Buffeting the buffer. Critics saying Iowa's Board of Regents members are politically influencing university campus decisions. A conversation with Regents leaders Craig Lang and Bruce Rastetter, on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa's Board of Regents oversees the three state universities as well as the special schools for the deaf and visually impaired. The Governor appoints Regents, according to state law, balancing by gender and political party. The intent is for ensuring university academic freedom, deflecting direct political control from the government's legislative and executive branches. Craig Lang is serving a third year as the Board's president. Bruce Rastetter also in his third year as President Pro Tem. Mr. Lang was appointed to the Regents Board in 2007 by democratic Governor Chet Culver. And republican Governor Terry Branstad appointed Mr. Rastetter to the Regents in 2011. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Lang: Thank you.
Rastetter: Thank you.
Borg: Look forward to a stimulating discussion. And across the Iowa Press table, James Lynch, who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: You both were testifying before legislators this past week about the budget that you have outlined and hope that legislators will embrace. Mr. Lang, you've made a promise that if legislators give you your budget outline you will have a tuition freeze for the following academic year. All indications that that will come to pass?
Lang: Yes, we think so. The one caveat could be the collective bargaining, good faith bargaining, another $15 million that we are hopeful that the legislature provides. If they don't provide that $15 million, that money will come out of the general fund. That would mean a 3.4% increase in general fund so we might have to look at some way to change freezing the tuition. But our hope is that with the 2.6% plus the $4 million to UNI that tuition will remain frozen for next year.
Henderson: One of the legislators posed a question directly to Mr. Lang and Mr. Rastetter, I'll let you answer it since you didn't in the hearing. Some legislators are concerned about whiplash, that there will be zero this year and then a sizeable tuition increase next year. As a member of the Regents in the next year, what is your answer to that?
Rastetter: We don't anticipate that happening. And every year it is a new budget year. The rate of inflation, our goal would be to keep tuition increases at or below the rate of inflation and HIPPA the education system goes by it. So one of the things, areas we think is critical to get out in front to go to the legislature and tell them early what we feel the universities can do if they have a modest increase like they do this year. So we would anticipate that would be the process.
Lynch: In addition to the operating funds, you've asked for $39.5 million to replace the scholarship money you got from the tuition set-aside and prospects don't appear real good for that right now. However, some legislators who were critical of the tuition set-aside now say you should go back to that, maybe at a lower rate than in the past. Where do you see this playing out? Are you going to be able to establish those scholarships for need-based and merit students?
Rastetter: You know, Jim, actually 18,000 students or over 18,000 students receive scholarships from the universities today. So that program is really important. And the Governor put $5 million in his budget. We're requesting $39.5 million. And they key component with that, that I think the legislators appreciate is that we would lower in-state tuition dollar for dollar with that scholarship money. And so our program will continue. We'll continue to lobby for it. We think it is an important part of making accessibility and affordability to all Iowans for the three public universities.
Borg: I think we maybe should explain to our viewers that when you use the tuition set-aside phrase there, Jim, you mean set-aside, they were taking tuition money for need-based students and merit scholarships out of the paying tuition, regular students and that didn't go over so well once people found out about that.
Rastetter: And, Dean, that was an outcome of state budget cuts over the years, the need for scholarships continued so they established that practice to take a percentage of tuition dollars and put in a scholarship fund for in need students. And we think that is an important practice to stop and also an important aspect that we need to have those scholarships available. So we'll continue to work hard for the state to have a program for in need students.
Henderson: Mr. Lang, the other component of this is republican legislators at least were pointedly asking you and other university officials if you can dip into the endowment funds, in other words the donations that people have made to the universities over the years, to bank roll this. And the university president said, no. Why not?
Lang: No, it's important to know that the tuition grant program is not just for in need students but also merit students and the foundation money, which has been collected over the years, and it is nearly $1.5 billion when you take our three universities, to understand that that is earmarked for other things. So what the Regent Board has asked of the university foundations is that we start new programs, new programs for scholarship especially for merit. And Iowa State University has stepped up in a big way because during one of the discussions with President Leath he made it known that he has put together $150 million campaign for merit scholarships and already has collected nearly $30 million towards that. So the foundation money is already there. Some of it comes over ten years. It has been pledged. It's not readily available now. But for the most part that foundation money is marked for other things rather than scholarships.
Borg: Mr. Rastetter, are you at all watching closely what is going on in Washington with sequestration, that is the severe cut in federal funding, if nothing is done? That could have a profound impact on Regents funding. I'm thinking about health research funding particularly the University of Iowa, the Ames Lab, you can name some other -- rebuilding the University of Iowa campus from the flood damage through the FEMA funding. Are you scared?
Rastetter: Clearly Iowa and Iowa State University collect about $820 million a year on research funds that are critical whether it is medical research or USDA research or veterinary research in the Ames Lab, as you point out. And clearly that is an important part of those institutions and the education process and research for the country at solving problems. So we're obviously supportive of those dollars continuing to flow to research universities like we have here.
Lang: It's really scary to think if sequestration did take place it would mean across-the-board cuts. What would happen at the universities, $420 million coming from FEMA for the impact of flooding at the Iowa University? Those things are already planned, we're building, we're making changes but if that does happen we'll have to have a very quick meeting and understand what it means towards nearly a $900 million in federal funding for research that comes to the universities every year.
Henderson: I'm wondering what it means now that Senator Harkin has announced that he will not be donating his work papers from his 40 year career in Congress to Iowa State University. Does that mean the Harkin Institute, which already exists on campus, will be closing, Mr. Lang?
Lang: We don't know because that decision has to come from a recommendation from Iowa State University and President Leath. And what President Leath has told us as Regents is that he'll look over, make a very careful, fair decision and come back with a recommendation. So we don't know.
Henderson: Why would it exist if those papers aren't part of the collection at Iowa State, Mr. Rastetter?
Rastetter: I think, again, back to I think it is unfortunate that Senator Harkin isn't going to leave his papers there. And if the papers aren’t there that's a good question and we look forward to President Leath's recommendation
Lynch: Both of you have expressed regret about the decision on Senator Harkin's part and the institute's part. But I wonder if, in hindsight, if it was the best strategy to have one of the largest republican contributors in Iowa as the point person dealing with Ruth Harkin and the institute to set this up. Do you have any second thoughts about that, Mr. Rastetter?
Rastetter: I don't have second thoughts on that because Ruth Harkin and I have a good relationship and what I think we did, Craig and I did in leadership is support President's Leath effort to make it less restrictive than the memorandum that President Geoffroy put in place. So I think it was a productive support of President Leath in doing that. So Ruth Harkin and I get along well and those discussions went well and I, again, I'm disappointed that he chose to withdraw the papers.
Lynch: Is there any constituency still fighting to keep the Harkin Institute alive and moving forward?
Lang: We don't know. I haven't heard of that. There's been some rumors that wait and see but we really don't know.
Henderson: One of the phrases that came out of this whole controversy was that Iowa State University needs to speak with one voice on agriculture and the Harkin Institute board of directors raised concerns about that and academic freedom. Mr. Rastetter, how can you assure Iowans who have concerns given that statement that you folks aren't trying to micromanage research at the three institutions?
Rastetter: First, clearly that would not have been the result of the memorandum President Leath put in place. The Harkin Institute was not restricted on academic, there was no academic infringement nor was there any infringement on research in any of the areas. And the director of the Harkin Institute has said that publicly. The dean of the college of liberal arts where the Harkin Institute sits has said that and so has the faculty. So I think it is unfortunate that that gets said. No one -- the rest of the institutes don't speak with one voice so there is no interest in doing that.
Lang: And that is certainly not my position. You know in my old job I believe the best policy comes from two sides of controversy to come up with what the policy should look like so I really think that speaking in one voice was not what was meant. I think the idea is that any institute or center on campus ought to offer an alternative of policy decisions.
Borg: Mr. Rastetter, you were chairing the Board of Regents when they picked William Ruud to be the next president of the University of Northern Iowa. What is unique about the University of Northern Iowa? And what qualities then do you see in William Ruud that is different than the other three state universities to make him president at UNI?
Rastetter: First of all, UNI is different than the other two universities. It is a comprehensive university, it's not a research institution and it plays an important role in Iowa, that it is the only comprehensive university and we ought to embrace that. It also has 92.5% of its students Iowa students and that we think is a good thing. And 70% of them stay in Iowa ten years later.
Borg: So why does that make him different?
Rastetter: So what makes him different and what makes him unique is he is currently president of a comprehensive university in Pennsylvania and so he understands the challenges, the issues, the ability to make a difference in K-12 and pre K-12 education. UNI educates half of Iowa's teachers and continues to educate about 450 teachers a year that graduate there. It plays an important role in the state, the business school, the other aspects of that. So I think the ability to have experience, the ability to fundraise and the ability to deal with issues that have happened that have been stressful on the university in the last two years we think he can heal that and we're excited about him being president.
Lang: It is my understanding also that he has the ability to bring economic development as the university exists in Cedar Valley, which was very important from a number of people that weighed in early on what the president should look like. Unfortunately I haven’t met him yet but I have read that he is really excited about the idea of bringing the UNI into the economic development realm of the Cedar Valley area.
Rastetter: I think you'll be impressed with him. He is a very experienced guy, he is an enthusiastic guy, he will reach out to stakeholders, Iowans, we're excited about him being president. It was a great search, the search committee did a terrific job and we're looking forward to him being there.
Henderson: Mr. Lang, you were at the legislative committee meeting when outgoing president Ben Allen told educators as sort of an exit interview moment that UNI is disadvantaged in the way that the state universities are financed and that legislators might want to reconsider the way UNI is financed. Are you guys actively reconfiguring the way UNI is bank rolled compared to Iowa State and Iowa?
Lang: We're active from the standpoint that we're talking about the need for Iowa dollars to follow Iowa kids. Obviously something like that couldn't be done immediately, it would be detrimental to the University of Iowa. What we think is that taxpayers understanding that 15% of the total budget of a university and hospitals, which is $4.7 billion, 15% is state funded. But we also understand the idea of making education affordable to Iowa kids. And so the business model that they have at UNI doesn't work as it relates to that. So we have been talking about what if Iowa dollars more closely followed Iowa kids, which would be a real advantage to the University of Northern Iowa.
Borg: Because they have more than 90% of their enrollment from Iowa, is that what you're saying?
Lang: That's correct.
Borg: So they should get more state funding.
Lang: That's right.
Rastetter: In-state tuition, Dean, is $8000, out-of-state tuition is $16,000 so they don't have the luxury of having a lot of out-of-state students that the other two universities did. But to Kay's point I think we have recognized that. We have asked the legislature for a special $4 million for three years in a row and last year we received that, this year it looks positive. It was in the Governor's budget. So we're recognizing that structural challenges that UNI has and we're trying to have and trying to fundamentally deal with in our budget request.
Borg: But you've already admitted that will work to the detriment of the other two state universities who enroll more students from other areas other than Iowa.
Lang: That's right. That's why you'd have to run a spreadsheet to see exactly what it meant. It wouldn't hurt Iowa State University because 68% of their students are from Iowa. But the one it would really hurt is the University of Iowa and we don't want to do that. But what we want to do it recognize that over the last 20 years dollars have followed the size of the university but not the kids that enrolled there from Iowa.
Henderson: You folks are also pursuing a policy whereby someone employed by the Regents will be on each campus to be sort of a transparency monitor or a transparency spy maybe. You have leaders at those institutions who report to you, the university presidents. Why do you need somebody else on campus? Can't you just have Sally Mason and Ben Allen and Steven Leath be the person who makes that decision?
Rastetter: First of all, we have a new Iowa Sunshine Law that was passed last year and we believe we should comply with that. But second I think clearly the number of requests, the challenges within a complex university of responding those we feel that we need consistency in that response and we need an openness in transparency across the university system and the Regents. And so what we are asking, and it is no different than our lobbyists, that there would be an employee at the university that would receive those requests --
Lang: The open records requests.
Rastetter: -- and that there would be a process by which we have standardization to do that. So we think it is important that we have best in nation practices so we're establishing a committee that is made up of legislators, made up of Regents, made up of university people to establish the rules so that everyone knows -- and we want to be an open and transparent system -- the public universities, Iowans own them and we should respond to that.
Lynch: Legislators have their own transparency proposal for the Regents. A Senate study bill 1163 that lays out a number of steps that Regents would have to follow in terms of having meetings around the state, having public comment at your meetings, those sorts of things, prohibiting political activity by Regents. Do you need the legislature to give you this sort of direction? Or is this something that you're going to figure out through your transparency process?
Rastetter: That will be part of the transparency process but clearly the Regents meetings are open. The docket book goes out 48 hours ahead, it's public, it's public, everything is recorded and we're very open about that. And I think those, the nuances mentioned we're certainly going to look at and it should be part of what the transparency committee recommends to the Regents.
Borg: Mr. Lang, you have already talked about outreach here, Mr. Rastetter as well, and I know that you have given instruction to the university presidents to get out. You have the icon of outreach at Iowa State University in the extension service and yet that was remodeled, if you will, and to a certain extent downsized within the past five years. If you're emphasizing outreach is that extension service going to be getting more money in order to do that?
Lang: No, I don't believe so but the outreach I talked about really is like the extension service. The University of Iowa, what they have talked about on the faculty level, is community engagement. Community engagement means that faculty go out, they put on a seminar, not just for the students but for the whole family talking about what the university does, what is involved in the classroom. That is the kind of outreach I'm talking about because what they can do, University of Iowa, Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa, when you reach out into the communities of Iowa you also engage the graduates whether it is a pharmacist, whether it is a nurse, whether it is a teacher to talk about the university and why it is important that we provide an affordable, accessible higher education to all the students in Iowa.
Henderson: This past week you were critical of Sally Mason for not listening to Iowans.
Lang: Well, I think with President Mason, what we're doing with President Mason is we're continuing to give her encouragement to reach out further, to reach out further into the Lion's Club, the Rotary Club, to be a part of that so they understand who she is and why she is leading the university. So it is an encouragement that we're working with. Unlike the other presidents I think sometimes the University of Iowa is under suspicion. But what we, as a Board of Regents, want to do is we ask for the highest in performance of our presidents and we expect all of them to do that. And I would say that Sally Mason is reaching out.
Lynch: Mr. Lang, the Iowa blind and deaf communities aren't happy with decisions the Regents have made regarding their respective schools. You're talking about combining those K-12 educational services. Is that appropriate to just sort of put them all in one basket?
Lang: We believe there are several steps we have to go through. First of all, we can't do anything with the Iowa school in Council Bluffs, those that are challenged on hearing, unless there is a code change first. So we're going through that process. But what this committee did is it looked at the cost of running the schools, it made a recommendation for outreach centers across the state where students have access to go to those centers and the committee said this is the best way in which to serve those students that are challenged. And we believe combining the administration cuts costs, we believe that the administration that Patrick Clancy in place right now is the right person for that. And that was also an agreement of the committee. Now I know there are some parents out there that said, that's not quite right. But we want to walk through this very carefully to make sure that we continue to provide service, not only those children that are challenged on sight but also for hearing and we're hopefully that we can put a pilot project together at one site, maybe the University of Northern Iowa, leave the campus open at Council Bluffs and see how this outreach center works.
Henderson: Mr. Lang, your term on the Board of Regents expires at the end of April of this year. Do you wish to be reappointed? Or do you have other aspirations?
Lang: Well, I really like this position. I want to be reappointed. When the paper came out for the application on what committees you'd like to serve on I only put one on there. I said I want to remain on the Board of Regents. I think we've started some really positive things. The Board of Regents is appreciative of the openness and transparency, the efficiency studies we've done, the increase in state funding which we have lost. I'd like to continue on the Board of Regents.
Henderson: Do you have any aspirations for elected office? This is an appointed office.
Lang: That's a good question.
Henderson: What's the answer?
Lang: The answer would be that I want to stay on the Board of Regents and see what the climate is.
Henderson: What does the climate need to be and what are you looking at?
Lang: If there's a need, if there's a need. I think the Board of Regents is all I can handle right now. I would tell you that being a dairy farmer there's still a need for a hired hand on the farm.
Lynch: Mr. Rastetter, you're something of a republican king maker here in Iowa. Who are you backing in the U.S. Senate race, Congressman Latham, Congressman King or is there another candidate out there?
Rastetter: I don't, I haven't seen, Jim, any of them announce and so I always chuckle on the word king maker. I'm not sure every day I feel like that. I try to make a difference, try to encourage people that have integrity and want to make a difference to run for office.
Lang: And I tell you, Bruce is from my hometown.
Henderson: You took a trip out to New Jersey to encourage Chris Christie to run for president. He chose not to do so. Do you think he is a viable candidate in 2016 or did some of these criticisms about his cozying up to President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy hurt him?
Rastetter: 2016 is so far away and I think we just got done with an election last year. I think there's a variety of good candidates. There's a variety of great people that care about the country. So we'll just wait and see what happens. We enjoyed that trip and we weren’t successful in it. Chris Christie is a great governor and a good guy.
Henderson: What do you think your party needs to do, this whole conversation about changing its focus or changing its message? What ideas are you putting forward in these back room meetings? What kind of candidate will you bank roll in the future?
Rastetter: I think it needs to be a more welcoming party. It needs to be supportive, like Craig and I are, of immigration, of immigrants and I'd encourage them to look broader than what they have and deal with those issues. Clearly government spending continues to be a challenge.
Lynch: When you look ahead to 2016, as far away as it is, but I'm sure you can see it from your vantage point, who is out there that is offering ideas that will be relevant in 2016, that will be relevant to Iowans and that Iowans might sort of coalesce behind when there is an open seat race for the presidency?
Rastetter: You have a number of them that have come to the state. Some of us would encourage Governor Branstad to think about it. He's been a terrific Governor. But you have Governor Walker, you have Marco Rubio, you have a whole variety of really quality people.
Borg: Mr. Lang, I'd like to go back, you kind of opened the door to possibly considering political office in the future. Would that be Washington or would it be in state?
Lang: I really like where I'm at right now. I like being on the farm. I like working with the Board of Regents. I have developed a passion, the same kind of passion the Board of Regents I had with Farm Bureau. As of right now I'm going to focus all of my energy on making affordable education to all Iowa students, I want to employ to all Iowans that we have a fantastic education system in this state and I want to focus on that.
Henderson: Mr. Rastetter, would you donate to a Craig Lang candidacy? And if so what do you want to see?
Rastetter: That's a good question. I've donated --
Lang: He bought me lunch the other day.
Rastetter: I think, as Craig mentioned, we're both excited about it and whether it is politics or otherwise we don't view this job as that. We view it as we have three great universities, we want to continue to make them better, we want to continue to deal with issues, we want to be open and transparent and we're excited about the difference we made. We stopped the funding loss last year as noted that had been a trend of a number of years, we have great support in the legislature this year. Some of the challenges of the House republicans are different --
Lang: That's bipartisan support.
Rastetter: And the Governor, the Senate and the House so that's good. We're looking forward to doing that.
Borg: We're out of time. I'm sorry I have to interrupt. Next week we're back with another edition of Iowa Press, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and again at noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg, thanks for joining us today.