The Advocate Dean: Mark A. Sheridan, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, Texas Tech University
    September 27, 2018

    Effective advocacy means going out and telling the story. Passionately. Convincingly. And with purposeful outcomes in mind. It is important, therefore, to target your message to your audience.

    Establish your “advocacy network”

    A critical part of an advocacy strategy is building your advocacy network. These are the internal and external constituents with whom you want to build a dialogue. Start small. Over time, the size of your network will gradually grow. When I first arrived at Texas Tech, I wanted to get to know the community, and so I attended department faculty meetings, had “get acquainted” meetings with key staff at the university (research, student affairs, financial aid, business office, government affairs, institutional advancement, etc.), met with student organizations, community service clubs, the chamber of commerce, local legislative offices, etc. In short, I invited myself everywhere, so I could establish my “advocacy network.” (I also got some “freebie” additions to my network, because as the new person, I found people reaching out to me, i.e., alumni association, office of commercialization). Gradually, my network has grown, and although there has been turnover with specific individuals, my contacts have remained and strengthened.


    As a graduate dean, you will be asked to make remarks to all sorts of groups. Student organizations. Honor societies. Alumni events. Convocations. Community events. At first, the number of invitations you receive is small, but as you get to know your campus and broader community and your network grows, the number of invitations will increase. Accept these invitations whenever possible and use them as advocacy opportunities.



    Get information and listen. As noted in other GradEdge columns, there are lots of sources of information, including data from the Council of Graduate Schools, the National Science Foundation, the Center for Measuring University Performance, etc. Be sure to get data specific to your institution, including from exit surveys. I’ve also begun conducting alumni surveys, which serve multiple purposes and provide me with a lot of very useful information, including how many of our alums are working in the state. You should also collect and keep an inventory of “success stories.” Often, the most persuasive arguments combine data with an appropriate anecdote. The power of the story was brought home to me when I heard a board member repeat a story at a public event about the connection between research and graduate education about a year after I told it to him (he even attributed it to me!).


    Also listen for where there may be challenges and opportunities (this applies to both internal and external constituents). For example, before I arrived at Texas Tech, there was a longstanding problem with paying tuition and fees, processing of appointment forms for TAs/Ras, and posting waivers, which resulted in numerous hardships for students, including being dropped from classes. By working with the Business Office, we’ve now worked out a process and message campaign that avoids the hardships. I also wanted to be sure that our professional and career development program was responsive to the workforce, so I put together a task force that included representatives from local business and industry (this helped build my advocacy network too) and asked the question: What skills do our graduates need to enter and succeed in the workforce? As a result, we built a program that can evolve, adapt, and respond to workforce demands.


    Advocate with purpose

    With your network (which should be ever evolving/expanding) and tools (data and stories) in hand, you are equipped to launch your advocacy campaign. I do urge that you go forth strategically and with a purpose in mind. Sometimes the purpose may be simple (e.g., consciousness/friend raising, network building). Sometimes it may be grand (e.g., influence policy or law). Regardless, it is important to match your message to your audience. I found there are seven core types of messages:


    •  Consciousness raising
    •  Recruiting
    •  Research, innovation, technology development
    •  Economic development
    •  Workforce development
    •  Strengthen social fabric
    •  Philanthropy/fund raising


    Clearly, these are not mutually exclusive messages; they can be mixed to meet a given audience. Sometimes you know an audience in advance, such as when giving formal remarks to a community service organization, but sometimes you need to “read” the audience on the fly, such as during a one-on-one conversation with a legislator/legislative staffer or alum/prospective donor. This is when advance homework that reveals interests, etc. really helps. The impact of your message in one-on-one and small group meetings is re-enforced by a “leave behind” (targeted to the type of message/goal). This allows your message to “linger” and provides a conduit for follow-up communication. Sometimes the best outcome is for you to be a resource for questions. Be sure that you follow up.


    The importance for the targeted “leave-behind” was underscored for me through my interaction with one of my alums. He and I had been visiting for about a year, gradually moving from “friend raising” to exploring the possibility of a gift. Knowing his background and interests, I provided him with a couple of targeted leave- behinds that resonated with him, and which led to gift agreements.

    When you least expect it

    Be prepared for advocacy opportunities when you least expect them. I can think of two such cases for me. Once when I was entering the administration building on campus, I walked, literally, into the governor. Another time while visiting the U.S. capitol with my family, one of my U.S. senators (unaccompanied) walked across our path. Both were powerful advocacy opportunities (research brings new dollars into state economy, return on state investment, job creation, expanding tax base). And both, as it turned out, were extremely effective (leading to long-term interactions).


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