Our Man in Washington

The UT System’s Office of Federal Relations is building connections in the nation’s capital, and its Longhorn leader is doing it with a song in his heart—and on his iPhone.

Our Man in Washington

Halfway into an interview with vice chancellor Bill Shute, BA ’84, Life Member, there’s a familiar sound. A surging “hey-up!” and the opening strains of the Longhorn Band playing “The Eyes of Texas.” It’s Shute’s ring tone, and he very politely says he has to take the call.

In his capacity as vice chancellor for federal relations, the Longhorn and former lobbyist manages an office designed to advocate for the UT System to national lawmakers and federal agencies. An easier way to put it is that he’s a preacher, and his gospel is the UT System. He spreads the good word about its research and its place as a leading academic institution.

The call is from congressman Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), BBA ’62. They briefly discuss the UT System’s newest university in South Texas before Shute jumps back into conversation. For him, it’s all in a day’s work—from persuading students to apply to UT universities, to crusading for Congress to support the System.

“I am thoroughly convinced,” he says, “that every good thing that’s happened to me as an adult started with the decision I made to go to The University of Texas.”

And he’s not just saying that for our benefit. He says it with feeling. He says it like, well, like it’s his job. In dozens of little ways, Shute is constantly telling D.C. insiders—and everyone else—all about UT. His team at the Office of Federal Relations helps analyze federal legislation, track issues like funding and financial aid, put UT experts in front of congressional hearings, and more than anything, make UT’s presence known in the nation’s capital.

“Even in my old days as a corporate lobbyist,” he says, “I knew this was something I really wanted to do.”

But this kind of advocacy is not just handshakes and PowerPoint presentations (though there is a lot of that). The more you talk to him, the more you realize that Shute is, above all, a nerd. He adores research, admires discovery, and is always thinking about the future. He even calls himself a “futurist.” Acting as UT’s ambassador to Washington gives him the opportunity to keep up with the very latest work from the scholars and health care professionals at the UT System’s 15 campuses and health institutions—and then share that work with federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

When new initiatives crop up, like President Obama’s $100 million plan to increase science’s understanding of the human brain, the Office of Federal Relations starts moving to find ways to make UT a vital part of the project, like through UT-Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth. When national leaders think about academic excellence, Shute wants them to think of Texas. He wants to see UT researchers, teachers, and students benefit from that recognition.

“Seeing the ability to move from where we are as a culture, as a species, into what research can provide the next generation is fascinating,” Shute says, excitement coloring his voice. “If we are able to have some small, little part in that, [by] helping them secure funding, or helping them to create a regulatory environment that allows them to succeed, [it’s] ultimately very rewarding.”

Building a solid relationship with Washington, however, is not just a one-way street. Not only does the federal relations team introduce those in high office to all the System has to offer, but it also introduces Longhorns to the world inside the beltway. The Archer Center, named for founder and former Texas congressman Bill Archer, BBA ’50, LLB ’51, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, brings student leaders from across the UT System to Washington for classes on public policy, one-on-one interactions with federal leaders, and internships at national and international agencies. Originally limited to UT-Austin students, Archer Fellowships are now open to students at any UT institution, and the program now includes a 12-week summer session for graduate students. Shute says he even wants to offer the D.C. experience to UT’s medical and health professions students, a traditionally tricky demographic to tear away from their studies.

Shute calls the students in the program, perhaps suitably, the future. He tells the story of an Archer Fellow from UT-El Paso who interned with the World Bank, and who convinced his boss to print up business cards with “consultant” as his title. Since then, Shute says, he’s done more than just consult. He’s worked for two different Mexican presidents, and is now back in Washington as part of Mexico’s delegation to the Organization of American States.

“That’s just one small example of the quality of kids—” Shute stops and corrects himself. “That’s not fair. These young adults are coming up and spending time and seeing what a future could be like in public service. And that’s always been our guiding principle.”

Bringing UT’s best to Washington is part of a mission to convince politicians and bureaucrats that what starts in Texas really does change the world. For Bill Shute, it was a mission worthy enough to ditch the stock options and bonuses of corporate lobbying.

“Quite frankly,” he admits, “I couldn’t do it for my friends up the road in College Station. I couldn’t do it for anyone else in this country. But it’s the fact that my blood’s burnt orange that makes it great to wake up in the morning.”

Photo courtesy Bill Shute.

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