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University of Iowa President Sally Mason

posted on May 9, 2014

A steady hand. Despite major distractions, University of Iowa President Sally Mason, keeping an eye on academic and financial integrity. A conversation with President Mason on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: A university president combines several job descriptions into one. You might compare it to being a mayor or managing a medium sized city while simultaneously being CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation. At the University of Iowa, the spectrum includes administering research projects bringing millions of dollars to the state of Iowa, to an athletic department with its own multi-million dollar budget and a university hospital with millions in revenue. And we haven't even mentioned some 30,000 students and some 10,000 more faculty and staff. And add to those responsibilities an epic flood, inundating major buildings and a flood of another kind, social problems and crime evolving from downtown Iowa City's engrained alcohol culture, all of which finds its way to the president's desk, or perhaps better said, on President Sally Mason's shoulders. She also chairs the Big Ten's Council of Presidents and Chancellors. President Mason, welcome back to Iowa Press.

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

Borg: And this is commencement season and you're getting a degree this time. Congratulations.

Mason: It's about time, don't you think?

Borg: Notre Dame is awarding you an honorary doctorate degree.

Mason: They are. I'm thrilled, obviously, and very humbled by this experience. I never in my life expected that this would happen so it's really an honor.

Borg: Let me introduce you to the people across the table here. Mike Wiser is Statehouse Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. And Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Madam President, Dean mentioned your leadership role in the Big Ten Conference. There is a Big Ten institution where they're having a debate about paying athletes at Northwestern. What is the approach of the other university leaders to this developing situation?

Mason: We're obviously very aware of this and talking about it a lot. And it is clear all across the NCAA, all of the Division I schools in particular are having these kinds of conversations and we're concerned because I believe that certainly the vast majority of us feel very, very strongly that student athlete is what we're all about and I put student first intentionally. These are first and foremost students. They choose to be students. They choose to be athletes as well. And there are great benefits that accrue from that. I had a wonderful experience, just about a week or so ago I was in Solon, Iowa at a little restaurant, a little Mexican restaurant that my husband and I love up there and ran into one of our football players' fathers, James Morris' father and he came up to me and he was very concerned about this very issue. And he expressed to me the kinds of attitudes we're hearing from all across the spectrum, our student athletes, their parents, interested parties, that he said, his son got exactly what he wanted from his college experience. He was able to play Division I athletics at a very high level, he got a great college education, he's about to graduate, in fact he's going to graduate next weekend. He is the Big Ten Medal of Honor winner this year for the University of Iowa. He has had a stellar career. I'm hopeful that in the next maybe few hours or few days he'll get drafted by the NFL and have a shot at that. And he would be the first person to say that we're not employees, we're first and foremost students, we're athletes as well, we made that choice and it's a great choice and that's where I'm going to stay.

Borg: President Mason, does that threaten athletics in general? Does it threaten collegiate athletics?

Mason: It could. It very well could. And it's certainly something that we want to keep an eye on and we want to be certain that we have the latitude -- and I think this is where the NCAA either has to step up and help us or we have to find a way to do this ourselves -- and that is to make it so that the kinds of things that the athletes at Northwestern were asking for, whether it is better health care for them, whether it is full cost of education, the kinds of benefits -- these are the kinds of things we have been wanting to do. And certainly programs like Iowa and all of those in the Big Ten, we're resourced well enough that we can do these things and we should be allowed to do these things. And I think it's important that we do, do them.

Wiser: President Mason, the legislative session just ended. And during that time there was some talk about some money from U of I going to some of the other schools. That ultimately didn't happen. You were able to keep the tuition freeze. But why do you think U of I is targeted?

Mason: Well, we're big. Okay, we're definitely big and we have, we certainly have a larger budget than any of the other Regents institutions without a doubt. But remember, we have a huge, huge academic medical center and it really does come down to trying to understand perhaps better the different missions of each of the Regents institutions and why we would be so much larger than the others. Now, the academic medical center, without a doubt, is a huge part of who we are and what we do. And to offer those kinds of programs, and especially to offer the kinds of graduate and professional programs that we do at the University of Iowa, that requires a whole different level of funding as well as a different level of equipment, support, you name it. It is a more expensive operation. But I do think that it's important to the state of Iowa.

Wiser: Do you think you were individually targeted by the legislature maybe because of your controversial comments about sexual assault? Do you think there's a personality difference there? Or do you think it was purely financial?

Mason: I think it was more financial. I didn't sense that there was anything else there that would be driving it. And, again, we need to do a better job of explaining why it is we are bigger, why our budget is larger and what it means to the state of Iowa. I always like to talk about our research budget because we're a very large research university, we're one of the top 30 in the country when it comes to research productivity. Now, what does that mean to Iowa? Well, of the amount of money that we bring in to do research at Iowa from other sources, from sources outside Iowa, that generates 6,000 jobs here in Iowa.

Borg: Are you saying that legislators maybe don't understand that?

Mason: We need to do a better job of helping them understand the value to Iowa on the economic development front, what this means in terms of the University of Iowa being a huge economic engine for the entire state.

Borg: Let me move on to what I referred to earlier, and has been referred to here already, that is the image problem. Nationally, there's a magazine, I can't remember the name of it now, that year after year names Iowa one of the top party schools --

Mason: Oh, Princeton Review.

Borg: Princeton Review, alright. -- party schools in the nation. You also make the news quite frequently as sexual assaults on campus and that has been a personal concern. But is it reasonable to expect that those things can be turned around by a single person or even leadership of a single person?

Mason: Well, is it reasonable? I believe it's reasonable if we take a team approach. And one of the things that I was very proud of in the wake of what our students were doing in February and March, they were shining a bright light on the issue of sexual assault. Now, what we have been trying to do this year is be more responsive to the federal guidelines to the Clery Act in sending out more timely warnings. That initially I think alarmed a lot of people because it suddenly seemed like we were seeing more incidents of this on our campus than we had previously when, in fact, we were reporting them out in what I consider to be a more responsible way and a more responsive way.

Borg: And that Clery Act is one that threatens your federal aid, does it not?

Mason: Oh absolutely. Right, if we are, the news this week was the 55 institutions that are on a list that are being investigated. We're not on that list. And I believe it's because we are working hard to comply with the Clery Act and comply with all of the federal regulations now that are coming our way that make it more of an imperative to shine a light on the issue of sexual assaults on campus. They happen everywhere. Our numbers actually happen to be down this year from what they have been previously and we're pleased about that. I'm particularly pleased because our students now are stepping up and really want to be part of the solution. And I think if we take the kind of team approach -- we've done this, we did it through the flood and we got through the flood and we got through the recession -- I don't ever want to be in a disaster without Iowans backing me up, I'll be honest with you. And I think we can get through this because, again, our campus is coming together, now looking at it and saying, how can we as a campus, how can we as a community begin to address these tough problems and solve them. We did the same thing, you mentioned our downtown, we did the same thing downtown Iowa City a few years back when things were getting rough down there and it wasn't really, it wasn't necessarily our students but we had a very open environment when it came to 19 year olds being allowed in bars after hours until closing, this was a magnet for people from miles around to come to Iowa City to have a "good time" and it was getting very rough downtown. I was very concerned about the safety and the welfare of our students. As a community, Iowa City came together, and led by the Mayor, myself and others, to actually reverse this ordinance.

Borg: But did it just disperse the culture someplace else?

Mason: I don't know the answer to that, Dean. Now, if you mean did it result in more house parties, we don't have evidence that there's more house parties. What we have evidence of is that there are fewer people coming into town on weekends and there's a lot less what I call violence downtown, there's a lot less noise downtown. We don't have that kind of activity any longer. It's a much safer community now.

Henderson: As Mike mentioned previously, the legislative session is over. One of the final acts that they engaged in was passing a bill that would allow possession of a cannabis oil among Iowans who need treatment for significant seizure disorders. There's a request for a study of the University of Iowa in that. I'm wondering if eventually you would see the University of Iowa involved in being a dispensary for cannabis oil if and when it ever develops in the state of Iowa?

Mason: Well, that is up to policy makers, legislators. We will be responsive and as a research university I think it is our obligation to respond to legislators, especially when they have requests like this. So let's see where it goes. I think that I've certainly seen and heard the calls from parents of children with epilepsy and how compelling those are. That's a tough one not to get involved in and we'll wait and see what our policy makers want from us and be happy to respond.

Wiser: Legislative action the previous year, since there was a ruling on abortions that the Governor had to approve Medicaid reimbursement for abortions, the University of Iowa Hospitals has stopped submitting claims that might qualify. Do you see at a point that -- and essentially are eating the costs for that -- do you see at a point that the University would try to get out, if possible, make a move to get out of performing abortions all together?

Mason: Again, we're going to obey the law. That is first and foremost in terms of what we do. We're going to obey the law, we're going to listen to what we're being instructed by our elected officials as well on those issues and we'll go from there. These are tough issues. There's no doubt about that.

Henderson: The Board of Regents, the Board which governs Iowa and Iowa State and UNI, has ordered up an efficiency study to look at operations on campus and find ways to save money. Is that going to result in a decrease of majors offered? What can you tell parents and students who are wary of this?

Mason: No, let's wait and see. I have been a huge proponent, since I arrived at Iowa and to some extent driven by the flood, first of all and then by the recession, of let's get more efficient, let's focus on our core mission, let's come back to making certain that our students are well served, that they get the best possible, highest quality education. We're going to have to adapt. We're going to have to innovate. We're going to have to do things differently. That's what higher education is about these days. So in many ways I look forward to having some external eyes coming in and saying, well here are some other ways in which you can be efficient.

Borg: You may have done that internally at the University of Iowa, as Iowa State and UNI, but I wonder how will the climate be, the reception if they say, we need more collaboration among the three state universities?

Mason: We have a lot of collaboration.

Borg: But there's resistance also to it.

Mason: Sure. Sure. As you might imagine. But, again, let's wait and see what the suggestions are before we react. If they're reasonable, rational suggestions I, again, take the team approach and say, alright, this looks like this could be a good thing for us going forward, let's see how we can make it work.

Wiser: Speaking of efficiency, online classes, distance learning, these are taking off all across the country and here in the state. How important is a physical plant for a university any longer? And what direction do you see online courses going?

Mason: Well, the physical plant is still hugely important because if you think about our average clientele, the 18 to 21 year old, and I always look at the moms when I'm having this conversation, where do you want to send your sons and your daughters to let them have that safe environment to finish the growing up process? So the physical environment is still very, very important. But we also know that there are a lot of people today that need higher education, they may not be able to physically relocate to get that higher education. One of the things that I have done since I've been here over the last seven years now is we have wonderful partnership agreements with every community college in the state to deliver, by distance, University of Iowa degrees. So, you don't have to move to Iowa City to get your nursing degree now. You can get it out in Sioux City, you can get it in Council Bluffs, you can literally anywhere in the state where there is a community college and you can connect, you can do it by distance education. And we're looking for more and more opportunities like that. We want to continue to grow that as an opportunity for people, certainly in Iowa, if not all around the world to be able to take advantage of this.

Borg: Does that take more faculty or fewer faculty?

Mason: It takes, you know, it depends. If we want to continue to expand and grow it's going to take more faculty because you still need to have someone responsible for the curriculum, the core content, responsible for the grading and making certain that their requirements are fulfilled on these things. So it's still very people intensive. The great thing now is we have the infrastructure, the basic infrastructure and that initially was a big expense.

Borg: Mike, I interrupted you.

Wiser: Oh no, I was just, I had a similar question along those lines so let me skip ahead real quick. You had mentioned about getting a nursing degree at different places, maybe in Sioux City. Does everybody need a college education now though? I mean, for a long time we've said four years is necessary but the job market shows that maybe you need more technical school, maybe you don't need to go to a liberal arts school.

Mason: And one of the great things about higher education in America today is we have so many options. I would say that probably everyone is going to need something beyond high school, beyond that K-12. But whatever that might be is going to differ from person to person depending on their interests, their skill sets, what it is they want to accomplish as an adult. And it may be a full blown college education, it may be all the way up through the professions that we offer at the University of Iowa, the doctors that we train, the dentists, so forth and so on, or it may be that they want to be a culinary expert. I happen to be a foodie so I really enjoy a great chef and that may, you know, the full four years of college education may not be what they need or want as a chef. It could be quite different. So the great thing about the United States is we have so many options and we have so many different places you can go to get different experiences and different levels of training. And I think that's the way it should be. I don't think everyone -- I don't think we should ever try to fit everyone into the same mold.

Henderson: Before we leave the work product of the legislature, I would just like you to comment as a member of the academic community at large, Iowa sort of is against a national trend in that state support has increased for public universities over the past couple of years while many --

Mason: The last couple of years.

Henderson: -- states have contracted. Why do you think that is?

Mason: I think Iowans continue -- one of the reasons I moved to Iowa seven years ago is because Iowa has a wonderful reputation as a state that believes in education at all levels and I think that's still true. I think that if you ask the average Iowan, is education important? Mike, you and I had this conversation just before we started today about the importance of education for your young son. And I hear this all the time from people who have lived in Iowa, who know about Iowa, who want to come back to Iowa, often times our alums want to come back to Iowa after they have had wonderful careers in Chicago and Washington because they're ready to raise a family now and they want to raise that family in a state that truly values education and where you can still get a very high quality public education.

Henderson: Those alums may have a different memory of the University of Iowa campus pre-2008 floods.

Mason: Yes, they might.

Henderson: In terms of the bricks and mortar on campus, how long is it going to take to recover from this flood?

Mason: 2016. Right now 2016, spring of 2016 is going to be some major celebrations for us as we open the facilities that were destroyed in the flood of 2008. It has been a struggle. When I think of our school of music, when I think of our school of art, our school of music is still in nine different locations all around campus and the fact that we still have a school of music and students are still coming in large numbers to the University of Iowa because of the quality of those programs, it's astonishing to me because they have never been in a situation where they were all together in one place like they were before the flood. And soon they'll have a new facility and it will be a spectacular facility.

Wiser: I wanted to sort of jump off of what you and Kay have been saying, but we're talking about people coming back to Iowa whether to visit the campus or to come back and live. A large percentage of Iowa, University of Iowa students are out-of-state, foreign nationals. What role does the University have in maybe keeping them here after graduation? Is that something the University is involved in or should be involved in to a different degree?

Mason: We try hard to help them find opportunities here. And I can tell you that 40% of our non-resident students, whether they be international or whether they be just from some other state, stay in Iowa to take their first job. We know that. And when we poll them and we ask them, more would stay if there were more jobs. So really the challenge is creating more good jobs here in Iowa to keep more of these really talented young people right here at home.

Borg: But as I look at the University of Iowa's total enrollment, you have sneaked above 50% in the number of out-of-state students as compared to those who come to the University of Iowa from in-state. Is that sort of a concern for you?

Mason: Yeah, yes it is. And I think it has been illustrated as the conversations about performance based funding have taken place and will continue. And we're going to have to -- we're going to have to work harder to make sure that we don't overlook -- and I've always said, we have never turned down a qualified Iowa student who has applied to the University of Iowa, we never have, but we're very appealing also to the non-resident students and we have been able to grow largely by growing the non-resident student population. And in a state where the number of resident students is not expanding, it has been good and healthy for us. Now, what we’re hearing, and I think this is a real concern and one that we share, is that we have to work even harder to make sure that we don't miss any Iowa kids and that we give them real opportunities to make sure the University of Iowa is on their radar screen.

Borg: Because it may threaten the perception of the University of Iowa doing more to educate out-of-state students than the taxpayers are pay for, for Iowa students?

Mason: Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. And as we start to rethink the model for how state appropriations, the taxpayer dollars are allocated to the universities, it makes absolute sense to look at where our resident students are. Now, to me, one of the big concerns I have is to not overlook the fact that an awful lot of the professional students that we train are Iowa kids. 70% of our medical school class is always going to be Iowa kids. 60% or more of our dental class will always be Iowa kids. That is intentional. And that is also very expensive. So I want to make sure that as we, if we're looking at models for how we're going to allocate state dollars, that we don't overlook the fact that every community in this state, to be healthy, needs those kinds of professionals.

Henderson: One of your former colleagues, President Geoffrey, at Iowa State, said athletics is essentially the front door of the University, it is very important in fundraising and so you want teams to be successful. You also get pushback from people about the salaries that are paid to the top coaches in the sports division. How do you respond when people raise those concerns?

Mason: Well, there's no doubt that athletics is the front porch to the University and you only have to come to one Hawkeye game to really get a sense of what that means on a football weekend, for example, where 100,000 people come to Iowa City on any given weekend where we have a home football game and our stadium only holds 70,000 people. People always say, well what about the rest? Well, they come because it really is an opportunity to get together and celebrate, we hope a victory obviously, and because we have been successful, because we’re part of a very, very successful conference, the Big Ten Conference, we have been able to benefit financially from that. We have Big Ten Network, all of the things that are part of the Big Ten and the revenue sharing that the teams in the Big Ten Conference take part in I think is a great model, financial model for how you can run athletics. Now, market drives an awful lot of the other part of your question, which is salaries.

Henderson: Speaking of market, the Big Ten has made a controversial decision to hold its basketball tournament in Washington, D.C. Are you a thumbs up or a thumbs down?

Mason: You know, we made the conscious decision to expand. We expanded east. We have taken Rutgers and Maryland into the fold and I think it's appropriate that we begin to alternate, we have alternated between Chicago and Indianapolis, so let's put Washington, D.C. on that map now too because I think it sends the right message to our new partners in the Big Ten that we value them, we want to be part of the bigger footprint now, and we're going to have a presence on the East Coast.

Wiser: One quick question, the pink locker room, I saw that was written up in an editorial again earlier this month. What are your thoughts on the pink locker room?

Mason: You know, the pink locker room pre-dates me a long, long time. I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other.

Borg: What are you saying, I'm not going to touch that with a ten foot pole?

Mason: I'm not touching that at all. No. It's there, it would cost a lot at this point to change it. The time to change it would have been when they re-did Kinnick Stadium, they didn't do it so let's just leave it be and move on.

Borg: And we have to move on too because we're out of time. Thank you, President Mason.

Mason: Really? Okay.

Borg: And we'll be back at our same times next week with another edition of Iowa Press, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 


Tags: athletics Big Ten Conference cannabis college athletics Iowa Kinnick Stadium locker rooms marijauna medical cannabis NCAA news paid student athletes pink politics Sally Mason sexual assault student athletes U of Iowa unions University of Iowa