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Mason discusses 21-ordinance, diversity

BY DI STAFF | APRIL 15, 2010 7:30 AM

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DI: How will the UI prepare for the 21 ordinance now that it is passed?

Mason: We’ve got quite a series of plans, obviously. Everything from making certain that we have more activities for students — late night on weekends in particular — to really rethinking our policies and making sure that if we put policy changes in place that we don’t do anything that somehow makes it more difficult to operate in the situation.

This has always been about student health and safety, so we’re looking at ways. Even if we put in place policies that change how we treat students who are in a situation where they’ve been drinking underage and breaking the law, we don’t want to endanger students.

We’re putting a Good Samaritan policy in place so that students who need medical attention can seek medical attention and not worry about retribution or worry about sanctions that would somehow discourage them from seeking medical help when they need it.

We’ve got to look at all these things to make sure what we’re doing is not somehow going to have unintended consequences that we don’t want. We don’t want to make this worse in terms of health and safety for students. The idea is to make it better and obey the law. I mean, those are the two things that drive and have driven the 21-only ordinance from the beginning — health and safety issues first and foremost.

I have to say that The Daily Iowan’s articles on the downtown scene and the violence downtown were big contributors to everyone wanting to change the culture. [The DI] did a great job of illustrating some of the challenges and problems that we have downtown as a result of a drinking culture that, at times, is out of control and certainly leads to the kind of health and safety issues that we want to improve upon.

So with that in mind, the kinds of things that we’re doing are really looking for opportunities to make sure students can come here and have a great experience — that they can come here and still love the University of Iowa.

You know, if a party-school designation meant something different from too much binge drinking, I would love the party-school designation, because I’m all for coming to college and having a terrific time on all fronts — whether it be the social aspects of college or the academic parts of college.

I like to see those two things — where students leave feeling as though they got a great education and they had a great time.

I don’t want to see students get hurt, don’t want to see them in situations where they find that things they did as college students now affect them for the rest of their lives, either legally or health-wise.

I don’t want students leaving here with alcohol problems. I don’t want students leaving here having been hurt at some point because of alcohol and having scars then for the rest of their lives. But I do want them to come here and have a great time, so we’ve got to figure that out.

DI: Do you think the response to the ordinance will be different initially because it will go into effect after the semester ends?

Mason: I don’t know. I think it gives us time to see how these changes might affect the community and affect our students and gives us a little time to make adjustments before all the students come back in the fall, and we’re faced with that. So, that’s probably a good thing.

And I think we all fully expect that there will be a referendum that’ll be on the ballot in the fall, too. So we’ll see what the community really thinks and the voters think come November when election time rolls around.

We have not only a governor to elect, but we also have a referendum on a health and safety issue that’s, I think, very important to the community.

DI: Do you think it will be better that incoming freshmen in the fall will enter a downtown that is 21-only?

Mason: I think that’s good that it will be in place because we will have had a little time to see what that might mean to a smaller group of students and make some adjustments.

I think we need to be vigilant about educating the new students coming in so they know what that means. I hope we can continue to work, obviously, with the community and with the bar owners.

None of us want to drive bar owners out of business, but if the business model is all based on selling alcohol to underage — frankly, illegal — that’s not a great business model, and that’s a business model that has to be changed.

If there are ways in which we can work together with the community to help make this change, then that’s all for the better. So, this gives a little time to try to work these things out.

DI: Why is the search for a new chief diversity officer important?

Mason: It’s not a new position. Marcella Davis has been our chief diversity officer for several years now, and she went back to the law faculty, so we opened the search up for her position earlier this year, and the candidates are now on campus.

We have the opportunity to interview a series of individuals for this very important position on campus because it not only oversees our Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, but really what we’ve done is we’ve changed the title slightly so it’s chief diversity officer. Marcella had a very long title … and what we’re trying to do with “chief diversity officer” is to make it a little easier to understand what this person does at the university.

So, we’re in the process of interviewing candidates for this position. I think it’s an important one.

One of the things I very much appreciate about Iowa is that the University of Iowa has always been a leader in diversity issues. We’ve got a strong track record when it comes to increasing the diversity of our faculty and increasing the diversity of our student body.

We want that to continue. We want to continue to grow it. I think we’ve got a lot of opportunities here, with a new chief diversity officer, to have someone new come in and continue to move this agenda forward in a very positive way.

People say Iowa’s not a very diverse state, but I would argue that the diversity in the state is growing significantly. Particularly, the Latino population in the state is growing significantly right now — and are we ready for that? Are we prepared to help this growing population in the state? To help the kids get ready for college and to make sure that the University of Iowa is one of their choices when they are ready?

DI: So you changed the title of the chief diversity officer position. Will the duties change at all?

Mason: That’ll be up to the new person coming in. There will be some latitude there. This is a person who reports jointly to me as a member of the President’s Cabinet and to the provost.

We want the person who does this job to have responsibilities across the entire campus — all the operations, from students, and faculty, and staff to general operations. It’s a pretty important position.

DI: How does the UI’s increased focus on recruiting and retaining diverse staff and students fit into the task force on undergraduate education?

Mason: The Iowa Promise, which is our strategic plan and has been in place for a while now, has a good, healthy focus on diversity as part of our strategic-planning initiative.

Similarly, as we’re working on a new strategic plan for the university, diversity will continue to be a major part of what we do going forward.

It has to, OK? It has to because, really, it provides a strong foundation and basis for what we do at the university. It makes your educational experience better, it makes the community better, it makes the university stronger and better going forward, too.

And diversity is very, very broadly defined. Diversity is everything from people who are of different ethnic backgrounds to our international population of students, too, which continues to grow. So we’ve seen shifts and good increases both in the diversity of our faculty and the diversity of our student body.

The question becomes, too: “Are we doing everything to make sure that we can continue to grow that diversity and maintain the gains that we’ve had so far too?”

It’s always a challenge in places where people look around and say, “Well there’s not a lot of diversity there to begin with.” Midwestern states tend to be states that don’t necessarily have a lot of innate diversity built into them, so that just means we have to work harder.

DI: What has the university been doing in terms of planning for Board of Regent President David Miles’ directives for more cost savings?

Mason: There have been a number of meetings among the universities talking about ways in which we can cooperate — things that we can do to make ourselves even more efficient.

One of the things that we’ve been — certainly I’ve been learning up a lot about and educating our regents and others about — is the efficiencies that have already been put in place, largely because of prior budget constraints that we’ve dealt with.

But how much further can we take those? Are there ways in which we can push this even further? I think the answer is going to be yes in some cases. And probably in other cases, maybe not so much left to do there. It just depends on the particular issue and how much progress we’ve made prior to being asked by President Miles to look at these things. But everything is on the table. Everything is on the table, everything is being discussed. Our groups of our facilities people and our managers who are looking at these things, asking hard questions about what do we think is better, if we did this all together would it be cheaper for us? Or would it cost more money? Some cases, it’s interesting, because the answer might be that it might cost more money if we were change our practices to be like other practices, and in some cases the answer’s the opposite — it could be cheaper. So those are the tough questions being asked, and I think we’ll be reporting certainly on some of those things at the April meeting when they’re in town, so stay tuned.

DI: The University of Iowa’s humanities program is getting national attention. How do you feel about what’s going on?

Mason: First and foremost, I think we have to remember how critical humanities are to our mission. I mean, I mean, absolutely. We are absolutely committed to high-quality programs in humanities and the real questions that come down to, “How can we continue to make certain that we have world-class high quality programs in humanities?” And at the same time, given the budget constraints that we have, we’ve got to ask hard questions about [whether] there ways in which we can realize efficiencies in how we do things that don’t damage any of the credibility or quality of the programs but might be able to save us some money. Or might be able to provide more focus so that we can be even stronger in some of our best programs. I mean, that’s really what this is all about. It’s never about damaging something so fundamental to what I call a basic liberal arts and sciences education today. Which is still what’s in demand out there. There’s a lot of attention paid to the professions, but without a firm grounding in a liberal arts and sciences, which means the humanities, we miss out on the real opportunities to have a highly educated society. So it’s absolutely critical that we keep these programs strong. Now are they nervous? Yes. You’d be nervous, too, if people were scrutinizing what you do and asking questions about it and asking questions that’s not us asking questions about the relevancy of these programs, but it’s external. People outside the university saying, “Well really, what do you do with a philosophy degree.” Well, maybe you become CEO of a major company some day because you got the critical thinking skills, you’ve got the analytical skills, and you’ve got the writing ability to be able to do pretty much anything. Because you’ve got this firm grounding that includes a strong basis in humanities. And this is coming from someone who — my own background is science, but my undergraduate degree — was a bachelor of arts degree because I wanted language training, I wanted a firm grounding in humanities, as well as the science that ultimately became my profession, so for me that B.A. degree was a very important entrée into my career, and obviously, my career track that led to this job. So I’m kind of living proof.

DI: What did President Obama’s visit mean to you and the university?

Mason: When the president wants to visit the university, that’s certainly his decision, and we were pleased that he chose to come back to Iowa where he started the discussions on health care. I mean, that was really what was driving his visit was his very first discussion about health-care reform when he was campaigning to be president took place across the river in [the UI] Hospitals and Clinics during the visit he made here on his campaign circuit. So when the bill was passed and was able to sign it, he wanted to come back to Iowa to talk about it. He called and said, “I’d like to come to the University of Iowa. I’m coming on Thursday.” And we said, “Yes, sir. Absolutely sir.” And our students obviously were happy to welcome him back to our campus to make this historic announcement and speech. This is not the first time in my tenure as president that we’ve had a sitting president visit us. Because President Bush visited us after the flood, and I had a chance to meet President Bush, and now I’ve had a chance to meet President Obama, and I have to tell you, it’s always exciting when a sitting president comes to visit us. And Iowa, I think because of it’s place in politics with its Iowa caucuses, will always be an important state when it comes to presidential elections and politics, so we’re gong to be blessed with probably many visits by many politicians.

We’ve got elections coming up in the fall, and it’s clear that I think Iowa is an important state politically, so I expect — we had Gary Locke here last weekend — Secretary Locke was very gracious in his announcements about the flood-relief dollars coming to eastern Iowa. I suspect we’re going to see lots more activity. So stay tuned.

I’ll tell you a funny story. I was on my way back from spring break, and it was Sunday morning, and I got a call from my chief of staff. We were in Hannibal, Mo., on the way back driving into Iowa City, and the phone rings, and it’s Mark, and Mark says, “Guess who’s coming to town on Thursday.” And I said, “Well, I have no idea. Who’s coming to town? The governor?” And he said, “No, no. The president.” And I paused and I said, “The president? Of … the United States?” And he said, “Yep.” And I said, “Why? Why?” And of course he explained to me the president was anticipating signing — if the bill passed — on Sunday morning when all of the debate was still going on in Congress so the idea was the bill would pass, the president would sign it, and he would begin to make speeches, and he wanted to make his first speech in Iowa, and he picked Iowa City as the place to come to. So I said, “Oh. I guess I need to change my plans this week.” Because I had a trip scheduled to Washington, D.C., that week and I decided, “Well if Washington’s going to come to Iowa City, maybe I’ll just stay put.” And I did, obviously. So yeah, it’s exciting, but these things are very unexpected and not things that you can plan very well.

DI: Faculty pay is decreasing at the UI. What factors may be attributed to this?

Mason: Other places were able to give raises.

We slipped one notch because the Michigan schools were able to give their faculty raises despite their budgets.

I think everyone assumed no one would be able to give many raises.

Or didn’t cut them as deeply as we were.

Friday, we’re going to get our surcharge back. Go out and spend it — stimulate the economy.

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