Even when one retires, the job to enhance higher education is never done. But when one has the support of an entire university, it makes the job worthwhile.
Barbara Cohen-Pippin has fit comfortably into her role as Director of Governmental Relations since December 2016, succeeding longtime FAMU lobbyist Tola Thompson. With the 2018 Florida legislative session being in full swing, it’s only natural to ask who is batting for Florida A&M and what might they be fighting for at the Capitol?
Cohen-Pippin brings 30 plus years of experience in higher education and a great deal of her expertise comes from time spent in the Florida Legislature.
“Getting into the process again after being out of it, it’s like getting on a bicycle. It’s little wobbly at first, and then it goes smoothly,” Cohen-Pippin said. “But I don’t know if I truly took a break from higher education.”
For 20 years Pippin was a higher education analyst for the Senate Committee on Education. That is where she got her start in the Sunshine State. In that position she informed legislators what a given bill does, why it was needed and how it was effective. Cohen-Pippen believes this task was what prepared her most for her role at FAMU.
The University of Massachusetts graduate left the Senate to be assistant to the president of Broward College for governmental relations before retiring in 2011. Even so, Cohen-Pippin kept up with the legislative system during what was supposed to be her retirement years.
With a year under her belt at FAMU, Cohen-Pippin said that the adjustment came easy, partially because of the people surrounding her.
In her role, she serves as an advocate, liaison and resource to the university. She represents the university at the Capitol, informing the Legislature what FAMU needs and why those needs are vital to the institution.
FAMU President Larry Robinson said when searching for the Director of Governmental Relations, he had adequate time to adjust and plan for Thompson’s departure. He had a few things to consider. A critical criteria, he said, was experience with the Florida Legislature, which Cohen-Pippin had in abundance.
“I think that she is handling it pretty well. She’s utilizing the staff that we have as well as students, faculty, deans and alumni. She has put together a very well-coordinated effort,” Robinson said.
It is a formalized process when framing a solid agenda to present to the Legislature. A major talking point is university funding and the areas of need.
“We start that discussion internally and engage with our board who approves the items that we will prioritize for a given year. We then pass it on to the Board of Governors,” Robinson said. “We make sure to communicate our priorities with all of our stakeholders so that we can work together.”
One of her tactics in making sure that FAMU’s voice is heard at the Capitol is engaging FAMU alumni and ensuring that they can advocate as well.
“Last year we were able to get legislation passed as a result of the calls (alumni) made to their respective legislators,” Cohen-Pippin said. “Their passion and love for this university is awesome and I’ve been so impressed by it. It makes you proud to be a Rattler.”
Cohen-Pippin said alumni demonstrate great power when getting things across on behalf of Florida A&M and seasoned Rattlers put real meaning in all politics that are local.
“They have relationships with their legislator. Some of our trustee members can pick up the phone and call,” she said, “We had a bill last week and wanted to get it in the agenda. I asked if (someone) could call and ask their legislator. (They) called and helped to get the bill.”
The passion and love for the institution aids in making the case to the Legislature, Cohen-Pippin said. When the university works together it is no longer solely her job to promote, because at that point, everyone is an advocate.
“I can draw on technology, or student services when I need it. If I need information on the budget I call the budget office and they give me the numbers,” Cohen-Pippin said. “If I need an expert to testify on a bill that affects student advising or financial aid I have somebody to call upon if I need to do that. It’s a team effort.”
The job for Cohen-Pippin comes full circle once she realizes who she is doing it for.
Cohen-Pippin has pushed to make the case for the Center for Access and Student Success project at FAMU to lawmakers while at the Capitol, vocalizing its potential benefits.
She said students are working to improve their quality of life and too often are being penalized by debt because of their inability to pay out of pocket for education. This is a problem that she seeks to address.
“I don’t consider myself a lobbyist. I want to be helpful to people, I want to help the university and share information,” Cohen-Pippin said. “For me doing it for students makes it even better. You’re advocating to make life better for someone.”