Mason discusses 21-ordinance and retention

BY DI STAFF | MARCH 12, 2010 7:30 AM

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How would you reply to the concern that the task force has a strong bias against humanities?

The University of Iowa has always been known for its humanities and fine arts. We have strong programs in humanities and fine arts. We always will. It’s fundamentally part of who we are as a university, as a great university. But we may be, and we are, doing too much. And it’s not just in humanities. We’ve got to pare back some of the … we just don’t have the budget to support everything that we’re doing, and I think it behooves all of us to think very carefully about what we can say no to, what we can stop doing, and what we want to continue to be the best at. If I just look at our writing programs across the board, we are the best at that and we will continue to be the best at that. That is core among the humanities, and I’ll stop there because I could go on and on and on, because we’ve got so many great fine-arts programs. We were the first to put an M.F.A. in place, the first to take painting and dance, and the fine arts seriously, too. It’s just fundamentally who we are.

Why did you express regret for not supporting the 21-ordinance in 2007?

I do and I have expressed regret now and it was partly because I was brand-new to the community and wasn’t really nearly as aware of the ramifications of this issue as I am now. This is first and foremost about safety. It’s not about prohibition. I’m not a supporter of prohibition at all. Period. I am a supporter of promoting safety and healthy living for our stud and obeying the law. So you’ve got two things working here. You’ve got on the one hand in the last three years what I’ve seen, what I’ve observed obviously is an increase in violence downtown. The safety issues now really concern me. If it were just about drinking, if it were just about having a good time, I would be far less concerned about this, but that’s not what this has turned into. It’s really turned into an issue that I think should concern all of us and has to do with health and safety. And at this point in time I think that obeying the laws and trying to be at least to promote better safety precautions in our community that the 21-ordinance is the right way to go. That said, I fully support and believe that we nee to have lots of activities for our students so that they don’t feel that drinking, and certainly not drinking to excess, should ever be an option or their only option for entertainment. So the wellness center is going to have programming, it’s going to go on late night, and we’re looking at all kinds of other opportunities for late-night activities so students won’t feel like there isn’t anything else to do in IC. I’ve never believed that that was true. I think that the drinking culture and certainly the bar culture downtown has led to some very unfortunate things that we just never intended to have happen. There you have it.

What got worse that made you regret the decision?

The violence … When I sat down and met with a student who had just been beaten up horribly downtown by drunk individuals I was just horrified by what I saw. .. This is not something that anyone should be proud of. This is not something that we want to promote in our community. This is a safe community. This is a wonderful community for people to live in and everyone should feel like they could go downtown on a Friday night or a Saturday night, and be safe, and have a good time, and not worry about whether or not something is going to lead to violence. Typically, that something that leads to violence is excessive abuse of alcohol.

What did it feel like to have to admit you regretted it?

It was seeing firsthand the results of really egregious behavior downtown. If you’re going to give young people responsibility, if you’re going to tell 19-year-olds, “OK, you can be in the bar, but you need to obey the law, and you need to behave responsibly.” And we’re not seeing that. That’s the disappointment. It’s extremely disappointing to think that, “OK, they want this privilege, they’ve been given this privilege, and the abuse of the privilege now is that it’s become an unsafe environment for too many of our young people.” So, what do we do? Well, we have to do something different. It’s the crazy person who just keeps trying something over and over again, expecting to get a different result. So we need to try something new. Clearly, a lot of our students are not obeying the law. They are drinking. They are underage, and they are drinking. So from our perspective, the 21-ordinance makes sense. It’s the responsible thing to do, And again, I’ll repeat it’s not about prohibition. But it is about looking for better alternatives to promote a healthy and safe environment in our community. And for our students and also for community members. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails and notes from community members about their disappointment and displeasure with student behavior. Especially in the downtown on weekends.

Do you believe the downtown Iowa City scene is a draw for some students?

It might be. You hate to believe that because we’re such a high-quality educational institution. And I never want people to think of the University of Iowa as not being a place where you will come and have a really good and enjoyable experience. Now, if you have to binge drink to enjoy yourself, I have a problem with that. I don’t think that’s what it should be about … more than simply coming to a place where you can have a drinking orgy on the weekend and do things that you regret on Monday morning.

Do you think the downtown is a deterrence for others to come here?

I’ve had some parents tell me. In fact I had at least one parent tell me at one time she was encouraging her son to withdraw from school because of the environment he was being exposed to with drunken roommates and students coming home on a Friday or Saturday night unable to stand up, vomiting, doing all the kinds of things that quite frankly most people do outgrow. That’s a good thing, but you kind of hope they outgrow it very quickly and don’t just keep doing it over and over again. Some of the patterns that are established when you’re young like that unfortunately play out when you’re older. Not a good thing.

Do you think the ordinance, if passed, could change the demographic of incoming students at all?

I hope we’re going to do the experiment and find out. We won’t know till we put it in place. I feel confident that we have such a high-quality product to offer here. And it’s such a good price that we’re going to have good students wanting to come to the University of Iowa. If it were just all about drinking, there are lots of other places they can go.

What models or research did you look at before supporting the ordinance?

Our College of Public Health has always been a great resource in terms of being able to provide information on these particular issues, on health issues, on safety issues. And also, if you look at other communities, there aren’t many if any other communities that have the confluence of density of bars in the small area we have downtown and allowing 19-year-olds in those bars even though legally they’re not allowed to drink. I don’t think I think the last time I asked someone who would be in the position to know — either College of Public Health or someone who does public policy — they had no examples that were comparable with Iowa City. Entry age plus density of bars. There’s two things combined together. The entry age is pretty unusual in and of itself, but then if you add that together with the fact that in this small physical area you’ve got all of these bars, it is a very unusual situation. Even in college towns.

Would you support a public vote on the ordinance?

That’s not up to me to decide. Certainly if there is a public vote, I’m voting. I think there’s a group of students who hope for a public vote, because last time it was largely students who came out and voted. We did find an issue they would vote for: allowing themselves to be in the bar. And I understand that. I think this time the community may be a little wise and I think it may be a little bit more challenging for the students just themselves to be able to dominate this conversation. Had their behavior been different, had there been responsible behavior, had there not been incidents of violence, had they not created this really unpleasant environment downtown, that the issue might not be one now that the community is ready to take hold of. But we’ll see.

What is your opinion on the recent 18-ordinance?

I’m sure the bar owners would love it. That would be counterproductive. We have a problem already with 19-year-olds in the bar; I don’t think allowing 18-year-olds is going to improve the situation. I don’t see how that’s an improvement at all. I’m sure the bar owners would be in favor of this because they’re very much in favor of anything that’s going got bring more revenue into their bars. More people, more revenue.

Do you think the Partnership for Alcohol Safety should take a stance?

Again, that’s up to the partnership. We’re a member of the partnership, and certainly, it would have our vote in favor.

Well, I’m asking for in your opinion would you support the partnership or other groups on campus expressing their own support?

I’ve had a lot of informal talk and chatter about some people who support it, including students. Interestingly enough. I think if this becomes an issue that the community is going to have to vote on it at some point in time, groups are going to come out either for or against. We’ll see how they divide up at that point in time. Right now, it’s a City Council issue, and I’m very, very pleased that the City Council is willing to take this on and applaud the members for their courage.

If money is one of the top reasons students drop out, how is the economy affecting retention?

You know I’d have to sit down with Mike Warner and Mike Baron and get a better sense for whether they think it’s having much of a effect on retention at this point at time … It’s a good question. If you just sort of ask me what my sense is, when we know students are struggling financially, we try to work with them to help them. Show them what options they might have to financial aid and some other opportunities to keep them in school. What happens all too often is students or their families get into financial difficulties, and we don’t find out about it. We really need to know, and I hope that if students are struggling, that they’ll come especially to the Financial Aid Office and talk to us. Or their advisers or alert somebody so that we can at least see what can be done to help them. Education is too important in this environment right now to opt out. It’s the way out of this economic situation that we’re all facing. So the worst thing is for students because of financial constraints to forgo their college education. They need it more than ever. That’s part of the reason we’ve tried to keep tuition as low as we can, it’s part of the reason we increased financial aid.

Have you heard from families though that the economy is part of the reason it’s hard to stay in school?

Not really. When I’m with student groups, I’ll often ask, “How’s your family doing? Is this becoming more difficult?” Most of the time what I hear is, “No, we’re going to be OK. Education is a priority, we’ve been saving for this all my life.” So that’s mostly what I hear. I’m not going to necessarily be in contact with the ones who may be struggling the most, and I worry about that. The more we can get the message out to students that if you’re having difficulties, we can help, but you’ve got to come and talk to us.

Why do you think you haven’t had as much interaction with students who are struggling the most though?

Students tend to get — when they get in bad situations, they get very stressed-out. So where do I typically encounter students? Events, when I was teaching my president’s leadership class, those are highly motivated students. I’m in contact typically with lots of Honor students, our presidential scholars. These are not the students who are typically worried about financing education because they’re usually so highly motivated that they’ve either got financial aid, they’ve got the means for college education, they’ve got scholarships, they’re working, it’s all covered. They’re managing it pretty well. It’s when a student becomes very stressed, sometimes it’s because something very traumatic has happened at home, maybe they’re needed, maybe mom’s gotten sick, or dad, or something really bad has happened. I’m not going to encounter them — they’re the ones who need our help the most, and they’re the ones who are also the hardest for us to identify and get to. Life is hard. They don’t want to ask for help. When I think about my own background, we didn’t ask for help, we didn’t ask for handouts. I just assumed I would work 30 hours a week to stay in school, and sometimes I did. Financial aid has changed these days, too. Student loans were available when I was going through college, and my parents and I took advantage of that very minimally, very minimally. Because it was their culture, you don’t borrow. They thought credit is for rich people. I’m not sure who they thought it was for, but it just wasn’t the way we thought about things. The only thing you borrowed to buy was your house. If you had a mortgage, then that was it. And I think there are still a lot of families today that it’s a matter of pride, it’s a matter of “we’ll take care of ourselves,” and they need to know that there are a lot of ways in which we can be helpful, and it can be done quietly and privately and doesn’t have to be something in any way is anything other than hopefully rewarding to the individual who can benefit from whatever we can put in front of her or him as a financial-aid package.

How would you address that factor more actively for retention?

I think we will be and we are looking at ways in which we can provide better advice to parents and families. And then the question becomes how do we reach them? I think that’s the real challenge in front of us is how do we reach the group that most needs our help? Because oftentimes, they’re not even thinking about University of Iowa as an option because they think they can’t afford it, or they’re not prepared well enough to come to the University of Iowa, and we just have to do a better job of marketing ourselves, and promoting ourselves, and making known to all groups across Iowa that you can afford to come to the University of Iowa. We can help you with this.

Did the UI’s budget plan shift at all with dwindling government stimulus?

We’ve been obviously dealing with the budget cuts for the last year and a half, and we’ve pared down the work force, and we’ve done that fairly carefully. Now, we have to be very strategic, obviously, in terms of how we maintain our workforce. So if you look at what happened in terms of numbers of individuals, we’ve actually added some faculty since last year. Our faculty numbers are going up a little bit. That’s intentional because we think that’s a priority. We’ve got to keep good faculty here, we’ve got to hire more faculty for the future. We have fewer temporary employees than we have in place, which means our full-time faculty are picking up more of the load. So they’re working harder, and they’re doing more, so that’s a necessity given the budget situation that we have. So now the question becomes, as we start to look at the future, as we bring on more students, as we begin to do things differently and more efficiently. What are we going to look like as a university? So the task forces that you refer to are instrumental in terms of helping us begin to structure the university of the future both in terms of what it will look like problematically but what it will look like physically, too. What we’ll be doing to make certain students want to continue to come here and new experiments in learning, new classrooms. Facilities are important. I think sometimes you can underestimate what you need to do the job well. First and foremost, you need really good people, but second, they need to have good tools, they need to have good equipment, they need to have good facilities, they need to have places where they can feel that they can do the job and do it well. One of the ways in which we can get faculty involved with more students is in this little model that I just described, these active learning classrooms. So they may not be standing up in front of the class lecturing for three four hours a week, whatever it might be, they probably will be circulating among students maybe even more frequently than that each week and probably getting to know the students better. Probably be able to get a better sense of what they’re learning, and how well they’re leaning, and how fast they’re leaning it, and how they can help how the instructors can help make that a good and better experience for students. It’s got the potential to be very powerful and very catalytic in terms of changing education. Very fundamental.

Why do you think you haven’t had as much interaction with students who are struggling the most financially?

Mason: I’m in contact typically with lots of honor students [and] our presidential scholars. These are not the students who are typically worried about financing education because they’re usually so highly motivated that they’ve either got financial aid, they’ve got the means for college education, they‘ve got scholarships, they’re working, it’s all covered. They’re managing it pretty well.
It’s when a student becomes very stressed … I’m not going to encounter them. They’re the ones that need our help the most and they’re the ones that are also the hardest for us to identify and get to. Life is hard.

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