President Mason talks tuition, alcohol

BY DI STAFF | MARCH 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down this week with University of Iowa President Sally Mason to discuss tuition, graduate programs, and the Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan.

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Daily Iowan: How long can Iowa’s public institutions afford to increase the cost of higher education before there are changes that affect the university, whether its a loss of student population or any other things that would keep people from coming here?

Mason: It’s really something we think about. All those are things when we think about tuition increases, what it costs to run an operation like this. I think we’ve been fairly careful in our thinking. If you look for example at any of the other institutions, if you just look at Illinois. Or this morning, when I woke up, and I began to look at the higher ed news sources, Arizona’s raising tuition by 22 percent, just for example. We put everything in perspective in terms of what we need to continue to deliver top-quality education to our students, what are our budget sources to do that, and tuition is just one of many budget sources. I think we’ve tried to be very, very careful in terms of our tuition increases.

We went from being one of nearly the lowest in-state tuition among our peers, and this year we could end up being the lowest. We’ll just have to see how North Carolina fares. I think North Carolina is the only one left in this situation who is even close to ours. Everybody else is really raising tuition to a much higher extent. And the question for the public really becomes, how much of a public good is education? In other words, it’s been moving more and more toward if you want higher education, you have to pay for it. Rather than, higher education really being a public good that everyone believes we should be funding at some level. So that everybody, no matter what their means, can afford to go.

Now, I think we’ve worked pretty hard in Iowa, at all of the public institutions, to maintain the accessibility of an education for Iowa students. I always like to tell people, and I always like to tell parents in particular, if you’re worried about, “Can I afford this?” please come and talk to us. Because if that’s your worry, if you’re in an income bracket or if you’re in a situation where you don’t feel you’re making enough money to afford a college education, it may be that we have financial aid that can make this very affordable and very doable for your student, for your young person. Don’t ever let the cost be a sole deciding factor.

DI: You said that tuition is just one of many budget sources. What would be some others?

Mason: Obviously, state appropriations. You know, we have many, many, many different revenue sources that make up the entire budget that is the University of Iowa. Some budget sources are more obvious to the public than others. And I think tuition and state appropriations are the two that are the most familiar. Now, another example, all the research that is funded by the federal government and other agencies that come to the University of Iowa — and last year we had over $450 million in research activity — those grants and contracts often come with what we call indirect costs, which are costs or dollars that could come back to the university for administration of the grant work. So there’s actually some indirect cost work that is part of our budget as well. It can help support the educational mission. That’s a piece that people don’t often think about. When we’re doing research and we’re having a very, very good year in terms of grants and contracts, that’s helpful to us on the budget side as well.

DI: Ultimately, is that a fear for the university that people would stop coming if they think it’s too expensive?

Mason: No, not really. And here’s a couple of reasons why I would say not really. I don’t say that lightly, because we do think about that. We have worked hard to keep our tuition increases relatively modest. Believe me, no college president wants to sit and tell their students we’re going to have to raise tuition, whether it’s 1 percent, or 2 percent, or 5 percent, or 22 percent. That’s not something that we enjoy. It’s a reality. Our costs are going to go up much more than 5 percent next year. And the budget costs, of course on top of that, are going to make it more challenging for us.

But, nevertheless, we try to balance all of those things together and create or craft a budget that allows us to live within our means. It’s just like your household budget. You only have so many dollars and you know you can’t spend past that. Well, we can’t either. We’ve got to spend within that certain amount of money that we have available for us and make sure that the needs of our students are first and foremost among our priorities. In terms of doing that, in terms of making those kinds of decisions, in terms of providing high quality and affordability, that’s why I can say with some confidence, I’m not concerned at this point that we’ll lose student numbers. And certainly, it didn’t happen this year. The numbers that we’re seeing for next year are strong. I think partially because we are a very, very affordable and high quality option for many people both in Iowa and outside of Iowa.

DI: Are there going to be more challenges presented to the university because more and more people are coming?

Mason: At some point, we’re probably going to have to put the brakes on admissions. We will always accept all qualified Iowa students who apply. But we have always had the capacity to admit more than just the Iowa students, too. And you’ve seen the numbers of out-of-state students and international students grow over the years. And that growth can only continue so far. We’re going to run out of space. We’re going to run out of places where they can live, we’re going to run out of places where we can teach them. We’re going to run out of laboratory space, you name it. Whether it’s you, or the Press-Citizen, or the Gazette, all the reporters are always asking me, “How big can the University of Iowa get?” And that’s not an easy question to answer. I don’t have a good answer for that at this moment in time because at this point, at least, we’re still working hard to accommodate the highly qualified applicants that we’re getting and not having to refuse them admission. We can be very, very selective when it comes to nonresident students. We are selective on the Iowa front only in so far if you meet our basic requirements, we’re going to admit you. Then it’s up to you to decide if you want to come or not. But we don’t want Iowa students to ever feel like they are going to be deprived of the opportunity to come to the University of Iowa. So, how big can we get? Could we grow another 1,000 students? And it’s hard for me to answer that question. We obviously have some things in play right now that we have to see how these things are accomplished over the next few years, including a new residence hall that’s being built, including all the flood-damage recovery. That has really stressed us. And people will often forget that we’re still recovering from a huge natural disaster. And that natural disaster, to some extent, will determine how much capacity we have certainly in some disciplines going forward. I fully intend that our School of Music and School of Art are virtually unaffected in the end, by the flood. You know, that they won’t have shrunk or be diminished in any way. In fact, I think they’re going to have some of the best facilities that are available in this country for art and music as we go forward. But, we still have a ways to go in terms of planning, and then the building, and then the occupancy of those facilities further down the road. We just have to see how all of this comes together over the next several years before we can determine how much bigger we might be able to get.

DI: Are increasing endowments and decreasing state appropriations steps toward almost privatizing the university?

Mason: I am a total product of public education. Starting in kindergarten and right up until today. I don’t know anything other than public education, K-12 and higher education. So for me, the thought of privatization, and I know there’s been a lot of talk like that, we are always going to be the University of Iowa. We’re located here, the state has provided the resources for the vast majority of the buildings and structures on this campus, and the properties and so forth and so on. While we tend to be moving more and more toward students paying more and the state paying less, there’s still a substantial investment here by the state of Iowa. So we’re always going to be Iowa’s public university. Or at least one of Iowa’s public universities.

And that’s a good thing. I think that’s a good thing for the state. I hope that people will, when they reflect back on what was a very, very rough time economically, and when they reflect back on what was a tough time not just here in Iowa but all across the country and world, that there’ll begin to understand and appreciate how important higher education has become to the health and well-being of our country. And to the future of our country. If we’re not able to provide what you’re getting as a student for your future, then we don’t have much to look forward to in this country.

You mentioned also endowments. Certainly private fundraising has become more important to us. And that’s, there’s nothing wrong with that. Because what that really allows people to do is make a difference. It allows alumni, older people like myself, who reflect back on what they got during their college years, and realize it was that opportunity that allowed them to really have a life of tremendous opportunity. I think back on my childhood and where I am today, and it’s almost breathtaking. It’s astonishing.

And so to be able to give back to your alma mater or alma maters, and say, “I want you to do for other students what you did for me when I was a student,” that’s what we hear over and over again. That’s what these endowments and the fundraising allows us to do. I think we’re very fortunate in Iowa because we have a very, very strong alumni donor base, people who care deeply about this institution. People who do want to give back in a substantial way. It’s made my job even more rewarding, because I get to interact with these people.

DI: So, you don’t think the university is relying too much on endowments?

Mason: This is the difference. Those private dollars are what elevates institutions beyond where they would be if they were just relying on resources that were provided by tuition or state appropriations, or whatever it might be. This is the difference it can make in a student’s life because you’ve got scholarship dollars, this is the difference it can make in terms of keeping the best professors because you’ve got chair professorships. This is the difference that it can make just in overall quality of the programs. When I’m talking to our alumni, I’m able to say we’ve had a new number now. Up until last week, it was 22 programs, ranked in the top 10 of U.S. News & World Report. We have 24 now. What a great story that is, and how unusual it is at a public university for the president to be able to stand up and say this is in fact the case at the University of Iowa. Our graduate programs, in particular, are very, very strong. I think indicative of the quality of our students and faculty.

DI: There has been some rearrangements with the graduate programs?

Mason: Obviously, when you reach times that are tough economically, you’ve got to make some choices. You have to ask yourself, what are we really good at, what do we want people to know us for. You’ve got to make choices sometimes. Graduate programs tend to be more expensive. The type of education that you get in graduate school is more intense, it’s more one-on-one focused, it’s a very different kind of education than our undergraduate programs. If you’ve got graduate programs that are just not attractive to students or that perhaps other places you know can do them better, sometimes you’ve got to say, we’re not going to do this anymore. At the same time, that allows you then to make those choices and be sure those top 24 or however many programs that are really good that they can stay good and continue to thrive and excel.

DI: Have there been any problems with the 90-day deadline for the investigation with the football players?

Mason: No.

DI: It’s all going smoothly?

Mason: Yes. Stay tuned.

DI: At a Staff Council meeting, it was said that there has been soft progress that might be visible in relation with the alcohol plan that had been released. These are very, very preliminary numbers that the emergency-room visits might have gone done slightly. How much is that is attributed to what could be happening with the plan or the 21-ordinance?

Mason: I think they’re all together. What you’re seeing is convergence of a lot of different things now that are coming together in interesting ways. It’s still a work in progress for me, for most of us at the university. This has always been a serious health and safety issue for the students. In trying to reduce dangerous behaviors, I think the crime statistics that are in the regents’ report this time around got people’s attention. And there’s a relationship there too with a change in the law to 21-only plus our efforts to make tailgating a safer environment this past fall. And the fact that our police now police downtown together with the Iowa City police means there’s been a lot more activity on that side of the operation, and that’s reflected in these higher numbers. I think, if you give this a little time in a year or two, these numbers will probably come back down. You won’t see people being arrested for being in the bars underage, you won’t see that many people being arrested for having fake driver’s licenses. The kinds of things where the numbers have gone up this year. We’re going to have to give it time.

DI: It does seem there has been a lot of cooperation with the city. Even the idea of a house-party registry that’s come up, the students seem to be fairly supportive of that.

Mason: People have really come up with some great ideas, and it truly is a partnership. We couldn’t be doing this on our own, and I know the city couldn’t be doing it on its own. I’m thrilled with the way in which the partnership is worked.

DI: What is the latest that is happening with the provost search?

Mason: They are narrowing down the list of people who have applied to what will be a short list of probably three or four candidates who will come to campus in the not too distant future. So stay tuned. Once the search committee brings a short list to me, and we agree that that’s a good short list, then we’ll release the names one at a time, I think 24 hours in advance of their visits to the campus so that the campus can see who they are and come and attend their public forums and have input into the process.

DI: So, will it be in the near future?

Mason: It should be. Before the end of the semester. The goal is to get this done before the end of the semester so that everyone can participate. We still have the students here, and the faculty here. This is a pretty big decision.

DI: Are you happy with the timeline?

Mason: So far so good, from what I hear. Now, I try not to get in their way. Their job is to get back to me when they’re ready. I don’t have any reason to be concerned.

DI: The Gazette ran a story about accountability with public records and e-mails available from the university. Do you think that reflects badly on the university that these e-mails aren’t always so forthcoming?

Mason: It depends on the reasons for it. We get a lot of public-record requests. Some of them are pretty complicated, and they take a lot of time to sort through. It takes a huge amount of time and effort, in some cases, to answer what might seem like a simple question. We don’t have unlimited staff and unlimited money we can spend on this. I think we’re trying to do our best. Certainly, when our office is asked to comply with it, I just tell my chief of staff, “Get them whatever information they want, get it out there as quickly as we can.” I’m very, very sympathetic to the need for transparency. I’m a big believer in it. But at the same time, when you’re on the receiving end of this, and you get large numbers of requests and often very complicated requests, it can be pretty challenging to free up the staff time and find the money to be able to do it.

UI spokesman Tom Moore: Last year, we had 254 public-record requests, compared with Iowa State, which is around 45 to 50, and UNI, 10 to 15. This year so far, we are on track to break that record.

Mason: Oh yes, it will be a much larger number.

Moore: I’d argue we’re one of the most transparent universities in the nation.

Mason: We do it, but I’ll tell you that it costs money to do this. Is this really what the taxpayers want to pay money to find out how many people went to the Insight Bowl? Every year, we get asked the same question. “Who went to the bowl game, how much did it cost?” It’s all paid by, not by state dollars, not by university dollars of any kind, but we still get asked the same questions. People still get upset over the fact we spent money to go to a bowl game, even though it was the bowl that paid. So, there are some open-record requests that I very much understand the desire to get information and understand the information. There are other open-record requests where I just scratch my head and say, “Is this really the way taxpayers would want to spend money to get information?” And is this information really news?

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