Q&A:Mason talks provost, arts campus

BY DI STAFF | MAY 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down to talk to University of Iowa President Sally Mason about concluding the provost search, updates on the arts campus, and the UI's image.

The Daily Iowan: The possible banning of the vendors has caused quite a stir in the community and also among alumni, who feel the loss would ruin the gameday experience. And there are some who say the university should be a little more involved. Does the university have a stance on this issue or does it feel like they could do something?

Mason: I'm always willing to work in partnership with the city, but this is a city issue. This is very much up to the City Council, very much up to our city leadership. My sense is they're going in a good direction, that is not banning the vendors from Melrose, maybe being a little bit more careful in regulating it with permits and that sort of thing. We tend to get involved when we're invited to get involved. No, the university hasn't taken a stand on this. My own personal opinion — and this is always hard to offer because my personal opinion is almost immediately translated into the university opinion — is the vendors on Melrose, I think, contribute to the overall positive nature of gameday. For families, in particular, and for our guests and visitors who come to enjoy the experience.

I'm enthusiastic about keeping the vendors.

DI: I think that is one thing that people have said is, "We come back for the game, we come back for vendors. We come back for everything."

Mason: One of these days I may even get to try one of those big turkey legs.

DI: I've never had one.

Mason: I haven't either. That's because I entertain at a gameday event before the game, I entertain all through the game, and I'm usually not hungry at the end of the day.

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DI: The next big thing, obviously, is the provost search. All the candidates have visited. Have you received a lot of feedback?

Mason: I'm continuing to collect feedback. We're getting very close to a decision at this point in time. I hope to be able to wrap this up very soon. I had hoped, obviously, before the semester ended but we're probably not quite going to make it. Only because we're so busy with commencement this week. And the phone calls and the conversations that I need to have, I'm getting them done between things.

I was very pleased. I was very pleased with the caliber of the candidates and very pleased at the feedback I am getting. I'm enthusiastic about reaching a very positive outcome.

DI: So, it likely will not be Friday?

Mason: I don't know. I can't promise. There's a process that unfortunately can take some time. And whether it can be completed by Friday, I don't know.

DI: Do you make the final decision or do you have advisors who help you?

Mason: I make the decision, but it's pending Board of Regents approval. The final decision is made by the Board of Regents. Some of my phone calls involve calling the board leadership and speaking with them before making the final decision. And I'm not quite done with that process yet.

DI: The question of tenure has come up. One of the regents had suggested doing away with it, but it also came up in the provost candidate forums because a lot of the staff members would ask, "what is your stance on tenure?" With the university, how do you feel about the importance of tenure and attracting high quality faculty?

Mason: Well you just said it, right there. Tenure is really the cornerstone of academic freedom and has been for a long time. It's a process that virtually everyone of our peers and every institution that we aspire to be like has in place now. Like it or not, it's what we have. And it is, in essence, and historically, if you look at it, it has worked well in terms of protecting academic freedom and allowing faculty to have the ability to do research in sometimes controversial areas, to be able to speak and write in these areas as well.

Now, it's also something that you earn. It's not something that you're giving lightly, believe me.

Having earned tenure myself at one point in my career, I know how much work it took. I know how much you have to accomplish to be considered by your peers to be worthy of holding tenure. I'm also a big believer in once you've earned it, you should never take it for granted. There's responsibilities that go along with it, and it can be taken away from you. I think there's mythology out there that once you've got it can never be removed. That's not true. It's hard to remove — and it should be, because if you've worked hard to earn it, it can't be something that can just be on a whim, taken away from you. As an entity that exists within academic institutions today, historically it certainly has played a strong role in protecting academic freedom. And today, I think it's something that all of us look at as something that you earn, and then you must continue to work hard to maintain. And isn't a given you can have it your entire life, or your entire career.

It comes with responsibilities, it comes with the understanding that you're continue to be productive, that you're going to continue to do good work and achieve at a high level. And the discussion of post-tenure review that was held at the Regents meeting, this last time around, I think is an important piece of the way we think of tenure as a continuous learning process. Normally when you reach that first promotion in your career, we're hired as assistant professors. We're in that rank for what we call a probationary period, which may be four, five, six, seven years. At the end of that probationary period, we may have earned the right to hold tenure and be promoted to associate professor. Now, we still have more steps to take. There may be the opportunity, five, six, seven years later to be promoted to full professor, assuming that we continue to show that we are meritorious of being promoted by our peers in peer-review.

Even once you've been promoted to full professor, the post-tenure review process allows for analysis. And the hope is, along the way, if someone is struggling — we all reach points in our career where maybe it's not going quite the way we hoped — what you really want to do with the post-tenure process in particular is to be able to provide assistance to faculty so they can either change tracks or get back on track, or become every bit as productive as perhaps they once were if they're struggling at some point in their career. Of course, if they're not, you simply want to continue to award them in a way that says we are very pleased with the work you are doing.

DI: Do you think there is an economic concern to tenure? Maybe that it takes too many funds away?

Mason: There are lots of things in life that have economic concerns. Most of our budget is tied up in salaries. Similarly, if you're a faculty member, you've got tenure that helps with protections. You try not to be capricious or arbitrary in making hiring and firing decisions. You try to take these very seriously. And you'd like to think that if you do a very good job in hiring, barring catastrophes — you could argue whether this budget situation we're facing is a true catastrophe or not — but barring catastrophes, you hope you're not having to revisit those hiring decisions, except in extraordinary cases.

DI: I know there has been some concern about university salaries and attracting faculty, so it seems like keeping tenure would be one way to do so.

Mason: Until or unless the rest of the academic world decides that this just isn't the right way to go, it would put an institution at a serious disadvantage to not have it.

DI: At the board meeting they also talked about the Senator Harkin Institute at Iowa State University. There was some initial hesitation because he is a sitting political figure. Do you think such an endeavor would ever occur at the UI? And I know we've had businessmen who have various projects.

Mason: You know, you can't ever predict these things, whether it would or wouldn't. You want to look at every opportunity, and you want to look at these opportunities in a context of what can they contribute to our students, what can our faculty contribute to something like this. And if, in the end, it comes out as a positive for the institution, obviously you want to consider it seriously. It's hard for me to say one way or another, predict one way or another how something like that might work. Most typically, especially when politics and political figures are involved, you're looking at these after a career has been completed. I can remember when I was at Kansas, we had the opportunity to bring the Robert Dole Institute to Kansas, and it was very similar. It was a repository for Sen. Dole's papers. Sen. Dole was an active presidential candidate, and contributed tremendously to Kansas. It was about the time he was stepping down from his political career that the institute was established at the University of Kansas while I was there. The timing of that just happened to work out pretty well, and it didn't create controversy of any sort. Largely for that reason, largely for being a celebration of the man's career at the end of his career.

DI: Would you ever — it's hard to say, obviously, as the situation changes — would you see it as a conflict of interest?

Mason: Again, you have to take each one of these in separate contexts and try and determine what the best way to proceed is and if there is or isn't a conflict of interest. It's hard to say.

DI: There was some discussion about the increase in the cost of the Arts Campus. How did that come about?

Mason: Well, from the very beginning we have always said that we have, from the best of our ability, tried to estimate the damages. We've also said that in the end we're not simply going to rebuild 20th century facilities. That's the simplest, most straightforward explanation that I have for what's going on here.

We know that it will take so much money to simply replace what was lost — that's what FEMA will pay for. But we also know that going forward for our studio arts, for our performing arts, for our music department, we don't need 20th century facilities, we need 21st century facilities. So we've segregated the costs of what is so-called FEMA eligible which are replacement costs versus what we're willing to go out and raise money for and find additional resources to pay for, so we're not stuck with antiquated facilities, brand new facilities that would be antiquated or out-of-date before we even built them.

As you're looking at the increased costs of these facilities, we're really looking at the difference between something that was built — at least in the case of Studio Arts built back in the 1930s — versus something that's going to be built now in the 21st century. And we're looking forward. You know, I'm looking at what does this institution need to continue excellence into the future.

DI: I'm sure then, some of it is frustrating.

Mason: Yes and no. Most of us who looked at this knew from the beginning, and we said from the beginning, that we're going to raise money and find ways to make certain that we don't simply put back what was there to begin with because that was another era, another century. To me, it's not frustrating, it's understandable. What will be frustrating is the length of time that it's taking to get us back on line. We all want to see these facilities built tomorrow, or yesterday. That'd be better.

It takes time. These are very large facilities. Universities build facilities to last a century or more. So it's not the same cost as building a house or an important building that's built to last for 20, 30, maybe fifty years and then you replace it. We don't build buildings to turn around and replace them in 25 or even 50 years. We build them to last for 100 or more years, and that's not inexpensive. The reason I'm anxious to get started on these is restore the good climate for bids and building projects.

We can get very competitive bids and get everything we want at a good price.

DI: Is there any worry that this could happen with some of the other flood projects on campus?

Mason: I think the flood projects now will hold. We're far enough along in the planning process that we've got a good idea of cost at this point in time. I don't think we're going to see...I've said all along that this a billion dollar disaster. If you look at the final number, it's coming in just a little over $1 billion, and if you subtract out the $200 million that likely will be our responsibility in the end because of upgrades and things that we think are important, we'll pretty much be where we said we'd be.

DI: We know that you have a new senior associate, David Drake. Is there anything new that you plan to do while you have him on staff?

Mason: There's some things that we're going to continue to do. And David seems very interested and excited about that. Jon Carlson, when he was senior associate was my liaison with the Chamber of Commerce and I'm going to ask David if he's going to be willing to continue that relationship. Now Nancy Quelhourst doesn't even know that yet, but she'll figure it out pretty quickly. David is just a real solid member of this community as well as being a terrific faculty member. He served as Faculty President, just as Jonathon Carlson was. So I feel very fortunate to have senior advisors of that caliber who've got a great sense of the institution and a great sense of the faculty who work here.

DI: One of the reporters is working on a story about diversity on the Board of Regents. And Rose Vasquez is leaving, she's the last one representing a minority on the Board. How do you feel like diversity in these positions factors into higher education?

Mason: Well, the Board of Regents are chosen by the governor.

DI: I just mean higher education in general.

Mason: We know that — and there a lot of studies to back this up — diversity is a tremendous contributor to the learning experience. And I mean that in a very broad sense. It's not just the learning experience for students, it's for our faculty, for the community. It benefits everyone. And that's diversity in a very very broad sense. It's not just ethnic diversity. It's diversity of thought, it's diversity of ideas. It's diversity in a very, very broad sense. The more of that we have and the more of that we can expose our community members to, the healthier we are all. And I think the more intellectually challenged we are, too. We get to learn how to co-exist with people from other countries, with people from very, very different backgrounds, who look different than you do. And that's really the way life is, today. People choose different ways of living their life, and we want to be certain we open our students up to the broadest set of experiences that we can. That's why we're so hot on trying to get all of you to go study abroad, do something outside the boundaries of the United States of America. That's why we're so excited when we put you in internships in other states and other cities, at least for a little while. We like when you come back, too. But all of that, in the end, is part of the broader learning experience that we consider diversity.

DI: Does that ever go into your personal hiring decisions?

Mason: Sure, sure. I'm always looking to see if we can add something different that we don't have. I think most of the folks here that do hiring — I don't do a lot of it, it's mostly at the senior level, but when we do have those opportunities, we say what can this individual bring that's unique or different or in any way contribute to the diversity of our community.

DI: The city is undergoing some beautification projects and updating some things, and I know that's obviously unrelated to what the university does. But the university does have some buildings downtown. Where there will be any kind of interaction?

Mason: I'm sure there will be. We've got a great team. I always refer people to Rod Lehnertz [UI director of planning, design and construction for Facilities Management] when they have questions about buildings, design, or landscaping and architecture because Rod's really got that campus master plan in his brain at all times. He's got a really good sense because he's an architect of how these things should articulate with each other.

DI: Just overall, how do you feel the year has gone? Had some ups, had some downs, but overall?

Mason: Overall, really very positive. Coming off what have been some really tough budget years, but coming in to this year with a strong enrollment, record enrollment and looking at next year and probably another record enrollment. A lot of the hard work foundation members and I get to do on the fundraising side seems to be paying off nicely this year. I'm concerned about things I continue to be concerned about — flood recovery, the budget, and certainly now the national deficit as well because that can affect our research funding. And our research funding has traditionally been very strong. Not as good as last year, because the stimulus money wasn't there this year that there was last year. Our researchers are working harder than ever to maintain the fundraising levels they need to continue this outstanding work that they're doing.

DI: Image-wise at the university, do you feel like this coming year would be a chance to get past some of the things that had taken place this year that might have cast a bad light on the university?

Mason: Things happen every year that affect that...they don't affect the image long-term. I don't think there's anything that's happened this year that's affected the image long-term, quite honestly, we're a very strong institution. I've been enjoying the fact that we can talk about our U.S. News and World Report rankings on the graduate side. Two more of our projects have entered the top 10.

We're up from 22 last year, we're at 24 this year. As I look at the core mission and the core function here, it's strong. And our students are telling us that they like what they're doing because they're coming in record numbers. And we're keeping tuition manageable. I wish we could say we're keeping it absolutely rock bottom, but we're certainly keeping it manageable. We're keeping it at the bottom of our peer group and we're keeping it, I hope people know we're working hard to make it affordable, particularly for our Iowa students.

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