Q&A: Mason talks football hospitalizations, politics

BY DI STAFF | FEBRUARY 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Sally Mason this week to discuss state legislative issues, the response to 13 Hawkeye football players’ hospitalizations, and the search for a new provost.

The Daily Iowan: Legislators have been very involved this year with specifics in higher education. Do you think they’re overstepping their boundaries?

Mason: That’s not my job or my business. The Board of Regents is our governing board and the Board of Regents is, I think, is managing our lobbying efforts and is managing the kinds of things we do with the legislators. We’re responsible to the taxpayers here in the state so if legislators are taking an interest in the business here at the university that is certainly a legitimate responsibility.

DI: Do you think they are knowledgeable enough to deal out specific legislation like that? Do you think they can? Do you think they should?

Mason: Do I think they can? That’s a very different question then can they— Let me deal with one issue specifically let’s deal with the artwork, that’s a painting and the topic of selling that painting has come up before and its been pretty clear that I'm not in favor of selling the painting. I think that’s a very bad idea and for a very specific reason. Actually for a whole set of reasons but especially because we promised when we accepted that painting that we’d take care of it in perpetuity so we made a promise so our word is on the line with regard to that painting. If our word means anything I think selling the painting, obviously, would go against everything that we believe in, everything that we stand for, and I’ve always viewed Iowans as people who are trustworthy and people who when they give you their word you can trust it so I’d find this very difficult and challenging on an ethical basis. First and foremost, exactly the motivation for this, I’m certainly in favor of scholarships for students in fact I’m out fundraising all the time and one of the things that I'm always talking about with donors and potential donors is the importance of scholarships for students.

We raise over $100 million every year and not all of it goes to scholarships but portions of it do and in the next few years if we can continue to raise that kind of money on a regular basis so there are other ways to provide scholarship dollars for students and we’re going to work very hard to make sure that we do everything we can to provide good financial aid in the form of scholarships or grants or whatever it might be to our students it is important to us. So I think the intention, while the intention was fine, I think that perhaps with some additional information about really the trust and the promise that donors place in the university when they make a gift to the university that’s probably something that needs to be shared more widely so that people better understand what fundraising and gifts are all about.

DI: Has the university offered any other potential sales or outlets that scholarships could come from?

Mason: Well we have lots of scholarships we’re raising money all the time. I know you were curious about our endowments we have a billion dollar endowment now and a lot of that money is tied up in the form of scholarship dollars for our students. And if we’re going to continue to raise that money it’s just a part of who we are and what we do.

We’re raising private money now more than ever, all the time, and largely to provide resources for our students and our faculty. That’s what most of that money is for, that’s being raised. Obviously some of it is for very specific programs. Some of it may be for athletics some of it may be for music, some of it may be for art but by and large the private money that comes to the university is earmarked by the donor, the donor tells us what they want us to do with that money and we’re careful to make sure that we do what the donor wants.

DI: Have relatives of Peggy Guggenheim, who donated Pollock’s Mural, or anyone from the Guggenheim Foundation been in contact with the university regarding the potential Pollock sale?

Mason: I don’t know the answer to that. They certainly haven’t been in touch with me.

DI: Have any national museum or art organizations?

Mason: Oh yes.

DI: What have they said?

Mason: One, they have been opposed to the sale of this magnificent piece of art. For many reasons. Probably one of the most compelling letters I got was not from any of the museum directors or people who you might expect to support this but was from the parent of an art student here at the university of Iowa. And it basically said: Listen. These great works of art, like the Mural, Jackson Pollock’s Mural, are much like text books are to other students in other disciplines. And to sell that, would really do great harm to the students in their educational experience. And I think that’s a very compelling argument. And I think for a parent of an Iowa art student to come forward with that argument is — says a lot to me about how thoughtful people have been during this process and the importance of that piece of work to the University of Iowa. And it is very important to us.

DI: Could you name specific organizations or national museums?

Mason: Without going back through the emails and mail we’d be happy to provide some of those to you. But everybody from the DM art center, director to the directors of the national museum directors have contacted us at this point and basically said we support keeping the mural as an asset of the UI the way Peggy Guggenheim originally intended it to be.

DI: With these specific bills being proposed, does that change the role of the Board of Regents is supposed to play?

Mason: That s something for our board of regents and legislators to really deal with at a fairly specific level. I think it is unusual when legislators reach in and pull out separate pieces of the budget but its not entirely unheard of either.

DI: Do you feel it’s frustrating?

Mason: I think for me right now it is a process of educating people. Of education people about our budget educate people about where our budget has been and where it is now and also how we spend the dollars that are delegated to us. It may be tuition dollars it may be state appropriations dollars whether they be gift dollars. One of the really — if anything frustrates me, what’s frustrating is we have a very, very large budget approaching $2.8 billion. It’s very complex, it has a lot of pieces too it and not all of those pieces are easily movable. For ex. We can’t take research dollars and spend those on athletics. The federal government would way in a say ‘no, no, that’s absolutely not allowed,’

And similarly other kinds dollars that we collect so for example if you stay in the univ residence halls you pay rent like you would in an apartment and that money stays with housing and it stays with housings because it has an entity that is bonded separately from other parts of the university.

So if they’re going to be able to maintain housing facilities if they’re going to be able to build new housing facilities they’ve got to maintain a certain level of what we call fiscal stability and responsibility and although it is a piece of the larger university budget it is just a piece and we can’t just necessarily switch money around from one part of the univ to the other very easily. So that complexity is often confusing to people. I think probably people don’t fully realize that while our budget may be approaching $2.8 billion we’re not with state appropriations around $220 million.

Which is quite a small piece of that entire $2.8 billion, but it’s a really important piece. Why is it really important? Well probably many of the things that you’re using, certainly the teachers that you have in you classes the classroom equipment that you have the instructional equipment, all of that comes from either your tuition dollars or from those state appropriations. So as the state appropriations go down then it gets harder and harder obviously to be able to pay for those things to be able to pay for upgrades and to be sure we can pay competitive salaries for our faculty for our graduate teaching assistants and so forth and so on. So that’s the piece of the budget right now that’s obviously in discussion right now in Des Moines.

DI: I know you told legislators a few weeks ago about saving $80 million in early layoffs.

Mason: The only way we can really manage down costs is to pay fewer people. That’s the biggest part of our budget is payroll. And that’s the biggest part of most anybody’s budget. If your running a large company or you’re running a city, people tend to be the biggest part of our budget. So we knew when these massive budget cuts were coming, about a year and a half ago now, we knew we had to find someway to manage down our long-term costs. That means we had to manage down the workforce. Now there are ways you can do that. You can layoff people and I didn’t want to do that .

That is something that I really was dead set against. Opposed to layoffs. So then we got permission to institute an early retirement program. And it’s a program that pays out over several years. So individuals that are on this early retirement program can get a certain set of benefits for several years but we don’t have to pay them their salary. So we don’t have to pay them their salary but their savings grow over time and over because we almost had over 400 people close to 450 who took advantage to the early retirement program that we put in place over the next five year’s we’ll see almost $80 million dollars in savings. So when people say you’re not very efficient, I would argue that we’ve done a lot to become more efficient. You know we don’t let everybody take early retirement. We only let ppl take early retirement from people who’s jobs we didn't have to immediately replace or if we were going to replace them we could replace them at much less then we were spending at the time. So that’s what’s really made a big difference overtime in terms of being able to manage down our costs. So that our big budget cuts —[students] should not be feeling the effects of those big budgets cuts. Now we really need to hire more fac because we have more students. Here’s the dilemma: if we keep seeing budget cuts and we’re now having to turn over more money and we really don’t have the opportunity to reduce the workforce we actually have to add instructional people. Either faculty or lecturers or somebody that can help us teach the courses for all these extra students we’re taking onboard now we have to spend some money. We either have to spend tuition dollars or find appropriations dollars to be able to hire people that we need to do the instruction so that’s really the dilemma going forward. We’re at the point now where we’ve got to hiring people and creating more jobs rather then reducing jobs. So some of that $80 million in savings will probably have to come back in the form of faculty or teachers of some sort to help us with the instructional capacity that we need to meet going forward.

DI: Where specifically are early retires coming, department or position wise?

Mason: A lot of them were staff positions; a lot of them were staff, were we simply said you know if we have three staff members could you make due with two. Could the two people there do more work? And its not like there’s a choice necessarily we simply had to do it. We actually looked a lot at our IT — Information Technology people and said you know what we can have more electronics and more technology and fewer people. So we made the choice if we could replace a person with more technology then we did it. So a lot of it is behind the scenes. We tried very hard to not to touch the instructional staff we tried really hard not to touch the advisors… those were protected areas we know if we’d given them the early retirement package we’d simply have to hire one back right away because we had students we had to serve. So but if there was a function — I love to use the example of purchasing. At the university we do a lot of purchasing. Last year we did $600 million just buying stuff for every place across the university. We do it all electronically now and we have a central purchasing office…with a staff of eight.

Buying everything from toilet paper to election microscopes. Everything. That’s pretty good.
Eight people process the requests of everything they do it, most of it, electronically. They do reverse auctions on eBay, which is kind of creative. So if we know we have to buy a lot of toilet paper for all the restrooms around campus, they’ll go out and put information out there on the web that the vendors will see it and they’ll begin to bid well we can provide you with all that toilet paper for X number of dollars and another vendor might say we can provide it for this many dollars and a third vendor may say we’ll take the low bid so we can save money that way by bulk purchasing and we save money by obviously doing it electronically now.

DI: What was it like before? How many people were in charge?

Mason: Quite a few more then that. And it was dispersed across the university because we didn’t have the fully integrated electronic system that’s something we’ve been working on for along time.

DI: How many years?

Mason: Gosh, since before I arrived. So more than 5 years.

DI: You mentioned small things, what are some larger things purchased?

Mason: Well, election microscopes. If you’re going to buy something that large you’re obviously going to want to get the best price for it.

DI: Specific departments effected more than others?

Mason: I think its really spread across the spectrum. We didn’t target any one department and say you’ve got to give up all of your staff or anything like that. It was voluntary. You had to have worked for a certain period of time you had to be a certain age group. It was strictly voluntary, you had to apply. Now you wouldn’t necessarily be accepted not everyone was accepted but those who were accepted obviously had then the option I think they had what 18 months — to fully retire — they had to say by this certain date I would not longer be fully employed at the university but they were able to — what most people are worried about at that age is making sure they have health insurance until they can fully retire on Medicare and the Medicare age is what, 62. What people are really looking for is help with health insurance until they could get Medicare.

DI: More early retires you expect to see in future?

Mason: That program's over now, unless we get permission from the Board of Regents to do another one and I’m not sure, you know I think the first two waves really go utmost of the people that we could afford to let go, and give this package to. I’m not sure there is many more out there that could take advantage of this yet again. And I worry too that bare bones is bare bones. The way I notice it is garbage around here gets picked up once a week now. I empty my own garbage can, it’s just easier and that’s fine. If that’s what it takes to generate some savings then that’s what it takes. That’s just one very small example.

DI: If, theoretically, the Governor’s budget is passed and more budget cuts made — would that make layoffs unavoidable?

Mason: No.

DI: At what point would it be inevitable?

Mason: At what point am I going to fire people? I don’t know. I don’t’ know but at this point that’s not something I’m anticipating it’s not something that I’m considering. That gets people very worked up and alarmed. These budget cuts — the governors budget while there’s a budget cut …if we can get a 5 percent tuition increase I think we’re going to be fine. It wont be great, we still won’t be able to hire the faculty we need we’re going to have to put that off yet again and hope that we can continue to rely on our faculty to continue to keep doing a little bit more. But I’m really not and I just think, you know when I talk to some of my colleges who run businesses when I talk to the Verdeans (Sp?) their truckers. And you can’t tell me the trucking industry hasn’t been affected by the economy — my dad was a trucker. So I understand a little bit. And they got through this without firing anybody either. I mean, I really respect business people who can manage down expenses without having to take a toll on the moral of their employees. And we were able to do that, I certainly hope the public begins to appreciate that that’s good business practice. That, layoffs are not necessarily the best way to manage a business going forward, that you really do want your employees to not only feel good about where they work but also feel good when they leave that workplace. For me that has always been a goal. And so no, I have no idea whether there is a breakpoint we’d certainly — I think given the magnitude of our budget and the ways in which we’re able to manage down costs and become more efficient I’m not anticipating layoffs as a strategy for managing the budget at all.

DI: Looking back at the hospitalization of the 13 football players in January, do you feel the UI handled adequately?

Mason: You know, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with and we certainly didn’t at first and we are still figuring that out I think you do the best you can to handle it. The one thing I’ve asked my people is to do a better job of communicating across the various units that have their own communication efforts. I think that’s one area that we have learned our hospital has to be talking to Tyson Kendig, our strategy communications vice pres, our athletics department has to be talking to Tyson and that way we can coordinate our message so that we’re we at least know where we all are. That’s probably the one thing I ask people to do. Is do a better job of making sure we’re communicating centrally.

I think we learn form these experiences all the time. That I’ve said repeatedly. We’ve certainly never dealt with this before. It was interesting, some of the mail that I got one very interesting thing I got was from a former military doctor who years ago when he was dealing with recruits saw this very same thing in a large number of recruits, more then thirty and what he was able to do after studying it for awhile was to recommend to the army that this is what you want to do when you’re training your recruits and this is what you’ll want to avoid when training your recruits. It had nothing to do with anything other than these young men being brought in and put into basic training and some bodies respond diff than other bodies to this intensive kind of exercise very quickly. So, you know we’re looking at lots of different ways in which we can better understand what happened but we’d certainly never dealt with that before.

DI: So would you say the UI had poor communication?

Mason: No, I don’t’ believe I said that. What I said was I want better central communication, I want to be sure that all parts of the university are talking to each other. That’s the one place that I suggested we could do better.

DI: So it hadn’t been in the past?

Mason: It’s not that easy, it’s not that black and white. They had been but not in a well coordinated fashion. We’d hear from one before we’d hear the other and a story would get out before we’d had a chance to talk to both sides and really know what it was we were even talking about. Especially when you’re dealing with something you hadn’t seen before like this. That was the biggest challenge is we’d certainly never seen anything like this before.

DI: Have you had a chance to sit down with the Provost Search Committee? When will the campus start seeing candidates?

Mason: It may take them a little longer. The application deadline is this month. So they’re still getting applications and then the search committee will look at those applications and do a prescreening so that will maybe happen sometime in March and during spring break and I suspect its going to be a little later maybe April before the campus gets to see the candidates but its coming along.

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