WASHINGTON — Larry Berman shows off his new building with all the enthusiasm of a real estate agent who thinks he’s about to seal a deal.
“Come over here,” he said as he stood near the window in the 11th-floor conference room. “Look at that view of the National Cathedral.”
Berman, a 50-year-old political scientist, is director of the University of California’s Washington program. And his building is the university’s new 11-story Washington Center a few blocks north of the White House.
The $30 million center, which opened in October, is a combination dormitory and lecture hall for up to 270 students, as well as offices for the university’s eight full-time lobbyists.
It is the largest operation of its kind in Washington and projects the image of a university that brags about the more than $6 billion a year it gets from the federal government — more than all recipients of federal aid except for a few defense contractors.
The genesis of the building was “to present a unified image of the University of California in Washington,” said Ellie Ross, UC’s special projects manager.
The majority of the building is given over to student rooms — rent and parking fees are helping pay for its construction.
The lobbying operation occupies just one floor but is a critical link between the federal government and the university system, with its nine campuses and three national laboratories.
“People think of us as being state-funded,” said A. Scott Sudduth, UC’s chief Washington lobbyist. “But we receive as much if not more of our resources from the federal government.”
The labs at Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos in New Mexico account for nearly half of UC’s federal aid, more than $3 billion. Only half jokingly, Sudduth said UC is the largest employer in New Mexico since the lab’s employees receive UC paychecks.
Issues of weapons research and security have taken on new importance since Sept. 11, he said.
The terrorist attacks also are playing an important role in shaping U.S. policy toward foreign students because at least one hijacker entered the country on a student visa.
“There’s a whole new question post-9/11 of who has access to the American education system in terms of international students,” Sudduth said.
But the university’s reach extends well beyond the labs and more traditional education policy issues.
Because three of the university’s five hospitals are so-called safety-net hospitals that serve indigent patients, UC has fought Bush administration efforts to reduce federal payments to the safety-net hospitals.
The lobbyists also are trying to preserve funding from Medicare, the federal health insurance program for older Americans, to teaching hospitals that train doctors. Proposed cuts could cost the UC hospitals $50 million over five years, Sudduth said.
He said he’s been asked why UC has such a robust lobbying operation.
“We receive more R-and-D funding than the Ivy League and Big Ten combined,” he said.
As federal support of education has increased through student loans and grants as well as research money, lobbying by colleges and universities has increased as well.
The State University of New York, as part of a push to boost its national profile and double its federal research dollars, last year hired a Capitol Hill lobbyist at a cost of $600,000.
But SUNY’s goal, to reach $1 billion in research money by 2004, is small by UC’s standards.
“Because of the national weapons labs, UC has more interaction with the federal government than almost any other university,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents many of the nation’s universities in Washington.
Sudduth, 42, who used to run the University of Texas lobbying office and previously worked as a congressional aide, said UC has recruited more experienced lobbyists in recent years, reflecting UC’s desire to influence policy.
One example is the administration’s science budget. Sudduth said the university is concerned that the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy are being shortchanged, while the National Institutes of Health has had its budget doubled in the past five years.
“Now we’re the largest benefactor of the increase at NIH,” Sudduth said. “But NIH is strong in the life sciences, and research doesn’t work that way today.”
Work on the human genome might include contributions from computer scientists and engineers, as well as specialists in life sciences, he said.
“We want to maximize the overall budget for basic research. Then let us go out and compete for grant money,” Sudduth said. “We feel confident we’ll get our share.”
UC officials see their new building as a symbol of their strength — a sparkling glass-paneled, technologically advanced edifice.
The idea for the new Washington center was to consolidate various university operations under one roof, akin to Washington programs run by Stanford, Boston and Cornell universities.
Students come from the university’s nine campuses for 10 weeks or a semester at a time. By day, they work as interns throughout the federal government. They take classes in the evening.
Cam-Tu “Cammie” Nguyen, 21, a senior at UC San Diego, works in the Justice Department’s press office, preparation for what she hopes is a career in public relations.
She loves the location, a few blocks from the lively Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods. But Nguyen said her parents were hesitant about sending her to Washington after Sept. 11.
“They were a little bit worried,” she said. “But I assured them that no one who was here in the fall quarter went home.”
The building opened a few weeks after the terrorist attacks.
UC students have been coming to Washington for internships for years, working in Congress, the White House and federal agencies while living in the suburbs and taking classes in a downtown office building.
The structure is the envy of Washington campuses. Those that have their own facilities are in older, smaller buildings.
“I hear Larry Berman has a great view and parking,” said Linda Jarschauer Johnson, who runs Cornell’s program.