Like many political interest groups, the Higher Education Partnership (HEP) was founded in response to an acknowledged failing or oversight in the governmental process. In the mid-1990s, the state of Alabama greatly reduced the portion of the state budget devoted to higher education. Governor Fob James's stance on education funding was that K-12 education in the state was underfunded relative to higher education. His administration joined forces with the political muscle of the Alabama Education Association (AEA) to support the stance to reduce budget recommendations for higher education. This resulted in a pattern of budgeting that cut the overall percentage of the Education Trust Fund that was available for university operations. The universities could not allow this to occur without objecting. Realizing that the only effective method for challenging this behavior was to form a grassroots advocacy organization, the universities created the Higher Education Partnership.
After several unsatisfactory attempts to restore funding during James's second administration, leaders of higher educational institutions, including Auburn University president William Muse, University of Montevallo president Robert McChesney, and Chancellor Jack Hawkins of Troy University, in addition to several university lobbyists, played key roles in the establishment of the Higher Education Partnership in 1997. The HEP was formed as a non-profit 501-c-6 trade association for members and member organizations. In an effort to boost effectiveness, HEP leaders hired an executive director and staff. They began recruiting faculty, staff, and other constituent groups in the higher education community. Recently, they have also established a foundation that receives a number of earmarked donations from corporate and individual contributors, such as Alabama Power Company, to fund activities that include student service, leadership training, and communication exercises.
The HEP is headed by a board of directors representing a variety of constituencies, including university presidents and chancellors, lobbyists, faculty, students, and alumni groups. The day-to-day activities and major efforts are carried out, however, by a much smaller 11-person executive committee. Since its formation, HEP has been headed by Gordon Stone, a long-time Montgomery governmental affairs professional who has been a high-profile representative of public universities in the state. During his tenure as HEP executive director, he has frequently served as a spokesperson for higher education. He works closely with the broadcast and print media and has authored numerous editorials, media releases, and research reports in support of higher education. Other staff members oversee a wide range of organizational and policy responsibilities for the HEP.
HEP's most notable program to promote the interests of Alabama higher education is its sponsorship of Higher Education Day in Montgomery during each session of the Alabama State Legislature. The annual event takes the form of a traditional political rally, complete with marching bands, at which 1,500 to 2,000 faculty, students, and administrators listen to state leaders on the steps of the state capitol. Presenters have included governors, legislative leaders, and representatives of higher education. In addition, attendees are strongly encouraged to visit individually with their legislators in their offices. In addition to Higher Education Day, HEP has worked to build relationships with other organizations, such as the Business Council of Alabama; the two organizations have co-sponsored job fairs and cooperated in other activities. Also, HEP has organized a leadership training program for student and adult leaders that has resulted in increased involvement in advocating for higher education.
In sum, through its efforts with the media and inside the system contacts its staff has developed, the Higher Education Partnership has raised the profile of Alabama's universities with the public at large and, importantly, with public officials. HEP has effectively achieved its mission to communicate the importance of higher education in bettering the lives of the people of Alabama. It has built a statewide advocacy network that is prepared to respond and that is actively engaged in the political process. The association has trained leaders for future service and has developed a highly regarded reputation as a difference-maker in Alabama.