From Flood Recovery to Farmageddon--President Mason offers perspectives on prominent issues

Times are as trying as ever, it seems. Since Sally Mason joined The University of Iowa as president in 2007, she has led the campus through a number of challenges—including an economic recession and major flood damage—while also focusing on keeping undergraduate education affordable and of high quality. President Mason recently sat down with Spectator to address questions about the University in 2011 and beyond.

What are your priorities for academic year 2011–12?

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but there are two big things: flood recovery and the budget. Although we still have quite a ways to go on the former, we’re making slow-but-steady progress. I’m very excited about what our arts campus is likely to look like in the not-too-distant future; I think next year will be a defining year for us in terms of how those projects like rebuilding Hancher Auditorium come about.

Regarding the latter, we need to stay on a good, stable budgetary footing. The economy is starting to show signs of moderate recovery, which is good, but I’m hoping we can do some better planning for the future like adding back faculty positions. We’re growing our student body nicely, but we’ve got to be able to grow the faculty to match.

What University accomplishments from the past year are you most proud of?

I continue to be impressed by our students. Dance Marathon raised another record $1 million–plus last year and then made a spectacular leadership gift to the UI Children’s Hospital. Our students are the best, without a doubt. We had a Rhodes Scholar as well as a number of national scholarship winners. Every time I turn around, I see something else the students are involved in that gives me a very warm feeling.

And I want to give our faculty a lot of credit, too. As our most recent graduate school program rankings demonstrated, we went from having 22 graduate programs in the top 10 among public universities to 24. I’m very proud of that and think it is indicative of the very high quality programs that we have here at Iowa. It is a tribute to the faculty of this great university that we do as well as we do.

Speaking of faculty, there has been scrutiny this past year on the tenure review process. What is the role of tenure in higher education?

All too often people don’t fully understand that it takes a lot to earn tenure. Just because you’re hired into a faculty position at the University does not mean that you’ll be entitled to tenure. It is something that is earned after an individual has put in a certain amount of time and effort and demonstrated they are worthy of receiving an opportunity like tenure. In turn, tenure allows faculty a good deal of freedom and flexibility to pursue their ideas and research, from the controversial to the fairly routine. Tenure goes back to a time when intellectuals—faculty, in particular—were being very carefully scrutinized by individuals who had a particular political agenda; what one hopes for with tenure is to take the politics out of what’s going on at universities.

Now, in recent years, I think it has been absolutely appropriate to examine tenure. A typical high-achieving faculty member here earns the rank of full professor eight to 10 years into their stay. What happens after that? How do we make certain that people stay productive? How do we make certain that people continue to put the energy and time into their teaching, research, and scholarship that they used to? That’s where the post-tenure review process comes into play. I think we owe it to ourselves as well as society to make certain that we continue to maintain high standards throughout the entire career of our faculty—the assumption being that the rewards that come post tenure come because you continue to be productive and do the kinds of things that are of great value to the institution.

With another record first-year class this fall—Iowa welcomed 4,565 first-year students—how will the University be able to keep tuition affordable?

Theoretically, the more students we take, the easier it should be to keep tuition down. But with more students, expenses go up. One thing we’ve got to do is make sure our students have the classes they need in their respective majors to graduate in a timely fashion. To do that, we need more teaching staff. So it isn’t just tuition—as long as I’m here, we’ll work hard to keep tuition affordable, to continue to “set the bottom” among our peers. What would be most helpful would be if the state were able to support us with better budget appropriations, and that’s something that we’re going to work hard on.

State allocations make up only a small percentage of the University’s budget, so how significant is this funding?

If you look at our overall budget, which is approaching $2.8 billion, about $220 million of that comes from state appropriations. So, on a percentage basis, it’s small. But if you look at what it supports, it’s a critical part of our budget. It’s what allows us to provide the quality faculty and advising and other kinds of instructional staffing that we need to be certain that our students are well served and that they can succeed.

It is absolutely essential that we continue to be good partners with our state and that we continue to try and demonstrate to the state how valuable we are. That’s one reason I had an economic impact study done last year—to make it abundantly apparent just how valuable we are as an overall asset to the State of Iowa and how much we contribute to the economy overall, how many jobs we provide, and what the return on investment for appropriations is. It’s significant. I don’t know where else you can get a $16 return for every $1 invested.

To help us spread the message, we are building a statewide advocacy group called the Hawkeye Caucus. We want everyone to understand that even if you live out in the far northwestern part of the state, for example, there’s still a benefit that’s gained in that community from The University of Iowa.

How much progress has the UI community made in curbing excessive alcohol consumption?

I don’t kid myself to think that students will simply stop drinking or engaging in some of the more risky behaviors that involve drinking. But I do think there is a change in culture as a result of the 21-only ordinance. Some of the very dangerous drinking behavior downtown seems to have disappeared entirely. However, some of the downtown bars have disappeared as well. Obviously, we have to help the City of Iowa City rethink what our downtown could look like and be, and also convince our students that there is appealing activity downtown that doesn’t necessarily involve drinking. So, I think passing the 21-only ordinance was good first step, but it’s going to take some time before we know the overall effects it will have on our community as a whole.

What impact are we seeing from last year’s rule changes governing tailgating that were aimed at enhancing the game-day experience?

We got off to a bumpy start last year, but once fans realized what the rules were and began to follow those rules, it quieted down fairly quickly. We want people to have a great tailgating experience, and I think last year—at the end of the season, in particular—was certainly much better and had a much more family-oriented feel to it, and that’s what we are striving for. We want tailgating to be something where people feel comfortable bringing family members of all ages and not frightened or put off by some of the bad behaviors that were going on.

This year we welcome the University of Nebraska to the Big Ten Conference. What will the Cornhuskers add to the conference—and to Iowa’s schedule?

Farmageddon! Talk about rivalry games to cap a season—the Iowa–Nebraska contest will be spectacular from now on. I think adding Nebraska to the Big Ten is great because it allows us to have a playoff for conference champion during the football season. Stay tuned. I think we’re going to see some pretty fabulous football.

You always manage to find time for reading. Any books you’d recommend?

I have thoroughly enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s books, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A lot of people have discovered him as an author and it’s too bad that he’s no longer with us—it would have been interesting to see how he would have developed the characters in the stories further.

I read when I’m traveling, and I especially love mysteries. I hope P. D. James keeps writing—she’s getting up there in age—and I wish Elizabeth George would write more frequently. And since I’ve been reading Stieg Larsson, I’ve picked up other Scandinavian mystery and crime writers like Henning Mankell.

Is there anything else you’d like to address?

The new rec center, which opened in 2010, is just spectacular and has exceeded all expectations in terms of usage, and I think we’re in for another exciting year: the new College of Public Health building will be coming on board, and we’re making substantial investments in the library to make it a learning commons for students. All that, including the new high-tech TILE classrooms we’ve been building all across campus, is really transforming the way we do our business.

Sara Epstein Moninger
photo by Tim Schoon

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© The University of Iowa 2009