University of Iowa President Sally Mason

Sep 7, 2012  | 00:28:47  | Ep 4001 | Podcast


Borg: The University of Iowa has more students than ever before, reporting 31,489 for the fall semester.  But that's only about 450 more than Iowa State's fall enrollment and Iowa State is growing faster.  But that may not be a concern for Sally Mason who became the University of Iowa's president about this time five years ago.  Within her first year as president, flood waters swept through parts of the campus destroying major buildings.  And since then it has been a tight squeeze.  Ever increasing numbers of students trying to rebuild and at the same time trying to change a campus culture that has national media  portraying the Iowa City campus as a party school.  President Mason, welcome back to Iowa Press.  Good to have you back with us.

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

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Gazette and KCRG Cedar Rapids investigative reporter Erin Jordan and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Let me ask you about this enrollment record.  Is there a point at which you will have to turn students away and set an enrollment cap?  It seems like an awful lot of students. 

Mason: We've been careful in how we have managed enrollment over these past several years.  Right after the flood and as the economy started to turn down we decided we needed to grow a little bit.  The plan was 500 students over the next five years.  My overachievers -- the very next fall semester all 500 of those students showed up.  And so the plan then became we're going to keep that number steady, we're going to hold it steady, which we have, and we're going to improve our retention and graduation numbers.  That's what you're seeing the results of right now.  The reason we're at record high numbers on our campus right now is largely because of the student success initiatives that we have put in place over the last several years to make certain that students coming to the University of Iowa have every opportunity to complete an Iowa degree, not get discouraged along the way, not somehow get derailed from their plans of earning that degree and the increased enrollment is really not a result of a bigger freshman class, it's retention.

Henderson: So, are students graduating, the very majority of them within four years?

Mason: More of them are now graduating.  Our four year graduation rates and our six year graduation rates are increasing.  And we, that was part of the plan.  That was really where we wanted to head.  Now, you asked a more challenging question, which is are we going to have to cap enrollment at some point in time?  We are at a point right now that we have to recover fully from the flood.  We still have major buildings that need to be rebuilt on our campus.  Plans are underway to do that and we have, I think, a good plan going forward over the next five years to, again, begin some slow growth but in very targeted areas.  This time the target is Iowa kids.  We want to bring more students from Iowa to the University of Iowa and in about two and a half years we'll have a new residence hall for the first time in over four years.

Jordan: How are you doing that?  How are you trying to recruit more in-state students?

Mason: You'll see a lot more advertising.  You're going to see a lot more what I call personal attention to high schools and middle schools all across Iowa where our folks will begin very early to encourage and hopefully bring more Iowa students to the University of Iowa.

Borg: At the same time I think you're trying to increase the number of minority students.  So how do you -- Iowa is not a big minority populated state -- so how do you reconcile those two?

Mason: Yeah, and it's a balancing act, Dean, it really is a balancing act.  So we watch all of these numbers very carefully.  We always have some flexibility in terms of how we build "a freshman class".  And our numbers have increased on the minority side, have increased significantly certainly since I've been here to a record high again this fall.  We're not going to lose sight of that.  But by the same token we know that we're going to make some shifts in how we think about enrollment to make absolutely certain that the residents of Iowa have first dibs on a University of Iowa education.

Borg: Was that recent trip, though, to Asia, a recruiting trip? Because I know Asian students are a good -- they have been increasing.

Mason: They have been increasing.  Over the last five years, again, I'll use some numbers.  When I began as president we probably had about 50 undergraduates who were from other countries, international undergraduates.  We have always had a fair number of international graduate students and professional students.  No surprises there.  Over the ensuing five years that number has gone from 50 to over 1500.  And again, that has been somewhat intentional as we have looked to grow.  The opportunities to grow in that venue have been tremendous and we have taken advantage of it.  We have a very, very strong alumni base in Asia, in particular.  I finished a visit to parts of China this summer and was met by so many of our alums in so many interesting places doing so many interesting jobs over in Asia and they are more than happy to spread the word.

Borg: And so was your message there, send us more?

Mason: My message there was, send us your best.  It's about quality.

Henderson: Let's shift gears and talk about something that is troublesome to some Iowans and that is your partnership that the university struck with Anheuser-Busch, Budweiser.  Why did you do that?

Mason: Actually I didn't do it.  It was done more than 20 years ago.  What I did was say we can continue it.  And now why would I do that?  Well, I did it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I'm a big believer that we have told our athletics department that you will be self-supporting. We're not going to use tuition dollars, no taxpayer dollars, no appropriations dollars to support athletics at the University of Iowa and actually we haven't used those kinds of dollars to support athletics since I arrived.  And in fact athletics pays us.  They have to pay full tuition for their resident and non-resident student athletes, for all of them and that comes back to the university coffers.  So in a sense they really are paying their way when it comes to the students and the student athlete tuition.  So I have been firm about we will always look at opportunities for athletics when they are looking at business deals that might be out there and we'll have to decide which ones are legitimate, which ones aren't.  In this particular case I really, I made a mistake.  I did not assume that renewal of a contract that had been in place for this long and a contract that exists at Iowa State and the same contract at UNI and Kansas, Missouri, most major universities certainly in the Midwest - I did not expect the kind of feedback that we've been getting, some of it positive but obviously not all of it positive.

Jordan: So the university athletic department relies on revenue from alcohol?

Mason: From Anheuser-Busch, certainly.  They have had a long-standing contract, as I said, as have the other universities in Iowa, as a sponsor.  We have lots of sponsors.  Certainly Mediacom has been a sponsor for athletics.  Industries in Iowa we're more willing to look at those as sponsors -- and Anheuser-Busch does have major plants here in Iowa as a corporation.  Now, a lot of people have said this sends a very mixed message at a time when you're trying very hard to reduce what I call the abusive or the dangerous behaviors associated with college students and alcohol.  And we certainly didn't mean to send a mixed message.  That was not ever the intent.  And, in fact, what we're trying to do is moderate the message.  We have been firm with our undergraduate students.  Safe, responsible, legal.  That has been the message.  That's the message that I deliver, that is the message athletics delivers when it comes to alcohol use.  It is also a message that Anheuser-Busch has resonated with.  Their Responsibility Matters program was something that we were in support of.

Borg: In retrospect, do you wish that contract hadn't been renewed?

Mason: You know, in retrospect I probably would have done this a different way.  If I had realized that it was going to raise the kinds of issues that it has at this point I'm not sure that it’s worth the revenues that we're getting to our athletic department.  So yeah, I probably would reconsider.

Borg: And reconsider but does that mean wouldn't even do it?

Mason: More than likely not even do it, yeah.

Borg: I want to go back to the flood recovery now.  Just this week I see that Hancher is putting off ground-breaking.  They had a ground-breaking scheduled and delayed it.  Is that the result, because you haven't negotiated fully with FEMA now?

Mason: Yeah, we're back in negotiations with FEMA. Here is the situation with FEMA for us.  The three big projects that we have ongoing with FEMA -- and these are significant projects, the rebuilding of Hancher Auditorium, the rebuilding of our school of music and the rebuilding of our studio arts building -- these projects, FEMA's work four years ago after the flood where they declared that these were projects that needed to be rebuilt rather than restored and reoccupied, they were audited this past year by the Office of the Inspector General and I think the Office of the Inspector General was really looking at FEMA's processes and FEMA's, the way they do their work very carefully and they came back and said, you know, we think you made mistakes.

Borg: Who made mistakes?

Mason: That FEMA made mistakes back then.  We think that there were mistakes made back then.  And to FEMA's credit, and I give them a lot of credit, they have come back and they have said to the Office of the Inspector General, you know what, we agree with you and going forward we're going to change some of what we do.  But we don't believe that the University of Iowa should be harmed by decisions that were made in all good faith and honesty four years ago.  So what we're waiting for now is final blessing from the Office of Homeland Security in the Washington, D.C. area, in their office there, we're waiting on that final word so we can go ahead.

Borg: Is that testing your patience?  Go ahead Erin.

Mason: Is it testing my patience.

Jordan: So, students who are on campus now who are graduating this coming spring have never seen the campus with all the buildings restored, especially students in the arts programs.  How has their education been compromised?

Mason: Well, we've tried very hard not to have education compromised.  And I'll give you a good story, especially with regard to art.  Art, both buildings, Art Building West and the old art buildings that were scheduled for major renovations before the flood were completely shut down and, in fact, Art Building West didn't open until this past February.  So we moved all of the art programs, for the first time in their lives, together into an old Menards building in Iowa City.  It is now called the University of Iowa Studio Arts Building.  They all lived there together and they have lived there together for almost four years.  They started doing things together in ways that they never had before.  The students had access to, in many cases, better space to do the kinds of artwork that they do than they have ever had because our facilities, especially on the studio side, were very old and very decrepit.  So I actually think they had a better experience than they might have before the flood.  Now, going forward our history department and some of our studio arts are back in Art Building West, which is a beautiful, beautiful facility, award-winning facility and the same architect, Steven Holl, who designed that building and has won major awards for it is now designing the new studio arts building.  That studio arts building will be very close in proximity.  You don't even have to cross the street any longer to get from one building to the next.  I think that synergy that we captured as a result of having the flood will continue.  They have learned to work well together, they enjoy working well together.  It's a great experience for the students and the faculty both.  Not true for music.

Jordan: I was just going to say, you've got music students in the performing arts.

Mason: Yeah, not so true for music.  We still have music in seven or eight different places around Iowa City.  To their credit, to their credit they have worked very hard to maintain a quality music program, to not at all show -- of course, the students who started four years ago have no idea what it was like before -- they know they have dedicated faculty, they know they have great practice facilities.  The practice facilities that we built in the Old Capitol Mall have been wonderful and tremendous and as we start the construction across the street from the Old Capitol Mall, the new music building, I think there will be a lot of excitement.  And I think that is what has really kept people, keeps people's morale from eroding is knowing that we have moved forward with the design of these new buildings, knowing that the construction will continue to move forward.  We've just got one more step to take.  Yes, it is testing my patience but it is also what it is and we're working hard to make sure that we can continue with a good outcome on this.

Henderson: This past spring republican legislators at the statehouse raised a raucous about tuition set-aside whereby parents and students who write a check to the university are paying a tuition rate that actually subsidizes some scholarships for other students.  What is the resolution of that currently?  How much -- what percentage of the tuition bill of the future will go to that?

Mason: The plan is that no part of the tuition bill in the future is going to go towards that.  And there is a group working very hard on that, that this week will report to the Board of Regents -- in fact, I think the Regents will be laying out a plan that I'm very excited about.  I think it's going to be great especially for Iowa residents, for our resident students.  I think it's going to send a real positive message to current students and future students at all of the Regent's institutions and I think it's going to say a lot about some very, very hard work that has gone into making certain that our universities are as efficient, run efficiently as we possibly can and it's going to say some things about tuition that I think will be greeted with enthusiasm.  So stay tuned.

Henderson: There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm among republican legislators about the University of Iowa and the other institutions. How do you resolve that tension?

Mason: Well, I keep trying to talk.  I enjoy having conversations with all of the legislators.  To me it doesn't matter what side of the aisle they are on.  But I work hard to seek out conversations and try and describe some of the initiatives that we have going on at the university, why state support is so important.  I'm hoping that our message on both the tuition set-aside and tuition for next year is one that will resonate with the legislature because it is because of their actions last year that I think we can have such a positive outcome this year and going forward.  And that is really the message going forward is that I hope we can be a partnership.  I hope that they can understand that we are an important asset to the state, all of the universities are an important asset to the state and that it’s worth supporting.

Jordan: Now, getting rid of the tuition set-aside program as it has been done before is a loss of about $35 million in scholarships among the universities.  How do you think -- do you think the foundation is going to be able to bear the $10 to $20 million of brunt in terms of coming up with those scholarships at the University of Iowa?

Mason: Well, we're certainly going to work hard to build a bigger endowment for scholarships, to build more scholarship opportunities into our foundations. That won't be the only way it's done though.  I mean, I think there's obviously going to be other things that we'll be looking at and ways in which we can manage our resources and our monies so that it is clear what we're doing, it's clear how we're supporting students and it is clear why we're supporting students.

Borg: Will just as many students be supported that way?

Mason: That is the plan.  That is our hope going forward.

Borg: They're not going to lose anything in way of accessibility?

Mason: We certainly don't want to.  We certainly don't want to.

Jordan: Will the legislature be ponying up for some of that do you think?

Mason: I believe that that will be part of the budget request.

Henderson: Speaking of the foundation, there have been some concerns about the way in which it is raising money, for instance, soliciting donations from patients at the University of Iowa Hospitals.  How do you allay those concerns?

Mason: Well, I was -- I very much regret that there was any misunderstanding about that because in looking carefully at this we were not trying to do anything different from any other hospital or major organization that does this kind of fundraising does.  And I understand the concerns that were out there.  I know one of the concerns was that doctors were asking their own patients for money.  That was not true.  And that, to allay anyone's fears about that, what I said to both our hospital and our foundation, I said going forward letters for fundraising, grateful patient fundraising will only come from the vice president for medical affairs or the dean of medicine.  That is one of the ways that I wanted to at least make a very clear statement to the public that it's never going to be a physician that would be treating you that would be asking you directly for money.  Now I would tell you that many of our patients actually ask their physicians, how can we help?  That is a different situation and that is certainly, we respond to that and we immediately put them in contact with the foundation and we immediately work with them to see how would you like to help.  Would you like to volunteer time?  Would you like to make a monetary gift?  Would you like to help us with publicity?  And we have so many ways in which so many grateful patients step up and help us -- the best one that I know of being many of our families that have children with cancer are very public about their support for Dance Marathon, which is the students raising money for children with cancer.  It's a great organization, it really is a great opportunity for our students to connect not only with the fundraising part of our organization but with the hospital and with the children's hospital in particular.

Jordan: Now, there was some controversy also over the foundation's payment to your husband, Ken Mason, for fundraising and wondered if you could explain how that came about?

Mason: I've explained it a number of times.  It was part of my negotiations when I came on as president.  It was one of the few things that I asked for.  When I was offered the job and they laid out a package for me I said, I'm not interested in negotiating up on my salary or any of these other things but my husband and I are full partners in this, made it clear from the outset and I would like for him to teach half-time and half-time fundraise with me.

Jordan: But it wasn't put in writing, right?

Mason: Apparently not, apparently not.

Borg: Let's go to the Penn State scandal.  Was there ever a thought in your mind that Penn State ought to be dropped from the Big Ten because of that?

Mason: Was it a thought -- it was a thought in my mind because as Big Ten chancellors and presidents met and we talked about the issues everything was on the table.  Everything was on the table.  But I have to say that that part of the conversation did not go far.  That was really not where -- and you could tell early on that was not where the presidents and the chancellors were heading in their conversations.  The concern was really about let's think hard about what happened at Penn State, let's think hard about how that might or might not be possible on our own campuses and let's think hard about how we can support each other and try to create better cultures where athletics is part of all of our culture but it can't be the dominant, it's can't be the overriding, it can't surpass the mission, the critical mission of education.

Henderson: But golly, the brand is Hawkeye football, Hawkeye basketball and it's big business.

Mason: It is big business.

Henderson: They are making a lot of money, the people involved in the program are making a lot of money.  Kirk Ferentz is the highest paid state employee. There is a tension there.  How do you guarantee that because of that big business this sort of thing won't happen on a campus like Iowa City in the future?

Mason: Well, I have to say there are no guarantees, there really aren't. But you have to understand who you're working with, you have to know these people, get to know them, understand what their values are, understand who they are as people, understand whether or not they have the ethical values that you share. I feel actually blessed to have people like Gary Barta, Kirk Ferentz, now Fran McCaffery, Lisa Bluder, people like that associated with our programs.  These are good people with good core values and then the outside factors are sometimes things that become very, very hard to deal with.  Your fans, your supporters, that can sometimes drive the culture in a direction that can be very challenging, certainly for a president because NCAA has been very clear, athletics needs to report to presidents.  Presidents need to be accountable and responsible for what happens in that.  And you can see how that played out at Penn State.

Jordan: That was one thing I wanted to ask about.  The University of Iowa used to have the board in control of athletics and now has a somewhat different advisory board that advises you.  Do you think that board has or that you have enough control over athletics at the University of Iowa?

Mason: Yeah, control is an interesting term.  Okay?  Control really comes about when, again, you've got good people that are trustworthy, ethical, moral, making good decisions.  I have an advisory committee and I value what they are doing especially in the areas of student welfare, especially watching to make certain that we're not taking unfair advantage of student athletes, that they're not missing class time too much, that they're not doing things that really would be not only in violation of our own codes and principles but NCAA codes and principles too.

Henderson: Your colleague, Steven Leath, was on this program not long after he took the reigns at Iowa State in February.  He bemoaned the state of some of the research facilities on the Ames campus.  Are you concerned about the state of affairs in your research facilities, which are primarily medical?

Mason: I'm not quite sure what you're asking there, Kay.

Henderson: Do you need more money to upgrade the research facilities at the University of Iowa?

Mason: Well, you know, we're in the process of completing the building of the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Institute and I would tell you that there are two buildings on my campus now that I'm worried about, one of them being the pharmacy building which is our capital request, it's first on our list and right behind is Seashore Hall which houses a lot of our psychology department.  So there is experimental work going on in there.  But otherwise as I look at our facilities we've kept up pretty well with facilities.  Now we had some issues with the flood.  One of our major research facilities, the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratory where we had a lot of very, the damage done to that building was more than $30 million and most of that was equipment.

Borg: We're coming to the end of the program, only about a minute left right now.  There is a jobs report out -- the national jobs report show the economy is still pretty sluggish. But has the University of Iowa really been depressed by the nation's economy?  Or have you really benefited because people are choosing education over jobs?

Mason: The combination of that, Dean, it's a very good point and flood recovery where we are generating literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of construction jobs right now on campus with over $1 billion of construction -- as we ramp up for these three major projects now in addition to everything else we’ll be somewhere in the $22 to $24 million a month spent on construction. That's a lot of jobs.  That's a lot of -- I hope everyone in Iowa hears this -- if you are in the construction business and you're looking for work I hope you'll come to Iowa City because we’ve got a lot more work that needs to be done and I think a lot more jobs to be generated.

Jordan: President Mason, there is a big game this weekend.

Mason: There is.

Jordan: I think you've probably heard of it.

Mason: I have.

Jordan: I just wondered if you and Iowa State President Leath have anything on the line with this game?

Mason: Well, I've heard that we have a friendly wager and I'll see Steve tomorrow and I'll confirm whether or not he actually said this and I'm more than happy to go along with it.  I think he said a bottle of Templeton Rye.  Now, I'm not sure I would have gone there but I'm happy to play along.  He's a great guy and I'm looking forward to the rivalry.

Borg: With that we have to close.  Thank you President Mason.

Mason: Thank you, thanks.

Borg: We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, same times, 7:30 Friday night, a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon.  Thanks for joining us today.

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