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Goals and Initiatives of the University of Iowa

posted on May 8, 2008

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Glover: There's new leadership at the University of Iowa. Dr. Sally Mason has been installed as Iowa's 20th University president and she joins us today to discuss the present, and the future, on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, May 9th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Mike Glover.

Glover: As head of the state's largest institution of higher learning there is a lot on the table of Dr. Sally Mason and her administration in Iowa City. Certainly the problems facing higher education are not unique to the University of Iowa, nor any of the three Regents' institutions. They include, the prospect of tuition increases, faculty recruitment and retention, grantsmanship, external fundraising, alumni relations and, of course, maintaining a physical facility that serves up to 30,000 students. All that and more. Dr. Mason comes to Iowa City from Purdue University where she served as University Provost and where she taught in biochemistry and the biomedical sciences. Dr. Mason, welcome to Iowa Public Television and to Iowa Press.

Mason: Thank you, Mike. It's good to be here.

Glover: Also joining us at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, News Director with Radio Iowa and Jeneane Beck, Statehouse Reporter with Iowa Public Radio.

Beck: Dr. Mason, I know that tuition has been set for the upcoming school year. But what can you tell us about the process for the following school year? Will it be held to the rate of inflation for higher education?

Mason: We're certainly going to work hard to make certain that that can happen. Anything can happen these days largely because of increasing costs all across the board. I will tell you that we're going to have to look very seriously at our energy costs this year because that is something right now that is running probably way out in front of inflation and we're going to need to be able to cover those so no commitments yet at least on tuition. But our goal is to keep it as low as we can.

Beck: Because of those rising energy costs and whether it be food costs for students, all those things that come into play, will you ask then the legislature for more money? And what do you think is the appropriate mix of student pay and state pay?

Mason: Our priority for the last several years has been our people, getting salaries competitive with our peers so that we can retain faculty, recruit faculty and make certain that, at least among our peers, we have that competitive edge. And I think we've done a good job of that. I think the mix will always be that students pay for some of this, the state pays for some of this.

Beck: But students have been paying more than used to be the case.

Mason: Except for the last two years. I think Iowa has been in a great, great situation the last two years with strong support from the Governor, the legislature, the Board of Regents and, of course, the Regents' institutions in terms of the appropriations. We were very pleased once again this year, the Governor was very supportive of our request which largely deals with the salaries and the salary issues of our faculty because that's the biggest part of our budget. If you look at what we're all about and there's a lot of buildings, a lot of infrastructure but really the biggest part of our budget is always going to be salaries.

Henderson: You come from Purdue. Martin Jischke who was Iowa State University's president was on this very program perhaps in the final hours, if you will, of his tenure at Iowa State.

Mason: I heard that.

Henderson: And he sat in that chair and said lawmakers have not done enough for the state institutions and they should consider raising taxes. Would you as the leader at the University of Iowa ever feel comfortable telling lawmakers that they need to raise taxes?

Mason: Well, he was on his way to Purdue, wasn't he? I think what I would feel comfortable with is obviously working with lawmakers to help them understand the total scope of the needs, particularly higher education. But would I tell them they should raise taxes to do this? There are lots of ways in which our lawmakers can be creative in terms of helping with financing and helping keep costs low. There are some ways we at the University can be helpful too. It's got to be a partnership. And Martin was my boss and I happened to see him on Sunday at his son's engagement party and it was delightful to catch up with him. He still has nothing but very fond memories of his being here in Iowa and he is a hard driver and he will tell it as it is as most of us will.

Henderson: So, what kind of advice did he give you as you were leaving Purdue, headed for Iowa, a state where he had spent a great amount of time?

Mason: He told me two things that have turned out to be very, very true. One was I would love Iowa and Iowans and that Iowa was a state that by and large does support education. So, even though he made those comments on his way out and I suspect he probably was frustrated by budgets that were really struggling because the economy was struggling so much at that time. Nevertheless, he still felt very passionately and strongly positively about Iowa, Iowans and education.

Glover: Speaking of struggles, Dr. Mason, there have been some issues on your campus with athletes who have run into disciplinary and in some cases legal problems. First part of the question is, are you satisfied the athletic department has acted appropriately enough? And is it something that the president of the university ought to involve herself in personally?

Mason: First question, am I satisfied with the way it's being handled? I think our coach -- I've watched college athletics at a lot of places, Purdue, other Big Ten schools, Big 12 schools where I've been either on the faculty or associated with them -- this coach really takes this very seriously. Not every coach would take action as swiftly, as carefully, as sensitively as Coach Ferentz has done with these young men this year. He is as disappointed as the rest of us are in the behavior problems. You know, we hope that it's a blip, we hope that some of the changes that we've made in staffing and some of the changes that we're making in mentoring these young men will have a positive effect and that we can mitigate or eliminate these kinds of behavior problems in the future. We tell these young men it's a privilege to play in Division I athletics, at a place like the University of Iowa but you have to understand that you're in a fish bowl, people are going to pay close attention to your behavior and you've got to set a tone, be a role model, be a leader. And when the young men don't live up to that there's no one more disappointed than the coach, the athletic director and myself. Now, should I as president intervene in this? If I as president have to intervene in this then I need a new athletic director and I feel very strongly that I have a very good person as athletic director and I have a very good coach. It's in their good hands for now. I watch it carefully. I will continue to watch it carefully and if I think that for some reason there needs to be additional intervention I certainly won't hesitate to do that but not at this point.

Beck: Are there discussions of hiring a life coach for the football team? Are you supportive of that? I know Iowa State ran into some controversy when they hired a chaplain for their own team.

Mason: I don't know whether they're calling it life coach, mentor but a lot of individuals who have been associated with Hawkeye football over the years have stepped forward and said we want to help with this. So, I think we're heartened by the fact that former athletes and former individuals who have been associated with our sports programs have all said we want to be part of the solution here, we want to help with whatever issues we're dealing with on the campus and, like I say, I think we're going in a good direction but time will tell.

Glover: And you're not the first university that has dealt with this problem. This problem has cropped up all over the country. What is behind all this? Why is it that student athletes seem to have so much trouble behaving?

Mason: Stakes are high these days. These young people, particularly in football, a sport where there are opportunities for Division I players to advance into the professional leagues obviously and have quite a career there, that that is driving some of this. And then you have young people who in some cases all of their lives they have been told that they're very special, they have been treated in a very special way, they get to college and they see that the environment there is quite different from the environment in which they were literally raised in. And sometimes behavior problems are not detectable until they get to college. So, I think we're seeing some of that and I do think -- I know the coach has said that he thinks that there is -- you see sort of ebb and flow in these kinds of things happening and we happen to be unfortunately in a cycle, in part of a cycle where more is happening rather than less. So, we're hoping to I think reinstate what I call the Hawkeye work ethic which is you come, you work hard and the rewards are to the team, not to the individuals.

Henderson: Former University of Iowa President Mary Sue Coleman was troubled by the reputation which the entire university was getting as a binge drinking place and took some steps to try to address that. What else needs to be done?

Mason: Well, we continue to work on that issue. It's not, by any means, over. I think some of the more disturbing things that we've learned is that many of the young people today, you know, I think we used to think that they come and they learn that at college. But what we're finding now is many of the young people are actually coming with a problem, that they have engaged in this kind of activity prior to arrival at the university. This simply enables or makes it easier for them. And so we've put an alcohol education program in place that all of our freshmen have to take. We've tried to create and we're going to work harder to create alternative venues for students so that there's things to do. A lot of our students tell us there's nothing to do after 10:00 at night in Iowa City on the weekends and at my age I wouldn't know differently. I'm generally off the streets by 11:00. But in their particular case it's probably true that there needs to be more activities for them, you know, we're putting more Friday classes in place to try and mitigate the starting early on Thursday night because they may not have classes on Friday or they may have a reduced class schedule on Friday. So, we're going to bring some of that back into play. One of the bigger challenges for us on this issue is that about as quickly or as soon as we start to make some headway we get a whole new crop of students in and you're starting over again. And then you're trying to assess what kinds of issues, are they the same issues? Or are we dealing with some new ones? For example, coming to us with the predilection already was something new to us and we've had to deal with that now too because engrained behaviors are much harder to change than ones that you kind of pick up along the way.

Henderson: You mentioned 10:00 at night. There was a city wide ordinance which would have forbidden folks under the age of 21 from being in a bar after 10:00. Does that need to be revisited?

Mason: Well, it's a good question. I think that's up to the community.

Beck: But would it be helpful for you? Would you encourage the community to support it?

Mason: Yeah, I think it probably would. When I first got there and they brought that out as an issue to me I really said, listen, that needs to be a community issue. You've lived here longer than I have, you need to help us figure it out. Clearly the students learned about the Democratic process during this election because they all came out to vote, not surprising, and they defeated it. Now, whether that could be reversed I don't know. That's something that really we'd have to sit down with our community leaders and have some serious conversations about it.

Glover: On a larger question how much of your job is running the university? And how much of your job is dealing with the city of Iowa City? I presume you have to do both?

Mason: I do both and I would say that the city of Iowa City and the university are such good partners that I don't spend a huge amount of my time on that. But I'm always happy to participate in community activities. I enjoy meeting with our community leaders, our mayor and some of the other community leaders that are -- it's not just Iowa City, it's Coralville and it's the corridor and we try to pay attention to all of those because we're part of that vibrant eastern Iowa community.

Beck: In the last year and a half to two years there have been some 40 assaults on campus or at least attempted assaults including one last month. Yet no arrests so far. Are you concerned about the safety on your campus?

Mason: They have not been on our campus, they have been in Iowa City.

Beck: Sure. Are you concerned about the safety of your students as they live in that community?

Mason: Absolutely and that is part of the reason why we've been working closely with the city of Iowa City is because while we've been able to reduce the crime rates on campus that especially assault level has gone up to numbers that concern us. We've had a task force joint between the university and community working on this for the last several months and they have got some good recommendations that they're bringing forward now. We've put in place Night Ride which has been very successful. Our university security officers pilot a van now, and actually they do it every night of the week, but it started for Friday and Saturday nights for young women only. They have the phone number, they know where the van is parked so they can go there and get a safe ride home if it's late at night. We're doing that now during the week as well for people who are studying late or working late in their office or laboratories. It's only for women. We decided that was the most at risk group there so we've decided to focus our resources on making certain that they can be kept safe.

Beck: Are you concerned at all this would eventually turn into a recruitment issue for you for students?

Mason: Sure. Every university that has an issue like this worries about these kinds of things. I think we're very grateful that none of these have escalated to a point where there's been real serious physical harm done to any of our young women but it's frightening, it's sobering, it's the kind of thing that we're spending a lot of time educating our students about so they know how to take care of themselves.

Henderson: The Board of Regents, the nine-member panel which governs the University of Iowa voted in the past year to give campus cops the authority to carry guns. How is that going?

Mason: So far so good. They have been carrying firearms now since near the first of the year and we've had no incidents where there have been situations that would give me pause whereas prior to that point in time there were times when I was concerned about our police officers being sent into situations unarmed and trying to diffuse them. So, that was a very controversial issue and I understood the controversy completely. This is something that growing up as an individual who really doesn't like guns, is not a fan of firearms anywhere being put in the position to say yes, our police officers should be armed was a difficult one. But as I weighed the pros and cons and as I took lots of input from various places it became absolutely clear to me that for the safety of our students, our campus and our police officers and I think that is something that was often lost in the conversation that people didn't think about the safety of our police officers, I felt this was the best decision.

Beck: Well, that decision came from the Board of Regents to the universities. There was an issue that recently popped up that the Board of Regents feels like they were left out on and that is parental leave for men and women, a semester long leave that the university has granted new parents.

Mason: Can I correct that?

Beck: Yes, please.

Mason: It's not a leave. It's called modified responsibilities. Okay, what we proposed doing and we've actually had this in our operations manual for about eight years which is why we were at least initial inquiries suggested that we didn't need board approval for this but we're happy to discuss it because we think it is a very family friendly policy, it's enacting something that was already in place across much of the university but it wasn't being implemented equally in all places.

Beck: And the policy is?

Mason: The policy very simply says that you can request a semester where your responsibilities are modified so that perhaps you don't teach a regular course, maybe you're teaching a graduate seminar but you're doing your research, you're doing your service and it's largely focused around a new child entering the home whether it is through birth, adoption, whatever it might be. It's, again, an attempt to be competitive with our peers because all of our peers do something similar and it was an attempt to enact what was already in our operations manual. So, that kind of got confused and I think one of our regents didn't fully understand what he'd read in the paper frankly because if we had had the chance to explain it fully it might have been a little clearer.

Henderson: You said all of our peers are doing it. Do you mean Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa?

Mason: I mean my Big Ten peers, I'm sorry. Iowa State I believe would like to do it and is looking forward to proposing something similar in the not too distant future.

Glover: It's a fairly generous benefit for workers, you get reduced responsibility for a semester, four and a half months.

Mason: Well, it's still 100% set of responsibilities but what it is, is typically we ask faculty, tenure track faculty to be teaching X number of courses, doing this much research and this much service. We have always had the ability to adjust that load depending on the situation. Good department heads, good HR people will tell you letting people participate unequally in these things depending on where their skills or opportunities lie in any particular semester is a good thing, it's a good HR tool. And what we're trying to do is exercise this HR tool in a family friendly way. But by no means, you know, I don't want people to think that faculty are somehow not going to be working because I don't know too many faculty that work fewer than 60 hours a week, it's just that they do it often times in such a flexible manner that it's not easily translated into say a 9 to 5 workday.

Henderson: You talk about remaining competitive with your peers in the Big Ten. Are faculty salaries, not benefits, but salaries competitive?

Mason: We're getting there. We've made some progress and, again, thanks to the legislature, the Governor and the Board of Regents we're making some very, very good progress on this and it makes all the difference in the world. Now, at the same time that we've made progress on faculty salaries it has not come without challenges and without expense. One of the things that I have been very adamant and vocal about was that as we continue to make progress on salaries, and we must or we can't keep the best faculty, we can't recruit the best faculty, we also have to be careful because we've lost 100 faculty lines over the last seven or eight years. The easiest way to reallocate from within if most of your money is tied up in salaries is when someone retires or vacates a position you reallocate those funds to help pay for the salary increases that you'd like to make that year to make a statement to your other employees. So, that has happened and we've now got to I think stop reallocating from those resources and take a very serious look at how we recover those 100 faculty lines.

Beck: What happens if you don't? Do you have suddenly larger class sizes?

Mason: Well, that's what has happened or, and we've done some of this too, you rely on temporary people, part-time people, temporary people, more of our graduate students are teaching, teaching assistants because it is less expensive for the university to rely on those resources than it is to make the investment, the long-term investment that you make in the tenure track faculty.

Beck: The Iowa legislature approved a statewide smoking ban in public places which has convinced the University of Iowa, as I understand, to move up their process of going smoke free on the campus. But listeners to public radio are asking me all the time what does this mean if I tailgate? Can you tell me this policy and why moving it up more quickly, more rapidly now?

Mason: Well, clearly the state has made a statement. The underlying issues here are clear. These are serious health issues. Smoking is one of the number one causes for absenteeism at work, for health issues that go well beyond just the smokers themselves. So, I understand the health issues and fully support the idea that that can drive these kinds of policies. What we try to do at Iowa and the reason why I wanted time to do this was to be sure that we could provide the right kind of smoking cessation programs and the interventions to get people used to this. We also wanted -- we were hoping for a season where we could get our fans used to the idea that no smoking in or around Kinnick Stadium, it's all university, it's all government property. So, yes, this is going to be a very different scenario and we're going to move right along with the law and implement and enforce just as they will.

Beck: But when I talked to the key sponsor of that bill he seems to say that the universities will have jurisdiction over that. So, you might be able to set whether that is just around buildings or whether that is in those open areas. So, you guys are making a decision to ban it in the parking lots or ban it in more open areas, isn't that true?

Mason: I'll have to get some other decisions on that because that is not what my legal people have been telling me thus far. So, we'll see. I'll go back and ask some more questions and see whether or not you're right. I think our fans would be happy.

Henderson: As someone who comes from a healthcare background and is now overseeing a medical hospital how well is the University of Iowa positioned for a national debate on healthcare reform? And what are the perils for an institution like that as the nation may perhaps be embarking on that?

Mason: Well, we're going to watch it closely. I would tell you we had one of the national experts on campus yesterday, Karen Adams, who gave a wonderful presentation about what the options are out there. She's a big believer in national health insurance. Positions are split in terms of how they feel about that. Until we see what someone is willing to step up and propose it's hard to react. I think that we actually are fairly well positioned. We're a hospital of huge size and scope. We treat a lot of the patients here in Iowa that no one else will treat. That's part of our mission. We do it and I think our physicians are pleased and proud to do it. So, yes, it could have -- depending on what happens there will be impacts and the real question will be what are people willing to propose? I think all of our experts are watching all of the candidates to see what they have to say on these issues and we'll begin to assess, as we get closer to the election and we know who the two nominees are going to be, we'll begin to assess exactly what those healthcare initiatives might look like and what impact it will have.

Glover: And what role should the university play? You're an enormous provider of healthcare in this state. What is the role the university ought to play in steering, facilitating, pushing healthcare debate down the road?

Mason: Our College of Public Health in particular, our physicians are really focused on delivering but our College of Public Health there's a number of people involved and engaged in policy and policy discussions and I think it's very appropriate for experts, for people who have that expertise, who understand all of the issues, for the economists and for the public affairs and public policy people to sit down and begin to work through some of these issues in a very systematic way. That's where it's going to happen, not so much in the medical school, per say, or in the hospitals per say, but it will happen with the policy makers and the thinkers.

Glover: And we try to do this to people with about 30 seconds left, ask them the big question. You're new here. What are you going to be remembered for?

Mason: Taking the University of Iowa to newer and greater heights. This is a great university, we're on a great, great course right now. People are feeling very positive not only about what's happening here in the state but what's happening in Iowa City at the university and I couldn't be more pleased and excited to be leading the team and leading the effort.

Glover: And you'll be here for a while?

Mason: I'm going to be here for a long time.

Glover: Thank you, Dr. Mason.

Mason: Thank you.

Glover: We appreciate all of your time. We're out of time right now though. Thanks for your insights. Before we leave we'd like to note that one of our Iowa Press colleagues, Dean Borg, has been honored by the Iowa Broadcast News Association. Dean has received the Jack Shelley Award for meritorious and long-standing contributions to broadcast news in Iowa and was so cited at last weekend's annual IBNA meeting in Waterloo. Dean has been a valued member of our Iowa Press team for 37 years and we congratulate him as well for a well-deserved honor. That's it for this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. We'll return next week at our regular Iowa Press airtimes, Friday at 7:30 and Sunday morning at 11:30. I'm Mike Glover sitting in for Dean Borg who returns next weekend. Thanks for joining us here on statewide Iowa Public Television.

Archive editions of Iowa Press can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Audio and video streaming is available as are transcripts at

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

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