and how you build those relationships?

Mathias: We are fortunate to be able to build upon the already strong relationships UF has throughout the federal government, and to use that base to target more opportunities to elevate recognition of UF as a preeminent university. We will draw upon all aspects of UF to inform policymakers on the university’s interests and to participate in the important meetings, listening tours and hearings that precede legislation and that inform policymakers’ positions. There is also a fair amount of analysis; we are working to be a reliable source of information on the potential impact of their decisions on students, UF and the state, and to clearly articulate that in a timely manner.

Kaplan: As we think about stakeholders, my experience is that everybody tends to have their own unique perspective on what’s important to them about UF. To me, there’s no substitute for being present and doing a lot of listening, whether it’s at City Hall downtown, the State Capitol building in Tallahassee, throughout Washington, D.C., or traveling around the state talking to people who have a stake in our university. If we’re present and listening to what is on people’s minds, we can find ways to be responsive and understand what UF is doing that they would find important. We can also bring back learnings to the university, especially if we need to be doing or thinking about something differently.

What is one thing you would like campus to know about you/your work?

Kaplan: It’s important that the university speak with a consistent voice when interacting with government, so I would say that if people have questions about how to do that in their own interactions with elected officials or senior government staff, I hope they will reach out to us to coordinate. We want to make sure we are putting the university’s best foot forward and advancing the priorities that will enable us to be a top-five public university.

Mathias: Come visit us! We are here to serve as a resource for the university and to share information, so let us know when you are in town.