Staff Q&A with Jeffrey Cooper

Penn ranks near or at the top of a lot of important lists: the City of Philadelphia’s largest private employer. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s second-largest employer. One of the nation’s largest recipients of federal research funding.

Staff Q&A with Jeffrey Cooper

Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Jeffrey Cooper

That’s part of the reason why local, state and federal affairs are important to Penn—and part of the reason the University is important to lawmakers, community leaders and elected officials.

Jeffrey Cooper, the vice president of government and community affairs, is at the center of this equation. He leads the office responsible for fostering relationships with officials from West Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., keeping a close eye on local, state and federal laws, policies and moods that may either positively or negatively affect Penn’s educational, business and research missions.

Cooper, a former Philadelphia private practice lawyer, joined former Governor Ed Rendell’s administration in 2003, working as chief counsel for the Pennsylvania State System for Higher Education. In 2005, he added to his duties with the Rendell administration, becoming executive deputy general counsel.

“Having worked for five years with the commonwealth, I learned about higher education, I learned about how the commonwealth functions and operates and was able to make a lot of friends and relationships that have been very beneficial,” Cooper says. It didn’t hurt that he is also a proud Penn parent (his son graduated in 2007) and Penn Law School alum (Class of 1975).

The Current recently sat down with Cooper to talk about some of the issues his office is keeping a close eye on in the year ahead, how Penn’s Vet School has been affected by the state budget crisis and how lawmakers sometimes tap into Penn’s array of world-class scholars for advice.

Q. Why does Penn have a government and community affairs office?
The Office of Government and Community Affairs oversees and manages Penn’s relationships with the federal, state and local governments, and we manage Penn’s engagement with the West Philadelphia and Center City communities. It’s important for Penn to develop positive relationships not only because we have issues and interests as an educational institution, but we also are a leading business, one of the largest employers in the commonwealth. We’re certainly a major economic force, both as an employer and as a real estate developer in the city.
For instance, it falls on us to make sure that the jackhammers are quiet on commencement and in order to do that we need to have relationships with the city Streets Department. But also we need to do our own work. There’s a lot of permitting that we do. We really need to develop and maintain relationships so that we can accomplish the University’s educational mission and business operations goals.

Q. So it’s a lot of meetings, a lot of getting to know people?
Our office is built on relationships. We really need to have the relationships so that when needed, we can call on people for help and when outside folks need access to Penn, they know that they can call us and we can help them with what their needs are.

Q. Former Governor Ed Rendell was such a big proponent of Philadelphia while in office. Do you see Penn’s relationship with Harrisburg changing now that Governor Tom Corbett, from the western part of the state, is in office?
We had good relationships with Ed Rendell, as well as his staff throughout his administration, and in the legislature. We are building relationships with Governor Corbett. We are working hard to deepen and develop those relationships. It is a new administration with distinctly different policies, very clearly looking to manage very difficult budget issues and control spending. Governor Corbett is committed to not raising taxes, so it’s just a very challenging environment in Harrisburg that we need to stay on top of … and try to be sure that Penn’s interests are conveyed both to the governor and to the legislature.

Q. What are some specific issues or pieces of legislation coming down the pike at the federal, state or city levels that are of particular interest to Penn?
At the federal level, there are challenges with regard to federally supported research. Penn is one of the very top universities in the receipt of competitively granted research funds, primarily from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. For the past few years those funds have been supplemented by the Recovery Act monies. That falls off this year, so we are very active in Washington, through a variety of associations of universities and other research-oriented businesses, to try to convey to Congress the importance of basic research that is supported with federal money.
There are other issues in Washington that affect Penn as an education institution. There are issues related to endowment spending, tuition issues, transparency of information on web pages regarding costs and expenses. The federal government, increasingly, is looking to intervene in higher education management, and higher education is such a diverse industry. Regulations that are directed, for instance, to the for-profit education community sometimes have unintended consequences for institutions like Penn, so we are actively engaged in trying to educate Congress on being sure that their proposals are directed where they’re supposed to be directed.
As I said before, we’re relationship-based, so we’re often connecting people from Penn to people in Washington. ... We try to also facilitate other faculty and administrators who have specific areas of expertise that are of interest to Congress. Congressman [Robert] Brady will call from time to time asking to talk to someone who has knowledge about an industry—the auto industry when it was having problems, or the home mortgage industry. We’ll often get calls from Congressman Brady or Congressman [Chaka] Fattah and try to help connect them with folks on campus who can give them some insights and help them understand the issues that they’re dealing with.

Q. Are some of these issues kind of cyclical or are they all brand new?
The need to positively advocate for federal research dollars is a consistent issue. The endowment issue is one that comes and goes, depending on the economy, depending on Congress. It was a hot issue three years ago. It has somewhat quieted down because of the economic difficulties that have had a significant effect on college endowments.

Q. And what are some things that you’re keeping an eye on at the local level?
Penn has a very good relationship with the West Philadelphia community as well as the Center City community. My office sponsors the First Thursday meetings, which are held every month, nine months out of every year. It’s a meeting that’s an opportunity for people from the Penn community to meet with people from our immediate neighborhood and for there to be a dialogue in both directions about issues, concerns, projects, a sharing of information. It’s a very positive meeting which has grown from eight or 10 people a few years ago to over 100 people attending, most of them coming from West Philadelphia, now a few from Center City.
I think Penn is unusual in having the strong relationships that it has with its neighbors, and that’s a very important part of what we do. It makes us an important and strong part of the city.

Q. The University has something called the Pennsylvania General Assembly Penn Caucus. What is that group exactly?
Our connections in Harrisburg are very important to the University and especially to the School of Veterinary Medicine, which gets an appropriation from the legislature every year.
Last May, with the assistance of two Penn alums who are in the legislature, Representative Mike Gerber and Senator Stewart Greenleaf—one a Democrat, one a Republican—we formed a non-partisan caucus of Penn alumni, Penn parents, legislators whose geographic district includes Penn and a few others who are just friends. The purpose is to keep them together to understand that they have a common interest and to provide an opportunity to let them know what’s going on here and to express appreciation for what they do for us.

Q. Since 2009, state funding for Penn’s Vet School has been reduced by 30 percent. What’s the status of that funding in this budget cycle?
We’re working very hard to maintain or increase the Vet School’s appropriation from the commonwealth. It is a very challenging environment. ... There will be significant cuts this year to the state system of higher education universities and the state-related universities—Penn State, Temple, Pitt, Lincoln. We don’t get anywhere near the amount of money they get, but the amount of money that the Vet School gets is very important to the kinds of programs the Vet School does for the citizens of the commonwealth. It’s not so much about putting students in seats and educating them about veterinary medicine. It’s about the kinds of programs that the Vet School does that help to manage outbreaks of swine flu and other epidemics. The Vet School has very sophisticated tools and GPS mapping so that when something happens, they can isolate an outbreak and really get it under control very quickly. There have been events in the past where this has been demonstrated and saved millions of dollars for the commonwealth’s agricultural industry. ... It is a school that is supported by and important to commonwealth industries.

Originally published on February 17, 2011