Higher education. Iowa's three state universities recording record enrollments but shrinking state funding. Regents shifting financial load to students. We're questioning Iowa Board of Regents President Craig Lang and President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa's Board of Regents is balancing some imposing circumstances. Iowa State University in Ames, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, the University of Iowa in Iowa City all have more students than ever before but simultaneously state financial support is falling and the Regents are raising tuition. Stating it bluntly, a couple of decades ago state appropriations paying about 68% or more than two-thirds of the Regents' general education budget. Now student tuition is paying more than half of the universities' general education costs. The Regents' Board President is Brooklyn, Iowa dairy farmer Craig Lang. He has been on the board nearly five years moving into the board presidency last July. And that is also when the Regents elected Bruce Rastetter of Alden the President Pro Tem after a year on the board for him. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.
Lang: Thank you.
Rastetter: Thank you.
Borg: And also at the table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Mr. Lang, let's start with you. When the Regents last increased tuition they said that the tuition increase was relatively modest but would be based on a projected appropriation from the legislature. I've been hanging around the legislature a bit and it doesn't look like you're going to get that appropriation. Should students and parents be planning for yet another tuition increase?
Lang: We certainly hope not because this is a process and we know the appropriations is much lower on the House side than we hoped for. But we're happy with the Governor. The Governor has given us an increase of our request. We are happy with that. So on the House side what we're doing is we're working diligently to make sure that they increase that number and on the Senate side that came out yesterday that is a number that we can work with and if we can work with that number then certainly we can hold the tuition to what we promised the students.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, same question to you. Should students and parents be preparing for yet another round?
Rastetter: You know, I think the reality if you compare this year to last year, as Craig had mentioned, the Governor’s has proposed a $20 million increase over funding from a year ago, the Senate's number is about $31 million and the House number is significantly lower. But we understand that it's a process. We're going to continue to work through that. We're committed to helping work the House through that process and we believe it's going to actually be a positive number that is going to come out in support of the public universities of Iowa and their value.
Glover: In his introduction Dean mentioned that the support for Iowa's public universities has gone from about two-thirds state to more than half students. Was that a deliberate decision? And are you comfortable with that mix?
Rastetter: I think that that mix clearly happened over time from various budget concerns is why it happened. And the universities were also growing at the same time so as you have more students you need more classrooms and you need to make sure that you have a quality education as well as an affordable education.
Glover: Mr. Lang, same question to you. Are you comfortable with that balance?
Lang: Well, I'm not comfortable with the balance because I think the trend line has to change because I think there's always a concern if something is more or less than 50% who is really driving what happens in our universities and I think the taxpayers in Iowa ought to be the ones driving that number. So when it is below 40% we'd like to see it increase more than that. So we're asking the state to consider exactly how much the appropriations are and that is why we are working really hard this time to increase the House numbers.
Henderson: Gentlemen, a recent report indicated Americans now have more student loan debt than they actually have credit card debt which seems odd, hard to get your brain around. Is it time to redesign colleges and universities, make it cheaper to go and make the time period for going less than the traditional four years, Mr. Rastetter?
Rastetter: You know, I think that those kinds of efficiencies are critical to work on. Long-term the model needs to continue to improve and clearly the cost of education continues to go up. I think in Iowa, if you look at what we have done historically and we did last year, it has been below the national cost of tuition increases. But the efficiencies, the ability to teach students and high quality education at a lower cost are critical. And I think back to Craig's comment, Iowa has an investment in these universities. It is an evolving process. They are growing. They are offering great opportunity for Iowa students and also I think you should think of that education as an investment long-term in life. And that is how I think students look at it.
Lang: I think there's two things we have to look at. First of all is the efficiencies at the university and certainly the graduation, the retention. Retention is very important to keep the students there once they start, graduate them in four years. But I think also at the same time we have to create the kind of understanding that parents make an investment early on in life to put their students through school. We're concerned about the debt and trying to do everything possible to make sure that that debt doesn't become uncontrollable here in the state of Iowa. So two things, parents have to know there needs to be an investment and then second of all is to make sure the efficiencies and keep the cost of education at an affordable rate. We have a promise with our students that we want to keep the tuition increases at the rate of inflation, no more than that and so we're doing everything possible in that process to make sure we keep that promise.
Borg: Mr. Rastetter, earlier this week University of Northern Iowa President Ben Allen announced or telegraphed, told his staff and faculty there are cuts coming, we're going to be consolidating courses, we're going to be eliminating some, the athletics is going to be looked at along with public safety and some other things. The timing of that is amazing in that does it underscore to legislators some of the pain and is it timed to illustrate that?
Rastetter: You know, I think what it illustrates is back to Kay's question, that the universities are going through a continuous process on how they improve themselves, how the make strategic decisions as to how the university cannot be all things to all people. So if you have courses that don't have a lot of students in it, strategically is that critical for the university or do you put those resources in the college of education and other areas to make those areas great? And I think President Allen is strategically making those decisions, it's part of the efficiency factor of continuous improvement. And so it is part of that process and should signal to the legislature that those kinds of things are being done to improve both the quality and the cost of education and helping lower that.
Borg: Mr. Lang, there's something unique about UNI too. That is 90%, more than 90% of their students are Iowans. At Iowa State and Iowa less than 50% are Iowans. And I'm struck by the fact that Regent Gartner about a year ago told UNI President Ben Allen, you have a bad business model here, that you need to recruit more out-of-state students to get more money or higher tuition. Is UNI a bad business model?
Lang: Oh, I don't believe so at all because the business model is one designed for education on several levels. First of all, we have the accounting that comes out of there but also the K-12 education. 92% of the students at UNI are in-state students so it is a special kind of consideration. I don't believe it is a bad business model. I think within the business model if we have students from Iowa that want to go to UNI we make sure that we have a model that works and is still affordable. I have three graduates in my own family from UNI and they would never tell me that the model was broken.
Rastetter: The reality, the other statistic that we know that is really a great thing for Iowa is that ten years later 75% of UNI's graduates are staying and working in Iowa and we think that is a good thing. And the reality is 92.5% of their students are Iowa students so they don't get the benefit of out-of-state tuition but we need to recognize that. We have done that in our appropriation to the legislature in asking for that special formula in dollars. But UNI is different than the other two universities that it doesn't have the benefit. It is the business model and it's a good thing I think for Iowans.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, you talk about working with the legislature but there is a group of republicans in the House that are a bit restive and they say they're trying to send a signal to you that they are not happy with the size and the efficiency of the Regents institutions. How do you deal with that?
Rastetter: You know, I think how we deal with it, Mike, is open and transparency. If they have questions they should ask them. They are. We're answering them and we're getting them numbers and facts and statistics, we're involving them with the university presidents in an advocacy role that is a little bit different than it was a year ago where we want to answer those questions and we want to know what these, the questions are because the public universities are important for Iowa. They affect every community. There are graduates from the three universities in every single community when you look at the doctors, the lawyers, the teachers, the engineers, the farmers, the ag business people. And so understanding that value and also answering the question on efficiencies. Sometimes universities aren't great at saying we have cut these things, we have done this. We should talk about that. We should talk about the variety of things that have been done and are going to continue to be done to make education cost less and continue to evolve the business model. But we're fine with those questions.
Borg: Mr. Lang, would you call House republicans friends of public education?
Lang: Oh, I think so. I think they are.
Lang: I think they just need to understand how important not just K-12 but the public universities are and it's a real process. And we have been having those discussions all along saying that you need to understand that these are doing great things in economic development, in discovery and research, in creating jobs and opportunities but most of all creating some of the best graduates that we have anywhere in the world come from the public universities. And because of that we're putting together a student led public roadshow to go out across the entire state and go in the communities where those republicans are and talk about the value of the public university and how it creates opportunity.
Glover: Mr. Lang, at the heart of the complaints, and you don't have to talk to them very long before they start complaining about the salary that some of the administrators are getting paid. They talk about the president of the University of Iowa getting nearly a half million dollars a year and they say, average Iowans can't relate to that. How do you respond to that?
Lang: Well, I agree, average Iowans can't relate to that but what we have done is gone through a peer review of what other presidents of the universities get, we want to keep strong, sound business leaders, education leaders at the helm of these universities and it is like Bruce said, it's transparency and honesty, show them why that is the kind of salaries that they get to be the leaders of the universities.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, the average journalist can't relate to that kind of a salary either.
Rastetter: The reality is if you send your kids to a school, you want the school to be the best school it can be, you want the best teacher, the administrator. You want them to come out with the quality of education that they get paid at the top end of the scale, not at the lower end of the scale. And to do that it takes quality people. And if there's nuances on what a certain person gets paid or that it should be is it, are we attracting the best people that we can in Iowa with the resources we have. And we have to be competitive.
Lang: We set goals for those presidents to reach and once they reach those goals then they are kind of given credibility of where they are. But I know it is always hard to understand the salaries.
Rastetter: An example of that at the University of Iowa, one of the incentives the board had is freshman retention a few years ago. And Sally Mason and her staff went from 82.5% freshman retention to 86.5%. That is worth two million dollars per one percent. But what more importantly it does, it lowers the cost of education because if you actually stay in school and graduate you're going to have a lower cost if you can do that in four and four and a half years. Those programs in place, we need to do a better job articulating that to House republicans and we're going to continue to try and do that.
Henderson: Mr. Lang, a taxpayer supported institution in Pennsylvania has been the focus of national attention for the way its administrators handled a sexual crime on its campus. Can you assure not only taxpayers but students and their parents that Iowa institutions, which are taxpayer funded, will handle those in a much more judicious way?
Lang: I think we're doing a very good job now and I think because of challenges and problems we have had in the past and I think under Dave Miles' leadership we really came out with a policy that protects our students in a way that our taxpayers would feel safe that they are protected.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, same question to you. Are you comfortable that we won't have a Penn State scandal here?
Rastetter: I think there are no guarantees in life. I think what you do is you hire good people, you put systems in place, you redouble the efforts and make sure that those systems are covering all the bases. We asked the university presidents to go through that process in December. They gave us an additional report after reviewing those and we feel comfortable that they have and that is an ongoing effort. We'll continue that.
Borg: Mr. Lang, you had flood damage at major universities, but over at Vinton you had a wind storm through there that really ripped off roofs and severely damaged buildings. Given the fact that you're already considering whether or not to continue that Vinton school, and I know you had a study on it, but isn't it time that maybe to say with all the damage we had now to this campus and the fact that we're renting out some buildings to AmeriCorps, shouldn't we close this campus and concentrate on higher education?
Lang: First of all, it is important that we bring the campus back to the state it was before because we have insurance to cover it, we have a high deductibility on that, that needs to be covered but to have a value because no one wants a building with a roof torn off, that the building can't be used. But there is discussion going on with the people of Vinton now of what is the best use of the campus. It also depends on AmeriCorps, if they resign up for another contract and I think the contract is over after the end of this year, what we do with the facilities. But we're also looking at what do we do with not only the School for the Blind but the School for the Deaf as well. How do you incorporate that you give the best service to those students in the state of Iowa that still gives them the kind of service that the parents expect but that is affordable.
Borg: Just a quick follow up then. Are you saying you are considering that maybe you'll get out of the business of K-12 education for deaf and blind children?
Lang: No, we won't. We'll still be involved in that. We're waiting for a report from Superintendent Clancy on how best can we serve those students, both the students that are deaf, the students that are blind, in such a way that the parents feel satisfied that we're doing it correctly.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, the Regents have talked about creating what they call centers of excellence at the major public universities. And what that means is each university would specialize in something. Does that cheat students from not getting a broad higher education at all of the universities?
Rastetter: I think the point would be is that you'll still have that comprehensive education. But what you need to focus on and what the universities have consistently done over the years is use resources to what they can really be great in. For instance, the University of Iowa Hospitals and the children's hospital that is number one in the country, the engineering school at Iowa State that continues to grow, the law school and utilizing those resources in a strategic way and making sure we don't have duplication between the universities and in UNI's situation make sure that we strategically continue to have UNI serve Iowa, for instance, in the college of education. So I think that is an ongoing process. We're going to continue to encourage that.
Glover: Mr. Lang, same question to you. Do students get cheated by not getting a broad education if you focus on things?
Lang: No, I don't believe so. And we've talked among ourselves about having like Iowa State be the problem solvers to the world in food and energy and the University of Iowa being the same thing as it relates to medical and writing, creative writing is so important there and the University of Northern Iowa, it would be so great if they had all the answers K-12 education. And we have talked about that privately. But at the same time we want to make sure when our students go they have the hours that they need to graduate on time and the curriculums that they have on time is becoming more and more challenging because we're getting more and more students. So I think no, I don't believe they are cheated.
Henderson: Mr. Rastetter, Iowa State University was going to engage in a project in Tanzania in Africa and now that has ended. How did this come about? And is it a black eye for the institution?
Rastetter: Well, I don't think it is at all. It clearly is a project that is concerned about lifting poor people up and improving the quality of life both from a food and nutrition standpoint, water quality and disease. And the project is a good project. It has clearly hit some bumps along the road, some negative publicity. But it is a project that clearly will help Tanzanians with modern agriculture.
Borg: Mr. Lang, you are, as I said in the introduction, you are five years into this appointment term, one year to go. Would you take a reappointment? Are you seeking a reappointment?
Lang: I'm not seeking a reappointment like maybe some other Regents would do but if the Governor felt that I could stay there I think after five years I have finally figured out the system. I think it would be one that would be advantageous for me if I accepted.
Borg: So you would take it if you were asked?
Borg: Mr. Rastetter, you had long sought appointment to the board and board leadership. You're there now, second in command. Given all the challenges that we have been talking about here today, are you sure you want the job?
Rastetter: You know, I think as Craig mentioned you learn something every day. I don't know that I have long sought it. I have wanted to make a difference in education. I think it is critical. All the success that I have had has been revolved around really smart people who have great educations and I felt fortunate with that so I want to help make a difference and help be an advocate for the universities.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, you were appointed to the board as part of an effort by this Governor to take the Regents in a new direction. Are you too close to this Governor?
Rastetter: You know, I don't know when the Governor has the same perspective on the quality of education how you cannot be close to that. I think that is a good thing. In terms of the Governor and I, we will disagree on occasion on things but I certainly appreciate that he has listened, that we need to stop the funding losses and is willing to support public education in Iowa in a greater way.
Glover: Same question to you, Mr. Lang, are you too close to this Governor?
Lang: No, I don't believe so. At one time they said we look alike. But I would say this much about this Governor is this Governor is willing to listen, he is also very respectful of our disagreement, and we have disagreed from time to time, but he wants to do the right thing and he has the same goals.
Henderson: Mr. Lang, you were president of the Iowa Farm Bureau for a decade. You lost a bid for re-election this past winter. Do you intend to stay involved in the Farm Bureau? Or do you intend to perhaps seek a different kind of office? Your name is often mentioned when folks talks about openings at the statewide elected office level.
Lang: Well, thank you. I intend to be a Farm Bureau member, to support Farm Bureau but I don't know that I lost. I think it gave me a new leaf on life. We have new opportunity now. I can stay home and farm with the boys. I like to do that. Mary and myself, we have created new jobs so as soon as this is over I'm going to give you a business card.
Henderson: Mr. Rastetter, you were one of the largest, if not the largest donor to Governor Branstad's campaign in 2010. You are also playing in a legislative race that is fairly interesting in that Pat Grassley, the grandson of Senator Grassley is running against Annette Sweeney in a GOP primary and you are supporting Annette Sweeney. Are you becoming a Kingmaker, if you will, in Iowa GOP politics?
Rastetter: You'd have to define that first. But Annette Sweeney has been my friend since I was a little kid and went to the same little Lutheran Church in Buckeye, Iowa together. And so she is a good friend. I'm good friends with Pat Grassley and I respect the Senator. So, these primaries are tough, tough situations and you support your friends and you be loyal to them and that is what I'm doing.
Glover: Mr. Lang, during this whole uprising in the legislature with unhappiness with the Regents, one suggestion has been made that perhaps Regents ought to be elected and that way they would be more accountable. What would happen if Regents were elected in this state?
Lang: Well, I think it would be more political and I'm not too sure that you want the Regents to be more political. I know they are appointed by the Governor but there are rules, it's supposed to be non-partisan, and I have seen them elected in Nebraska, I don't know that it works any better than it does in Iowa. So I really believe that the appointment and you balance the politics and the gender is the best way to continue.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, I don't think you can take you out of politics, I don't think you can take politics out of the Board of Regents. But what about a direct election of Regents?
Rastetter: You know, I just totally agree with Craig. It is appointed by the Governor, confirmed by the Senate and it is an independent governing board that has served Iowa well. And I can assure you whether it is answering republican questions or democrats I think one of the goals that I have is to depoliticize the Regents. Supporting quality education shouldn't be a republican or a democratic issue, it should be how do we make a better Iowa and a better quality of universities. And I think that is what we're trying to do and that is what one of my goals with this is.
Henderson: One of the most important decisions the board has made in the past year is the hiring of a new Iowa State University president. In doing that, Mr. Lang, did you set up a prototype for the system that you'll use for future leadership at the institutions? And the guy has been on the job for a few weeks, I guess you can't evaluate yet, but what can you tell Iowans about the process of hiring that new ISU president?
Lang: Well, it was the quickest hire that I think we ever went through at Iowa State. We were fortunately given an individual that had a vision for Iowa and I don't know that we'll use that in the future for other hires, for other individuals. Bruce is a little closer to it because he was on the search committee. But I'm just extremely happy with this gentleman we have for president.
Glover: Mr. Rastetter, I haven't heard a lot of criticism of that hire. Was that a home run for you?
Rastetter: Well, you know, we'll find out. But I think it is -- clearly President Leath is doing a great job, getting off to a good start. And I think in terms of the process it was a committee that was a diverse committee, it was made up of businessmen, of a couple of Regents, of the university professors, of student members and the system worked well.
Borg: One thing you put a priority on though, at least in his record, was fundraising.
Rastetter: I think one of the critical parts when you think about Iowa and Iowa State we have two universities that are two of the 64 that are AAU research institutions and if you think about that, in the 50 states we have two of them. And we think it is very important that Iowa State stay part of that and continue to lead in growing that and continuing to be important for Iowa in terms of technology, in terms of research, in terms of development and in terms of long-term high quality job creation in Iowa. And we think that Dr. Leath will help lead that.
Borg: And so that takes money.
Rastetter: It does and it takes fundraising.
Lang: And we believe he is capable of raising the kind of money necessary for research and also balance education.
Borg: Thanks so much. We're out of time. Iowa's court system also coping with difficult budget circumstances. And next week on Iowa Press we'll be questioning Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady. You'll see that conversation with Chief Justice Cady at 7:30 next Friday night, repeating at noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.