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A real voice for the U

Donna Peterson retires as the head of government relations at the U in January, leaving a legacy of advocacy and optimism

By Adam Overland

Donna Peterson 300
Donna Peterson retires as the head of government relations at the U in January.

December 5, 2011

For more than 20 years, Donna Peterson has led the U's government and community relations team at the University of Minnesota. She retires in January, and on Jan. 9 Jason Rohloff will begin as special assistant to the president for Government Relations.

Looking back on her 22 years in the employ of the University (and four more as an undergrad), Peterson is both reflective and, privately, exhausted—though no one who knows her would describe her as anything but tireless.

She became the U's director of state relations in 1990, a position now more broadly defined in title and with the responsibility to advocate for the U at all levels of governance: federal, state, and local. She oversees a staff of six who are in effect the chief liaisons for the U at the state Capitol, in Washington, and with local municipalities. But Peterson says the work of her office isn't a one-way street.

"I think most people think of us as representing the University with those constituencies. The secret is—that is about half of our job. The other half is communicating information back into the University. The 201 legislators in the state I like to describe as a focus group. When we get questions from them, the questions are no different than what the taxpayers are asking," says Peterson.

Legislative Briefing

Each year the U Legislative Network hosts a Legislative Briefing, featuring a reception and dinner and serving as the U's kickoff to the legislative session. Hundreds of University advocates—including faculty, staff, students, and alumni—learn about the U's legislative agenda and discuss the political landscape. The event takes place at McNamara Feb. 1 and is broadcast to coordinate campuses.

Her staff takes the concerns of legislators to U administrative leaders, but they also work directly with other U constituents, like faculty legislative liaisons, who provide a direct link between faculty and legislators. For example, liaisons may recruit faculty involved in, say, a controversial topic like stem cell research to make a presentation to the legislature that gives a faculty perspective.

Often, says Peterson, disagreements can come from a lack of information or understanding, which can create distrust. Peterson, a former legislator herself (elected to the Minnesota House in 1980 and the Senate in 1982), knows this well, but her time as a politician was marked by a more moderate political climate, says former staffer Marge Romero. She recalls Peterson working together with members of both of the primary parties in an atmosphere of problem solving.

"I think it's fair to say that the reason she was offered the job at the U was because she had a state senate career that represented everything the U wanted in a lobbyist. She wasn't an elitist. She wasn't an intellectual snob. She wasn't an ivory tower—she worked with real people on real issues that affected many people," says Romero.

Former State Senator Larry Pogemiller, whose district included the east and west banks of the Twin Cities campus, served with Donna in both the Minnesota House and Senate.

"Donna was an excellent legislator, and always an advocate—a tireless advocate—for higher education in Minnesota. The U made a wise and savvy choice when it recruited her some twenty years ago to serve as their head of government affairs," says Pogemiller, who was recently appointed by Governor Dayton to direct the Office of Higher Education. He says he looks forward to working with the U's next leader of government relations.

Conversation, not conflict

Politics these days can seem oppositional and entrenched—two sides in a battle of ideology, right and wrong. In a climate like this, it takes a person with resolve to maintain momentum in the face of inevitable setbacks and disagreements. Professor Elizabeth Boyle, 2010–12 faculty legislative liaison, says Peterson is the most optimistic person she knows. "I've never met anyone who is so perpetually positive," said Boyle.

Peterson's view is that it's good for everyone to be challenged by people who think differently.

"Once you understand how and why someone is coming to their conclusions, you then have an opportunity to try to give them different information," she says. "You've got to have a civil discourse."

Power in numbers

Peterson describes an "advocate" simply as someone who is willing to speak positively about the U. Over the years, she has had plenty to say. But perhaps the most powerful tool to aide the work of government relations during her time here has been the growth in the U-wide Legislative Network—the thousands of advocates who have enabled the U's voice to be better heard at the Capitol.

If we find a cure for diabetes, it isn't going to stop at a county border. It's going to be for everyone.

Not long ago, the network consisted of fewer than 1,000 members. Within the last 10 years, the number of active participants in the network has grown to almost 20,000; among them are nearly 3,000 faculty, 4,600 staff, more than 3,000 students, and 4,500 alumni. With nearly 20 percent of the U's funding provided by the state, being heard effectively can make the difference in whether the U has the funding it needs for everything from keeping tuition down, to building maintenance and construction.

She says the network is especially important in outlying areas of the state, where there can be a disconnect among legislators who may see the U as merely a physical location.

"How do you get the legislator from (just as an example) Worthington to support the U when we're not in their district?" Peterson asks. "They already have a list of things they're fighting for. We try to rise above that and say, 'We don't belong to anybody, we belong to everybody.' If we find a cure for diabetes, it isn't going to stop at a county border. It's going to be for everyone. So if they hear from just five people in their district who support the U, they'll take notice," says Peterson.

Creating advocates

In her time here, Peterson has served with four presidents, from Nils Hasselmo to current president Eric Kaler, and she's been involved in some big accomplishments for the U. Two she is most proud of are helping to secure funding for the Biomedical Discovery District, and, ironically, TCF Bank Stadium.

"I'm not even a football fan," she admits. "But I understood what it meant to a student to have that experience on campus," says Peterson.

The improving on-campus experience, says Peterson, is what gives her hope for the future of the U.

When she came to the U, she says students weren't leaving with a positive experience. And that meant they either weren't realizing the pivotal place the University had been in their lives, or the U simply didn't hold that place in their lives. In either case, they were less likely to become advocates for the U.

"If the people that we graduate at this University don't feel strongly about it when they leave—well, government relations can't change that all by itself when talking with legislators. It's the difference between having a PR problem and having a problem. And I think that's the problem we were facing when I came 20 years ago.

Today, she says, the U has made incredible progress in changing the experience of undergraduates, not only by providing a venue for football on the UMTC campus, but through programs like freshman seminars, Welcome Week, and student engagement with faculty and the community. Four-year graduation rates, a key measure of accountability in the eyes of legislators and the public, says Peterson, have also improved dramatically. The four-year graduation rate for the TC campus was just 15 percent in 1992. Today, it stands at more than 50 percent and continues to improve, with a goal of 60 percent for students graduating after 2012.

Pushing together

Your involvement with the Legislative Network can range from simply forwarding an email to a representative during a legislative session to writing letters or editorials, making phone calls, and even visiting the state Capitol. Donna Peterson says that power in numbers can't be ignored. "If a legislator gets 1,000 letters on a particular subject, and they're form letters—they'll take note. But getting a letter or email in someone's own words, or a phone call—that carries an enormous impact with legislators. That rumbling eventually gets back to elected officials, and that's what you want—that chorus out there of people who think the U is important to the state," says Peterson. "It's all of us pushing together."

"I left here as a student not having one faculty member I could use as a reference—most faculty didn't even have office hours," says Peterson. "But I think one of the things you'll see as we go forward, is that it will be easier to get alums to become active and supportive and vocal about the University because they made a connection here," she says.

In the immediate future, Peterson says, those advocates will play an ever more critical role. She sees big challenges on the horizon, like articulating the benefit of U research not only in human terms, but in terms of economic impact to the state. And they may find themselves defending research itself, which is being attacked, Peterson says. "I think we're up against something very difficult right now, more so than we have been in recent years."

Peterson, for her part, is looking forward to retirement. Having married in late 2010, she will have that much more time to spend with her new husband.

But as she steps aside in January, it's not without some nostalgia. Working in the two worlds of the University and the Capitol have presented experiences found in few other places. For one, Peterson says she'll miss the age diversity. "I like working with young people—it keeps me knowing what's going on in the world," she says. But she also regrets the challenge she'll be laying aside.

"I'm like everyone else—my friends think like I do," she says. "When I leave here, talking to the kinds of people I talk to at the Capitol is going to be rare. I'm going to miss that."