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University of Northern Iowa President, Ben Allen

posted on March 23, 2012

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Program pruning.  The University of Northern Iowa deleting academic programs, closing Teachers Lab School, reducing athletic funding.  We're questioning UNI President Ben Allen on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: What we're now calling the University of Northern Iowa has been evolving during the past several decades.  What first was called the Iowa State Normal School some 150 years ago became Iowa State Teacher's College.  And then for six years in the early 1960s the State College of Iowa.  In the late 1960s the University of Northern Iowa as we know it now.  Times then were good, the name changes reflecting expanding curriculum and career options on the Cedar Falls campus.  Now with state support sharply declining UNI's President Ben Allen, with the Board of Regents approving this week, is eliminating academic programs with low enrollments and closing a teacher's education laboratory and research school.  There will be faculty layoffs, he says, or early retirements.  Ben Allen leading UNI for the past six years after being chief academic officer provost at Iowa State University.  President Allen, thanks for making time for Iowa Press today.

Allen: Thank you for having me.

Borg: And across the table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: President Allen, congratulations, you've been in the news just a bit lately.

Allen: Yes, that's true.

Glover: You've been in the news for some of the cuts you have put in place at the University of Northern Iowa and the way you've gone about them in the eyes of some.  Let's start with the first part.  Defend the cuts that you've put in place at the University of Northern Iowa.

Allen: Well, we started this year having three or four years of budget cuts from the state government, about $24 million.  This particular year we had a $4 or $5 million deficit facing us and so we had to take actions to do two things.  One, to address the immediate budget issue.  But also to position the university to be stronger in the future.  So we did a number of things.  We reduced general fund money to athletics because that was -- we need to put that money to academics.  We made the decision with respect to downsizing, doing our museum for the same reason.  Of course, the ones that got more traction with the news was the Price Lab School which has served the university for many years.  We did that because best practices now indicate that our clinical experiences should be done in more real world situations but also there's a very high cost to that.  We're subsidizing the education of K-12 students and we should be focused on educating our own university students.  And we also had a huge cost for rebuilding that old building. 

Allen: And then the academic programs, as you know, I'm an economist so you obviously want to put your resources where there is more demand and so the process that was used by the provost was done to eliminate those programs that had the least demand, that did not interfere with our teacher education focus, that did not interfere with our commitment to STEM but to focus on those programs that had the low enrollment.  So, in defense of that is that we have to put our resources where there is more demand to make this university better and to face our immediate budget cuts.

Glover: Looking back in the rear view mirror as 20/20 hindsight is always very, very clear, is there a way you could have gone about this better to bring more people on board?  Could you have done it more collaboratively, more slowly, sent louder notice?

Allen: Well, I think we can always look back and find ways to improve.  I think the issue with respect to some of the academic program closings, because we knew that some of these decisions could affect the tenure track faculty we had to follow -- unlike Iowa State and Iowa we have a faculty union and there's a contract that we have to follow in how we make those decisions so we had those more confidential meetings with the faculty union for quite some time.  And then more recently we had those meetings with the faculty senate which is involved with faculty governance.  I'm not sure we could have taken more time and solved our fiscal year problems --

Borg: Is that union contract what prevented you, though, from doing as Iowa State did and have unpaid leave to try to cover budget deficiencies?

Allen: No, we actually have done that before, unpaid leave where we take so many days without pay but that is not very strategic.  That is across-the-board and so we wanted to do this in a more strategic fashion to avoid cutting programs where there's excess demand for those programs.

Henderson: You mentioned STEM which is science, technology, engineering and mathematics, I believe.  Is that correct?

Allen: Yes.

Henderson: And it strikes me that by cutting majors in things like physics and biology and plant sciences you may be deferring to Iowa State University to educate teachers of those subjects and by eliminating German, French and Russian you may be deferring to the University of Iowa to educate teachers who are going to be language specialists.

Allen: I think let's go first to the STEM issue.  One of the things that the provost looked at carefully when she was leading this effort to review the programs was to be sure it did not affect the number of STEM related teachers that we would produce.  Physics is an example.  That is a critical shortage in the state of Iowa, probably will be for some time but all the changes there kept that STEM or the physics teaching program in tact.  The other areas that were cut, for instance, in the areas of chemistry actually I believe will make it stronger because we can focus on the key chemistry courses.  We eliminate a master's program, very few attendees, very few enrolled.  We can focus now on the undergraduates where our teachers come from and so I think that's very important. 

Allen: Now in terms of languages obviously German would be taken some place else.  But we still have French, we still have other languages, Spanish, and I think we should be soon introducing Mandarin and Arabic and other languages that are going to be more important moving forward.

Henderson: If you could explain to us how you have redefined the University of Northern Iowa with these cuts?

Allen: I'm not sure we define it with these cuts.  I'm hoping we define it with our five-year plan that we passed a couple of years ago.  Every university in the system has a responsibility to develop a five year plan.  We made a very important decision in that process to focus on undergraduate education in terms of we want to be an outstanding, premier institution for that and some of the decisions reflect that, we got rid of some graduate programs.  We still have many fine ones but we reduced that.  We also made a commitment to be the best in pre K-12.  We think we are the best in Iowa.  We want to be stronger.  So we made those decisions on direction and planning.  This budget was hopefully reflecting those types of decisions.

Borg: You said previously this positions you to be stronger hopefully in the future.  You didn't say hopefully, you said stronger in the future.  Does shedding these expenses now reduce your overall annual budget needs?  Or are you reallocating this money and so you're going to have the same size budget?

Allen: Well, we still have budget needs.  For instance, heading into next year we face a $4 million requirement to covering negotiated labor contracts and so we still need from the state support more support.  But I think as an economist I think we have a responsibility to the taxpayers and to the students and parents paying tuition that we reallocate money to those programs where there's more demand.

Glover: You have -- as a role as a president of a university you have the opportunity and responsibility to go out and sell the University of Northern Iowa to potential students, potential donors, potential supporters.  How do you sell the University of Northern Iowa?  What is the message you have for potential students, potential supporters?  What message is UNI right now?

Allen: The message -- and I think this has been for some time, Mike -- that we are predominantly an undergraduate institution.  If you look at the types of faculty we hire we're engaged in the classroom.  We do not use teaching assistants in the classroom, we use tenure track faculty.  We have small classroom -- small classes.  It is that personalized education which we've been doing for years.  We'll keep making sure that people are aware of that.  But these decisions we're making now is quite honestly an effort to maintain that type of environment. So we need to focus our resources.  And the pre K-12, of course, is what we always have been promoting at UNI.

Glover: Key question is can Iowa in this day and age when there's a lot of budget pressure in a lot of portions of state government, a lot of budget pressure in a lot portions of local government, a lot of pressure on the budgets of a lot of families -- can Iowa afford this right now?

Allen: Having three universities?

Glover: Yeah, three universities.  The University of Northern Iowa is primarily teacher education and then Iowa and Iowa State which are more research.  Can Iowa afford that?

Allen: I think two things -- first of all, each of these three universities does have a different mission and a different focus and different areas of strength.  Obviously Iowa State is ag and engineering and Iowa has professional schools, et cetera.  And each school has a slightly different culture.  Maybe we are more different than the other two because they are both Research I institutions.  I think if you got rid of an institution two things -- you would not allow them that type of option for students here in the state of Iowa.  And secondly I'm not sure we'd save too much money.  We don't have that much in administrative cost relative to other systems like Wisconsin which has kind of combined the systems.

Henderson: You mentioned earlier that your decision regarding the Price Lab School, which is the teaching institution on campus, had been a flash point when you announced that decision.  You announced that decision in February.  Do you think you gave the students and their parents enough time to arrange, make arrangements for the fall?

Allen: Change is always difficult and when you're involving children it is especially difficult.  We wish we could have made that decision earlier.  It is a major decision.  I would like to maybe correct one phrase you used there, it's really just one part of our teacher education program which obviously is the college of education, all four colleges participate.  But I think we also, to get back to your question, we also talked with area superintendents about when they have been through closings of schools before and make sure our timeframe was correct.  And then the key is we've got a transition team now that is working with those students and parents to be sure that they can transfer to local schools of their choice.

Henderson: Legislators are considering an education reform package that includes changes for teachers, students who are studying to become a teacher.  Do you support the components of that package that would require a grade point average of 3.0 for entering students and then requiring them to maintain that while they are a student at UNI?

Allen: Well, I think, as you might remember I co-chaired the Institute for Tomorrow's Workforce and co-chaired a business education roundtable and we had those discussions back then.  What we want to be sure is that we have a process which could include a GPA requirement but one that has other criteria to allow those students who are going to be successful but may not have that GPA coming in to be a participant in that school.  I don't mind the GPA requirement if there is a way to have other points of entry.

Glover: We've had some of your colleagues out at this table and they have talked about some of the budget problems they are facing.  As you are very aware they are facing many of the same budget problems you're facing.  A lot of them are talking about trying to increase their private fundraising to off set some of the lost tax money they are seeing.  Do you have a goal for how much you'd like to raise in private money this year?

Allen: Well, we have an overall goal of our campaign of $150 million.  And my goal this year is about $25 million.  This year, this campaign I think it is very important to note has been focused on what I call human capital, either scholarships for students or for endowments to have faculty so we can attract the best faculty.  We always like to have more of that too.  But foundation money really can not be used, in my opinion, to operate the university.  It maintains that margin of excellence.  So it has limitations --

Glover: Do you have a tougher time than some of the other more high profile universities around the state in raising money?  UNI is a little bit more low profile than the other colleges.  Is it tougher for you to raise money?

Allen: I'd rather not conjecture to how tough it is for President Leath and President Mason.  I do know that we have some very generous alums and supporters of the University of Northern Iowa.  Mr. Jacobson provided $11 million for a literacy center on campus.  We had Mark Oman and his wife Jill provide $10 million for scholarships.  I think the issue might be that our graduates, graduating a large number from teacher education have the resources to give back and I think that might be a slight disadvantage.

Glover: Yeah, teachers graduate from the University of Northern Iowa tend not to make what engineers make from Iowa State University.

Allen: That's correct. 

Borg: Another difference that you have is that 90% of your students or greater are Iowa residents and they are paying in-state tuition.  At Iowa fewer than 50%, in contrast, are from Iowa.  You have a greater out-of-state tuition there.  You told the Regents a year ago, however, that you were ramping up your out-of-state recruitment of students.  Are you going to increase that and try to get more out-of-state money?

Allen: Well, we actually are trying to get more out-of-state students, both domestic out-of-state and international.  I'll give you a couple of examples of what we've done.  We have placed a person in the Chicago area which has been a fertile ground for many students at the University of Iowa in particular and that has paid off already because the University of Northern Iowa is not as well known in that area as the Big 10 schools are like Iowa.  We also have some programs that have encouraged people who live on the borders of the Quad Cities and Dubuque to come into our state.  Internationally the provost has made some major decisions in hiring to be sure that we have the best practices to recruit international students to the university.  Her concern was that we'll never be as international as Iowa State or Iowa.  We don't really have a Research I, Ph.D. driven type of environment.  But we were underperforming compared to even some of our peers.  And so she took some actions to get those international students.  But it also adds, I think it enhances the enrichment or the educational experience at the University of Northern Iowa, that diversity.

Henderson: Dean mentioned tuition.  There were a couple of tuition related issues this week discussed in the legislature.  First of all, House republicans are concerned that the tuition that mostly Iowa students pay at UNI, a portion of that is being driven to provide scholarships to other students and they complain that too much, too high a percentage of a student's tuition is used to provide scholarships.  Are you concerned about that percentage, which I believe is something in the range of 15% at the University of Northern Iowa?

Allen: I think it is a little bit higher but less than the other two universities.  As you said, this is really a financial aid program in a sense.  A lot of state universities practice this across the country.  Some in our area have the same type of program but the percentage may vary from 15% to 30%.  We do not have a tuition grant that covers students who go to public universities.  So the state supports universities but they don't support the financial aid.  So I think we probably need to have some discussion about this, how to have better disclosure of that.  But it is a very important source of funds to help people obtain a college degree here in the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Secondarily the House appropriations committee voted 25-0, all the republicans and all the democrats voted to freeze tuition at current levels.  Number one, what impact would that have on your budget next year?  And number two, is that an appropriate move?

Allen: It would have about a $2.9 million impact on our budget if our enrollments reach a certain level because we know what that number is.

Borg: That is money you're counting on that you wouldn't have?

Allen: That's right.  And we would have to make further adjustments in our budget then to accommodate that loss.  I think in terms of whether or not that's the right move, I think it's a part of the process.  I visited with the Speaker of the House early on in this process and I think explained to everyone about this is what we are trying to do with the state.  As we mentioned before 92% of our students are from the state of Iowa, 75% stay in the state of Iowa.  Then we also talked about the need because that model also produces some challenges.  And so I think this is part of the process and so I hope that would change as we get through it.  At the end of the day it is not about politics, it's about progress and I'm confident this will change.

Glover: President Allen, let's do just a little bit of navel gazing if we could.  You have been at the University of Northern Iowa for about six years.  You're steering the university through what appears to me to be some fairly significant changes that are going to take a few years to get in place.  Tell me your future at the University of Northern Iowa.  How long do you plan to be there?  Do you plan to retire there?  Is this your last place?

Allen: This definitely is my last place.  I went to the University of Northern Iowa -- my wife and I both got interviewed for that job in a sense when we were on campus and we fell in love with the university but we really fell in love with the students.  And so as we make these changes these things will have a positive impact moving forward.  My desire is to continue to working at the university, to go through these changes so that I can kind of see some of the outcomes.  But I think as long as the Board of Regents allows me to be here I'll stay at the University of Northern Iowa.

Borg: The American Association of University Professors has sent a letter to you challenging the way that you have gone about cutting these programs and so on, as Mike said earlier maybe not enough faculty involvement.  At least that is what they are curious about.  And they want to come to the campus to investigate that.  The outcome of that could be possible censure, and they call it the black mark.  Does that worry you?  How badly would that hurt the image of UNI?

Allen: It's hard to tell, to say.  I have been in communication with the AAUP, they are coming to campus I think in May to meet with us to discuss the processes used on the program reductions.  We believe given the constraints we had and given the challenges we had we did the right thing in the right way.  There's disagreements with that.  Whether or not they'll come out with any type of censure is yet to be determined.  I'd rather not conjecture.  Quite a few universities are on that list and I think it is a matter of how does the public interpret that.  I think the key issue was how would that affect our ability to attract faculty and I'm not sure even evidence there is how strong it adversely effects that.

Henderson: Well, how are you going to attract faculty and students who may be thinking about enrolling at the University of Northern Iowa or becoming an employee of the University of Northern Iowa in the midst of this chaos?

Allen: Well, I think the first thing is I hope they see the chaos not as chaos but as difficult choices we had to make and that we are taking resources from low enrolled programs where despite the fact they are important for those people in them would be producing a lot more benefits for students in those high enrolled programs and programs that are yet to be determined.  To me it is really saying that this university is taking actions to improve it for the future and these are tough issues and I understand that when you make those issues people get upset. 

Glover: Your colleague from Iowa State University was out here not long ago and he made the case that athletics were a front door, a front porch, a gateway for people into the university and he relied on that as a fundraiser, yet you're cutting athletics.  Do you just disagree with his approach?

Allen: I also agree that athletics is important to the university along with our performing arts center and wellness center and Maukcer Union that we have.  But of course Iowa State University is in a different situation than we are.  The Big 12 produces so much money that they could share.  I don't disagree with him at all.  In fact, I think the faculty on campus might say I endorse athletics too much.  But we can not cut academic programs without cutting athletics. 

Borg: You're cutting a half million from their budget I think it is.

Allen: We're cutting half a million dollars but we cut a million dollars previously and that is what led to the demise of baseball.  So the athletic department is making changes to accommodate this financial amalgam.

Henderson: Making changes do you expect other sports to be cut?

Allen: The AD, the athletic director has not mentioned that.  I think he is making some staff changes and might be making some scholarship changes but right now no reduction in athletics.

Borg: I want to ask you about a phrase that is often attributed to you.  In fact, I heard you say it at a Regents meeting.  That is UNI has a bad business model in that you educate more than 90% of Iowa students paying lower tuition and you called that a bad business model as compared to what Iowa State and Iowa have and you don't have the research money coming in either.  But in speaking with other people, even members of the Board of Regents, they say what do you expect UNI to be?  It's a good business model.  What do you expect a state school to be?  It is supposed to be educating Iowa students.  So defend your bad business model statement.

Allen: I can't defend the phrase but I should have said challenging business model because as a former business dean I look at how these finances work.  The challenge is exactly that.  We have 92% of our students from the state of Iowa paying $7500 of tuition while I think Iowa has 50% paying much more than that from out-of-state.  So I think that the choice of terms was incorrect on my part.  It is really a challenge.  We are proud of serving Iowans, 92%.  We're proud that they stay in state.  We have 62,000 alums in the state of Iowa and I think Iowa State has the most at 85,000.  You would expect them to have many more.  So we really appreciate the opportunity to serve Iowans.  We simply need to get more out-of-state students to help balance that financial challenge.

Borg: Thanks so much for being our guest today.

Allen: Thank you.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press, Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives Kraig Paulsen.  He's leading his republican majority into the final weeks of this legislative session and that will be appropriations and just what we've been talking about today and then leading them on to campaigning to hold their edge in this fall's elections.  House Speaker, Linn County republican Kraig Paulsen 7:30 Friday night, repeating Sunday at noon.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: Ben Allen budgets economy government higher education Iowa University of Northern Iowa