Q&A: Mason discusses DJK, alcohol plan

BY DI STAFF | DECEMBER 16, 2010 7:10 AM

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The Daily Iowan: Any growing concern about the progress of the art museum?

President Sally Mason: Oh, we're going to stick with it. We're absolutely going to stick with it. We think we have a strong case on this appeal. It can be disappointing and frustrating when FEMA comes back with yet another question that starts the clock over again, but we'll persist because we feel that we do have a strong case here. Stay tuned.

DI: Any possibility the university wouldn't be able to build a new Art Museum?

Mason: It's hard for me to imagine that. I mean, we cannot put the art back into [the old] building. So we're going to have to have a new Art Museum. Plain and simple.

DI: Is there a backup plan if FEMA didn't allow the Art Museum to be rebuilt?

Mason: Our backup plan has always been fundraising and finding other ways to help finance a new Art Museum, but that's not where I'm thinking right now. Right now, I'm focused on our appeal and making certain that we make the strongest appeal possible to FEMA. We do feel that based on its own rules that we do have a strong case.

DI: With the talk of sabbaticals being reduced among some Republican legislators, what would you say to the legislators about the possible cutbacks?

Mason: We don't have sabbaticals here, we have professional developmental assignments. So let me be clear that I think the term leave and sabbatical has been misconstrued with what we do at the university. I think it's true that there are some similarities are that we really feel that we, as a research university, allow from time to time, faculty a period of time in which they focus on something very different from maybe they're doing on a regular daily basis throughout their career.

That typically means that they would shift their responsibilities from teaching to research for a semester — that's frequently what's happening here.

That research time is really important. At the Board of Regents meeting, President Geoffrey and I reflected our own opportunities to have these kinds of assignments where we went out, and we learned new techniques, we brought new technologies back to our students and to the universities, in his case, and in my case wrote grant proposals. I can recall my grant proposal getting funded so that the small amount of money that was used to replace my teaching responsibilities was magnified over and we were able to bring back to the university to support the students, to support my research, and to support other kinds of activities that I think are very, very important to a research university in particular, and that's typical of what our faculty are doing.

There's not a huge cost associated with this, so for cost-saving measures, this is not the place I'd look for cost savings. I think we've done — and I think this is really an important message — we've done a tremendous job of cutting $55 million out of our budget since last year. The cuts that are given to us because of the difficult budget situation in the state. We haven't complained. We've become very entrepreneurial in terms of how we've been able to supplement other streams of revenue in our budget so we haven't had to compromise on quality.

I think there are lots of ways the universities where we can be more entrepreneurial and more efficient and do things in ways that I'd hope make Iowans proud of the university just as we've done to get through these tough budget times. As a result, we're not facing any budget shortfalls, our budgets balanced, we're not facing a cliff because of the stimulus dollars we've received last year.

We've very much built into our budget going forward knowing that money would be there for only one time. From my perspective, I think we've done a tremendous job of absorbing cuts and maintaining quality at the same time. I would encourage our legislators, in particular, to begin to understand some of that and to begin to understand how important it is to a university to be entrepreneurial as it thinks about cutting budgets and as it thinks about what we need to be in the future.

DI: Have you personally reached out to legislators about the importance of professional developmental awards?

Mason: We've had some conversations with legislators, and interim Provost Barry Butler and I have written an editorial piece that we've submitted to the Register, so stay tuned. We would have given it to you guys, but it will probably be published over vacation, so after the break we can talk to you some more about this if you like.

DI: What policies or procedures are in place to make sure professors do what they say they will?

Mason: They are very much accountable; they have to submit a report after the developmental assignment is over. And the reason we know how many books and papers and grants were submitted because after they finish their assignments, they submit the report, and then we tally up the benefits to the university as a result of their work that was done on these developmental assignments. So it's a benefit to the university, it's a benefit to the individual, it's a benefit to you because typically they are bringing things back from their assignments that contribute to their teaching and to the knowledge they can then share with their students going forward. So it's a win-win for everybody.

DI: Do you think this discussion with the legislators will have an effect on the outcome?

Mason: I hope if they're willing to understand what this is all about, I think it will have an effect. I don't think we've done necessarily all that we could in terms of communicating why these are important and how often they're done and then the true cost to the institution instead of how the institution benefits from. So now's our chance to do that. And I'm happy to do that any chance I get.

DI: How has the Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan been received by the community?

Mason: We know that the 21-ordinance was only one step along the way for students to lead healthier and safer lives when it comes to alcohol. The Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan is another step in this whole process in helping our students understand what good, healthy, and safe behaviors are. I've certainly read some of the letters in The Daily Iowan from students who've said they don't think this will have any effect at all. I've heard a lot of the community members who've applauded the university for taking these steps because it's going to take more things than just one election, just the 21-ordinance, in order to make a real dent in what was dangerous behavior. Unsafe behavior and, you know, I think it comes back to it's about healthy living, healthy behavior, and how can we do the best job and to make sure that students have a healthy and safe environment.

DI: Does the university want to focus on students drinking responsibility or to abstain?

Mason: Those are personal choices. We want to make sure the students understand the ramifications of all the choices anything from abstention to responsible drinking. The more you understand what these things mean, the more likely you are to alter your behavior to conform to one side or the other.

If you, at your age, have a serious drinking problem already, we need to get you some serious help — it's not going to be a good thing going forward, for your health, mental health, or for your physical health. So if we can get you to counseling, to perhaps a rehab program of some sort what you may learn is that the only way you can function going forward in a safe and health way is abstention. But for most of our students, it's more about responsible drinking. If I'm going to indulge — when I'm of legal age — in drinking behavior, what does it mean to be a responsible drinker? What does it mean to go out with my friends and have a designated driver? What does it mean to do the kinds of things adults think about every day? So it's a whole combination of things, its not just one thing.

DI: Increasing level of education?

Mason: You bet. That's what we do best. Very much so.

DI: Allowing students the ultimate choice?

Mason: You will always have the decision to make the final choice. It's not something we can dictate to you.

DI: Have you reached out to talk with other universities with successful alcohol programs?

Mason: I've had the opportunity to interact with a number of university presidents some who've had these issues. Others who've expressed concern and yes, it's a topic of conversation that we have when we get together.

DI: What are you taking away from some of these conversations?

Mason: I think we learned a lot from Nebraska. I think a lot of what we've done, and are thinking about, we've learned from a neighbor very close by — Nebraska, and that's just one example.

You know it doesn't pay to reinvent the wheel, so if you can learn something from other's experiences, it's always a good thing. Again, it's another thing we try to do at universities is we try to share information so that we can take away the best of the information that is available and use that and where possible invent, innovate ourselves so that we can have a chance to see if perhaps something we can think of could work here as well.

DI: The plan wants to accomplish a 15 percent decrease in drinking in three years. Is this reasonable?

Mason: It's a first step along the way. You put together a plan, and you've got a fixed period of time for that plan, but I don't expect that will be the first or the last plan we have in place for this. Just stay tuned; it's just a work in progress and probably will be for a long time.

DI: Why three years?

Mason: I think when you're planning, you want to have a period of time in which you can measure progress. So three years is a good discrete time in which we can measure progress, and then we reassess, and we can see what adjustments we have to make, what the next plan will look like going forward, depending upon the progress we made or not. If we haven't made any progress or what seems like backwards progress, we're going to have to reassess in a very different way than we would otherwise. And you don't want to wait too long, but then, you don't want to say a year from now we're going to see where we are — that's too short. So what's a good period of time? I don't know. For me, I tend to take chunks of time between two to five years in terms of making really significant progress on a really significant issue. And we'll go from there.

DI: Do expect the goal to be met?

Mason: That's the plan, we're going to work hard to see if we can meet that goal or exceed it. That would be good if we could do even better than that, and we'll watch each year to see if there's signs of progress that are being made, but really, at the end of three years, we'll take a very serious look at it and say, "All right, have we achieved these goals? And if so, set a new set and if not, begin to ask some really hard questions about what not and what do we do next.

DI: What sets the UI apart from the University of Nebraska in our shortened timeline?

Mason: Well, they're may be noting different fundamentals. We picked this period of time as a starting point for us. There's nothing magic about it, may take 10 years; we'll just have to wait and see.

DI: With the recent football incident … how does this reflect upon the UI?

Mason: No one likes to see bad news about an institution they care deeply about —and that would be me carrying very deeply about the University of Iowa. I share, I think, the same sentiment that the coach, and the athletics head, and probably many of our fans have, and that is disappointment. In a few — and again it is a few and one individual in particular — who obviously took a privilege and abused it and disappointed his teammates, disappointed his fans, disappointed people such as me, the coach and others. What a shame.

What a tremendous shame and a loss for that individual's privilege, what he did. What I think the important message here is that our coach is very proactive when it comes to these kinds of things. He's not going to mince words, he's not going to dwell on the past, he's going to look forward, he's going to take action, he's going to take swift action — which he did —and he's going to move on from there, and I think that's important. Not every coach, not every school does that. We're proactive on a lot of fronts, and I give again our coach and our athletics director a lot of credit. These are hard decisions. You've got a marquee player, someone who contributes a lot and has the potential to contribute a lot, and you watch them kind of throw it away for something really insignificant and trivial when you think about it.

Why would you do something so stupid? Really? It's so disappointing, tremendously disappointing, and that's the unfortunate thing that I think we're living with right now, is just watching and feeling the disappointment, in what was a person of tremendous potential, and he threw it all away.

But again I'm proud of the coach … they're probably as disappointed and as angry, because now the team gets painted in a way that's just not characteristic of this team at all. The vast majority of these young men are tremendous people. I've watched players contribute and volunteer time with cancer patients in the Children's Hospital. I've watched them read books to children in our local schools. I've watched them do things that, I just think are tremendous, so again, being painted in a negative way just because of one individual is truly, truly unfortunate.

DI: Does the UI plans to confront the issue of drugs? Is it a concern for the university?

Mason: Drugs, alcohol, all of these things are issues. They are issues in society today. They are issues on college campuses. We're always concerned about it; we've had programs and educational opportunities for students who find themselves in situations where drugs or alcohol have become a problem and we're going to continue to do those kinds of things. It's unfortunate, obviously, that certain groups in the university are always going to be singled out for their behaviors because they are much more in society — and the football players happen to be.

DI: Will the university take any specific action about this?

Mason: Are we going to drug-test students? No. I'm not sure what you're asking here. No, and it's always going to be a fact that there are going to be young people who find themselves in challenging situations for something they've done, they may learn to regret in the future. We just can't monitor 30,000 young people on a daily basis. I think our athletics department has been very proactive on this front — it has done drug tests of student-athletes on a regular basis because, frankly, they want to be able to say they've run a clean program so when somebody doesn't live up to that standard, it's usually disappointing, because they know coming into the program what's expected of them. For all the students — no, I can't, and I wouldn't.

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