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Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy

posted on December 9, 2011

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Stepping down.  Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy going back to teaching.  A conversation with outgoing ISU President Geoffroy on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Greg Geoffroy has been guiding Iowa State University through some very challenging circumstances during the past ten years he has been president, some receiving more attention than others but all requiring futurist vision while respecting Iowa State's land grant university mission.  Probably Geoffroy's biggest challenge is compensating for more than $45 million drop in state appropriations while accommodating record-setting student enrollment.  Geoffroy's tenure also includes restructuring Iowa State's signature statewide extension service and bringing in Athletic Director Jamie Pollard for raising ISU's sports profile and playing a leading role himself in holding together the Big 12 conference.  January 15th is his final day in the president's office.  President Geoffroy, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Geoffroy: Great to be here.

Borg: And I should say for the record you are a chemistry professor, aren't you?

Geoffroy: I am, I am.

Borg: And researcher in some specialty?

Geoffroy: Organometallic chemistry.

Borg: I'll let you say that.  And I want to introduce to the people across the table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  I should say too, before we begin our conversation with you today, we're going to look back to when you were first a guest here on Iowa Press.  Just after becoming Iowa State's president in 2001 we invited President Geoffroy to talk with us on Iowa Press and Mike Glover at that time was seeking a long range vision.

Glover: (Iowa Press - December 7, 2001) What do you want to be remembered for?  When people talk about the Geoffroy reign at Iowa State what do you want them to say?

Geoffroy: (Iowa Press - December 7, 2001) I hope to have a good long tenure at Iowa State and without question the most important outcome would be an increase in the level of excellence of Iowa State, that people around the country recognize that Iowa State is a stronger university, more influential university of high impact after I have left than before I came.

Glover: President Geoffroy, look back on what you said ten years ago and reflect on that as you move out of the presidency.  What is your proudest accomplishment of your tenure?  What are you happiest that happened during your tenure?

Geoffroy: I think there are many accomplishments but I'm really very proud of sort of raising the culture of excellence in the university.  I see that all across campus.  I see it in interacting with faculty and staff, students, sort of an energy to have an impact and to achieve a high level of excellence in everything they do.

Glover: And culture of excellence, what do you mean by that?

Geoffroy: Well, excellence is valued, excellence and impact.  In everything that anybody does you want to make a difference, you want to have an impact and you want to do it really well.  And to raise that across the university is changing the culture of the institution and I think we've had a lot of success in that.

Glover: And let's flip that coin over and look back over your ten years, the thing you are least happy that happened?  What would you have rather not have had happen?

Geoffroy: Well, we have had to deal with many budget cuts over these ten years and they have taken a toll on the university.  We haven't been able to do a lot of the things that we wanted to do.  When I arrived ten years ago I had a lot of ambitious plans.  We started something called Presidential Initiatives the first year I was on board and they had a big impact and are still having an impact, the initiatives that we created then and I had hoped to do that every two or three years, to have another round and we just were not able to do that.

Glover: And does that interfere with the culture of excellence?

Geoffroy: Well, we've had to adapt.  Iowans are very resilient and make due and you know that.  We've been successful in handling the budget reductions and just figuring out how to keep going and keep doing things well.

Borg: Let me give another spin on Mike's question, that is a decision you made that you wish you could take back?

Geoffroy: You know, I don't really know of any.  I had to make a number of tough decisions about vision.  I think that was the right decision.  We had some coaching changes that we had to take care of.  I think those ended up being the right decisions.  We've had some personnel changes that we needed to make and I think those were the right decisions.  Appointments, hires, I'm really proud of the leadership team that I have put together, you mentioned Jamie Pollard, he's a great one but there are other tremendous leaders that I have appointed and I'm very proud of that.

Henderson: Both you and Dean have mentioned budget cuts.  To put a finer point on it, has the quality of the education students are getting in the classroom suffered because of those budget cuts?

Geoffroy: I don't think so.  There are some changes, some impact.  Clearly class size is larger now.  Very clearly there are fewer elective courses for students to choose from because we have had to trim back.  Very clearly extension has undergone a number of changes because of their budget cuts.  But I think when you look at the overall educational experience it is obviously very high and the best measure of that is the fact that students are choosing us in record numbers.  We enroll more high school graduates from Iowa high schools than any other university anywhere.  We enroll more transfer students from Iowa's community colleges than any university anywhere.  And our out-of-state and international enrollment has been increasing rapidly.  Four percent overall enrollment growth from last year to this year and we're looking at another similar increase for next year.  That is the best way to measure the quality of the educational experience when students are choosing us in record numbers.

Henderson: Let's measure tuition.  How does tuition today compare to what it was when you landed in 2001?  And has tuition sort of priced some students out of obtaining a higher degree?

Geoffroy: I can't give you the absolute number, certainly tuition has increased as it does most every year.  What we do track is how our tuition compares to other universities around the country and particularly in the surrounding states.  They have all seen tuition increases.  When you compare tuition ten years ago to where it is now for us compared to other institutions our overall increase has actually been less than the peer average and less than almost all other public universities like Iowa State.  The question of affordability is a very, very good question and very clearly there are young people and their families who struggle with tuition no matter what it is and it is still one of the best investments you can make in a young person and in their future but it clearly can be very challenging.  That is why we try to have good financial aid programs to help students with that.

Borg: But in a way they are mortgaging their future, aren’t they President Geoffroy?  I recall a recent Regents meeting, you were there and you heard Regent Bob Downer speculate that student debt may be depressing Iowa's economic growth by driving students out of state where they can get higher salaries to repay that student debt.

Geoffroy: That could be.  Certainly it is, as you say, mortgaging because you're borrowing, students who do borrow -- and about two-thirds of our students do take on a loan of some type -- students who do borrow are borrowing against their potential for future higher earnings.  And it is a good investment any way you look at it.

Borg: But do you think it is depressing Iowa's economic growth by driving students out of state?

Geoffroy: I don't think so.  I think most students take jobs because of the circumstances that surround those jobs, the kind of companies, the people that they're going to work with and I don't think that salaries in Iowa are largely that much lower than elsewhere particularly when you take into account the cost of living differences.  It is less expensive from a cost of living standpoint in Iowa compared to New York, Chicago, the West Coast, no question.

Glover: I'd like you to take a look at the big picture if you could, at the whole state's educational picture.  The Governor has come up with an education reform package which has focused very heavily on K-12.  There's some Regents things in it but it is focused heavily on K-12.  The community colleges seem to have some advocates because they have legislators that represent that area.  A lot of republicans at the Hill look at Ames and Cedar Falls and Iowa City as liberal, democratic _____.  Are you becoming the orphan of Iowa's education system?

Geoffroy: Well, there clearly is an increased focus on K-12 and community colleges at the expense of the Regents institutions.  We have definitely seen that in funding and everything else.  I think you have to think of the entire educational enterprise as a seamless enterprise from pre-kindergarten all the way through graduate school and you can't have any weak links in there.  Any weak links will not help the state and so you need a strong K-12, you need strong community colleges, you need strong Regents institutions and we need to do everything we can to enhance all of those.

Glover: The policy makers don't seem to share that view.

Geoffroy: Yes, we have certainly experienced that and I think that we have turned the corner a bit on that with new Regents leadership and hopefully going forward that will be better.

Glover: And you're turning the reigns over to your successor.  Give him your advice.  What is the most important thing he needs to know going forward?  What is your advice for your replacement?

Geoffroy: Steve is going to be a great university president.  I'm very, very impressed with him and he is, I think he's on his toes and he sort of knows what is needed.  But very clearly all of the Regents institutions need to do a better job of convincing Iowans of the great value of these public universities and why the public universities are so very important for the future success of the state.  And that means traveling the state, meeting with Iowans in various formats, community visits.  I think it also means internally being much more accountable and a higher degree of clarity in how the resources that we have available are used.

Glover: So advocating for the school?

Geoffroy: Yes, yes, absolutely, advocating for the university is always a dominant priority of the university president.  I think it's going to be an increased priority for President Leath and I know that is on his agenda as well as the Regents.

Henderson: Education reform is Governor Branstad's priority.  He rolled out a plan for reforming a system which included some attention to teacher education programs at your institution and others.  Do you think the entrance requirements for people going into teacher education programs should be raised?  And do you think there should be an exit exam to test for competency once someone graduates?

Geoffroy: Let's talk about the entrance requirements.  I do think you want to get the best people that you can going into the teaching profession.  There’s no question about that.  And it is how you measure that competence that is the issue.  The proposal has been to increase the grade point average required for entering into a teacher preparation program to 3.0.  That is a reasonable level, that is a B average.  It would eliminate a number of students who now proceed to the teaching profession.  It would have a disproportionate impact on minority students and that is of some concern.  Legislation still has to be drafted on that.  My recommendation would be to go ahead and set the bar at 3.0 but have some flexibility so that maybe each institution could have say 10% of the students who go into the teacher education program fall below that bar but only admitted after a careful review of their dossiers and interviewing to see if they have other skill sets, motivation, etc. to make them a great teacher.  You don't want to have a rigid cutoff, some flexibility that would give entry to specially talented people.

Henderson: And what about the exit exam?

Geoffroy: Exit exams are, first of all, how are you going to construct one?  You're having, you're producing chemistry teachers, physics teachers, social science teachers, economics teachers, elementary ed, you can't really construct a single exit exam that would determine how well all of those students are going to do as teachers.  I think far more important is to enhance the practical experience of teachers and more student teaching, more time in the classroom with mentoring teachers.  Ultimately I think that is going to lead to better teaching.

Glover: And how do you score that with what some complain is a shortage of teachers?  Are you making it more difficult to go into the profession by setting higher entrance standards, higher exit standards?  There's already a shortage of teachers in many areas.

Geoffroy: The shortage is principally in the science areas, mathematics and some other areas.  Ultimately it is, it gets down to compensation in large part.  If you have a young person who has abilities in the science and math and they're thinking about career options and they can be an engineer or they can be a high school physics teacher and you look at the compensation differences not only at the beginning but over a lifetime they are huge.  Engineering bachelors, graduates now start at at least $60,000 a year and you know what the compensation is for teachers and that makes a big difference in attracting the best and the brightest young people into professions.

Glover: Kay mentioned earlier the Governor has come up with an overhaul of the education system in Iowa.  Part of that overhaul as originally proposed was an overhaul in the way teachers are paid which would result in higher pay for teachers.  That is on hold.  Was that a mistake?

Geoffroy: I think -- I liked very much that proposal that Governor Branstad brought forward and I wish there were a way to move aggressively with it.  I think it is on hold because of budgetary constraints and issues dealing with teachers unions and I personally think that the state should push aggressively to raise the entry salaries for teachers.

Glover: So, it was a mistake to put it off?  And one of your predecessors on this very program came on and cited many of the same budget issues that you cite and said, look, it's time that the state takes a look at raising taxes to provide for resources for the Regents and for other institutions of education.  Is there time to consider that?

Geoffroy: I'm not going to advocate for raising taxes.  I think we all have to just buckle down and do the best job we can with the resources that we have available.  I do think it is appropriate to support the Regents institutions at a consistent, stable level.  What has been challenging for us is the roller coaster.  I have a graph that shows state funding and it goes down and it went up and then precipitated down.  It's hard to plan a budget when you have that kind of instability so having a more stable funding situation, hopefully with slow growth from the state, slow growth from tuition increases is a much better situation than this kind of roller coaster that we've been through.

Borg: One thing that brings in a lot of money is athletics and you mentioned Jamie Pollard, your new athletic director ...

Geoffroy: Not new ...

Borg: No, he's been around, I was just going to say he's been around five years or more?

Geoffroy: Yes, I think so.

Borg: But in that time has dramatically raised the profile of Iowa State athletics and ticket prices, stadium enlargement, new buildings.  Why was that necessary?  Because some think the Ivy League schools like Harvard and so on don't get into that race but Iowa State you felt had to?

Geoffroy: We've been in it.  It was not really a choice.  We have had a strong athletics program, Big 12 conference for a long time.  If you're going to be in that conference in athletics then you need to try to do it the best you can.  Athletics is a powerful front door for the university.  Just think of that Oklahoma State game.  That game on Friday night was the only game on television that night, it was on national television, it was a thrilling game, people watched it to the end and then it was replayed over and over and over again that weekend.  We could not have bought in any way that kind of marketing, that kind of publicity for the university that was so very, very positive.  That is what a good, strong athletics program with high integrity can do for you.  Of course, things can go bad in athletics and you can be harmed in other ways but as long as you have a high integrity program athletics can be a powerful front door for the institution and I'm extremely proud of what Jamie has accomplished during his time at Iowa State.  I count Jamie as one of my very, very best appointments.

Henderson: Speaking of things going bad, the nation has been paying keen attention to what has been occurring at Penn State.  What are the lessons of that for Iowa State?  And can you guarantee Iowans that the institution in Ames has never had that kind of behavior going on inside the athletic department?

Geoffroy: Well, we certainly don't have any knowledge that such behavior like that has every occurred and I think it is far less likely that we would find ourselves in such a situation.  I think the culture at Iowa State is just different.  I was at Penn State for 23 years, I know most all of those people, President Graham Spanier is one of our alums but I think we have a culture at Iowa State, a culture of communications and a culture that just takes action on things when they happen and I think it's far less likely that we would see that at Iowa State.  You can never guarantee that it won't happen.

Glover: Do you have things built in to prevent it?

Geoffroy: One is that -- the athletics director reports directly to me and Jamie and I communicate all the time, almost daily about things and so, and I know that if anything happened in the athletics department I'd know about it right away.  And I also know that we have a culture at Iowa State of taking action on things, not trying to cover up or hoping, delaying hoping it will go away.  And I think that contributes a lot to at least my comfort level.  The one thing that the Penn State saga has done is to call all institutions around the country to step back and say, what if that would happen at our place, what would we have done?  Do we have policies and procedures in place to minimize the likelihood of that?  We have had those discussions all over campus, in various leadership forums, leadership teams and I think we're confident that we have good policies and a good culture that would minimize the likelihood of that.

Henderson: Speaking of culture, are there other places around the country where the athletic coach is of higher standing than the actual university president?

Geoffroy: Yes.

Henderson: And isn't that a warning sign to presidents because the presidents have roles just as much as the coaches roles?

Geoffroy: It is definitely a warning sign and you need to be aware of those situations if you're a university president and in those cases you really need to be diligent in making sure you have good policies and protocols in place to try to minimize that, no question.

Glover: And in addition to athletics being a very high profile front door at the university, it makes a lot of money for you.  Are you too reliant on revenue from athletics?  Can you ever downplay the profile of athletics because of the money you make from it?

Geoffroy: Well, the athletics budget is part of the university budget but the money that is generated with athletics is spent within the athletics enterprise so there's not a transfer of money from athletics to the institution except for the scholarships for the student athletes.  And the athletics department, like all other parts of the university, has to operate within its budget and they do.  And so as that budget goes up and down they will have to adjust accordingly.  You look around the country, the University of Maryland, they are in a big budget hole right now so they're changing, they're cutting eight sports.  They really had too many.  Our budget is well balanced, the Big 12 conference is strong, we have strong TV contracts that have created good revenue.

Glover: Have you ever thought about eliminating sports to save, as you have gone through this whole budget procoss?

Geoffroy: Not while I've been here but right before I arrived we did eliminate baseball and I think men's swimming and men's tennis to help balance the budget but it's not saying we haven't.

Henderson: What about the prospect of Iowa State being a school without an athletic conference?  That almost happened in that past twelve months.  What is your advice to your successor in this very unusual, topsy-turvy realignment of schools in difference conferences?

Geoffroy: First of all, I think the Big 12 conference right now is very stable.  The reasons for that, we have replaced Texas A&M and Missouri with Texas Christian and West Virginia.  We have all agreed to grant our media rights to the conference for the next six years.  Now, what that means is if an institution were to leave the conference the conference still owns the rights to all their media events and ultimately no institution could leave over that period.  We have also moved to a complete equal revenue sharing within the conference which also creates great stability.  So, the conference itself is now much more stable than it was say two years ago and you're right, there were periods during all the realignment discussions where it looked like our options were not very good and I'm really glad that it came out the way it did and I think ...

Glover: What would have happened if you'd ended up without a conference?

Geoffroy: Well, we would never have ended up without a conference, we would have been in a conference somewhere.  It would maybe not have been a conference that we would have liked to have been in but there were always discussions going on behind the scenes of what if, if this happened what does that mean, where do we need to look, etc.

Glover: And there was a controversy at Iowa State University about the naming of the Harkin Institute for democratic Senator Tom Harkin.  The Board of Regents has since taken a position on many things.  What is the policy and was there anything to that controversy over the Harkin Institute?

Geoffroy: Well, I think there was certainly many people believed that it somehow gave unfair advantage to the Senator and the future election campaigns, others who simply don't like the Senator and his policies, simply just didn't like having his name on anything.  And for us it is an opportunity to create an academic center that we will make sure it is completely non-partisan in everything that it does and that it doesn't in any way give the Senator any particular advantages and he will certainly have no influence on it.  But creating it gave us the opportunity to raise funds for it and our goal was to generate an endowment of $10 million to support the programs in the center.  Importantly, we will house all of the Senator's papers at Iowa State, we will be the place where scholars from all around the world will come to study the history, for example, of the American Disabilities Act which the Senator was influential in making happen.  And so I think it will be a powerful resource for the university in the years ahead and most certainly we will make sure that it is non-partisan in its activities.

Henderson: Some of your predecessors had really long runs, decades.  You have been about a decade.  What is the appropriate time for a person to stay as the administrative chief of a university?

Geoffroy: That varies with each individual.  The average tenure for a university president is somewhere between six and seven years nationwide.  I'm the second longest serving president in the Big 12 conference, for example, David Boren has been there a few years longer.  But it really, you know, every individual is different.  You can't stay too long.

Henderson: What are the attributes of a university president?

Borg: Qualifications.  Does he or she have to be a manager more than an academic?

Geoffroy: You have to be a strong leader and people lead in different ways.  I think my greatest success is in building great leadership teams, appointing really terrific people to work with me and then leading that group as a team.  And I think we've been very successful in that.  But the attributes, I often tell students, a university president has to be the chief marketing officer, the chief fundraiser, the chief strategist, the head cheerleader and a head coach.  You think about what all of those means, as head coach I lead this leadership team.  I'm the chief strategist, I help design and create the strategy but I don't execute it, I have others execute it.  Clearly fundraising, marketing, I have to be the salesperson for the university.  And cheerleader, it is important for me to try to keep the energy and the enthusiasm high on campus, motivation and so different leaders have different characteristics in those areas but that is how I would describe the position.

Borg: Thank you, thank you very much for spending time with us today and all the other times you were on Iowa Press.

Geoffroy: It was fun, David Yepsen's not here and he used to always close by asking me when are we going to solve the hog odor problem?  You may remember that.

Borg: We don't have time for that today.  Thanks.  We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, same times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning.  I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.


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