Q&A: UI President Mason talks Hamerlinck, state budget

BY DI STAFF | JUNE 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down with university of Iowa President Sally Mason Wednesday to discuss state budget issues, Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck’s comments about students, and the new UI provost.

DI: The UI College of Engineering is working with an interim dean and the UI College of Business is working with an outgoing dean, what sort of impact do you think this will have for those programs?

Mason: Well, you know, change is always occurring every place you look and not surprisingly with Barry Butler moving into the provost position and interim dean there, they’ll be doing a national search for the dean’s position and similarly in business, where Kurt has much to our regret decided that it was time to step back in the dean’s position there, too. The provost will run those searches. I’ll be very interested, obviously, in how they progress and I’ll meet with the finalists once the search committee and the provost have agreed on a list of finalists for each of the positions and I have no doubt, because these colleges are in very, very good shape and they’ve had good leadership for many, many years, that we’re going to attract a good pool of candidates, and we’ll find a very fine dean in both cases.

DI: What’s your timeline for filling those positions and what sort of —

Mason: You need to ask the provost. These are his searches, they’re not mine.

DI: What are you looking for in terms of the quality of those candidates?

Mason: I mean we need leadership, we need candidates that obviously the faculty and the staff and students will look to for that leadership, so they’re going to have to have credentials and a good track record, obviously, whether in business fields or in engineering fields. The search committee I think as when the provost puts together the search committee, the first thing they’ll do is sit down and write up a job description, and Barry will have to approve those job descriptions, and generally he shares those with me.

DI: Do you know when they’re going to start sitting down with a search committee?

Mason: You’ll have to ask the provost. That’s what we went back to. They’re his searches.

DI: What do you think Provost Butler will do for the university?

Mason: He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge about the university. I think one of the things that impressed everyone was how much experience he has had here. He loves this place. He spent his entire career here. I know he loves, would love to stay here for the rest of his career, as I’ve told him, “you never know what’s going to happen so never rule anything out.” But I’m delighted to have someone apart of the team who has as much experience internally as he’s had as well as the kind of energy and enthusiasm for the job that he brings as well.

DI: What made you pick him for the provost role?

Mason: You know, as I looked at the three candidates, and all three were very well-qualified, and I began to listen, and I listened to a lot of people both internally and externally. I was, you know, I was lobbied considerably by many people both inside the university and outside of the university, and the consensus seemed to be leaning toward Barry. And I think some of it was familiarity and his ability especially with his experience as dean to have articulated with many donors and many alumni and people who are familiar with the university. They very much liked him, respected him and figured that in terms of leadership he could bring really strong leadership to that position, and I agree with that. You know, there was really no reason not to. And that’s not to detract from either of the other two candidates who interviewed for the job. I’m very familiar with Uday Sukhatme. I had a chance to work with him when I was in Indiana. We actually worked side by side together, and I was so pleased when someone of his caliber was willing and excited about interviewing here, and our search committee expressed to me very strongly that they found particularly Barry and Uday to be candidates of pretty much equal comport, and I would say that the search committee was they were fortunately willing to let me make the final decision as I asked them to but they were also very enthusiastic about both of these gentlemen in particular. So, I think we were fortunate. We had a choice, and I think there was strong leadership qualities in both of these individuals, and I know that Uday will continue to do a fine job in whatever his next experience is going to be.

DI: What has it been like working with provost Butler?

Mason: He’s a great member of a team. He’s terrific about keeping me informed about what’s going on. He’s absolutely terrific I think in terms of dealing with the academic and the faculty issues that are always out there and that need to be dealt with. I very much appreciate someone with his skill level, because it means less that I have to focus my attentions to and more that he can focus his attention on. And because he has been terrific and tremendous at communicating both to me and to those who are interested. I think we’ve got a great working relationship. And I look forward to that continuing.

DI: The university spent $13,000 on a search that ended with hiring the interim provost. Why spend so much if you were already confident about Butler as provost?

Mason: You know, I find that question offensive. I’ll be really honest with you, OK? National searches, I don’t know any other national search that only cost $13,000. Now, to make anyone a legitimate candidate, for a position as important as provost, you’ve got to do a national search. So here, we worked really hard to keep the cost down. And I thought we did an excellent job. So, I’m criticized if I spend too much money, and now I’m going to be criticized if I spend less money? I find the question offensive, quite honestly.

DI: I wanted to ask you about Sen. [Shawn] Hamerlinck, R-Dixon has received heat for remarks to students he made this month at the Statehouse. What was your initial response to the comments he made?

Mason: Well, I, you know, for me, I treasure the opportunity to work with students and to listen to them, and I think one of the things we do at this university is we try to instill in our students, you know, I teach a leadership class here to freshmen, and I teach a leadership class intentionally because I want students to be involved. And if their predilection is toward politics or service or community service or being a leader in any aspect, it means getting involved in it might be the political process, it might be another kind of process and we encourage that and we’re going to continue to encourage that, because I think it’s really important for young people. And you’re taxpayers, maybe you’re not paying a lot of taxes yet, but you are the future, and you’re the future leaders. You’re the future Hamerlincks and others out there, and you should get involved in this process every opportunity you have, and I applaud our students. I think our students are fabulous. I think they’re smart. I work closely with shared governance, which means I listen to our student leaders. I listen to our Staff Council leaders. I listen to our faculty leaders. And I do think, for a leader, whether it’s an elected leader or someone appointed such as me, it’s important to listen.

DI: Students have recently been sending him e-mails and letters with their opinions. What do you think about students contacting their legislators about how they feel?

Mason: Well, students are citizens, too. All citizens are encouraged, obviously, to contact elected officials in particular when they have issues or ideas or comments that they want to share with them. Seems like a reasonable thing to me.

DI: What would you say to Hamerlinck as a leader of a university and what would you say to students in regards to his statements?

Mason: Well, you know, I’m not going to speak to the senator, but I will speak to our students, and I will continue to encourage our students to exercise their rights as citizens and taxpayers and the future leaders of our state, our nation, and maybe even one of you will be a world leader. Wouldn’t surprise me.

DI: A few of the flood recovery project deadlines have been pushed back. Who is responsible for keeping these projects on track, and why have there been delays?

Mason: Oh, if only it were so simple. These are huge projects, huge projects. I mean, when we experienced the flood three years ago, we talked to other communities that had had similar floods. North Dakota was a good example. And the folks in North Dakota told us, Expect 10 years. Now, we’re still ahead of that schedule, and I’m glad for that. But we know that it takes a long time when you’re dealing with this much devastation to get these projects not only on track but approved at all steps along the way. We’ve got to work, we have our own internal process. Now I’m very proud of our internal team. We’ve had the same team working on these projects since the flood occurred.

They’ve been very consistent, they’ve been very hard-working when it comes to trying to keep target dates in mind. We also have to work with [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. We’ve had eight different FEMA teams to work with since 2008. Simple fact. Each time we get a new FEMA team, we get to start again with them. So, that takes time as well. I think the fact that we now have target dates and that we’re getting FEMA’s agreement on those is a real positive step forward. And we’re just going to keep plodding away, because we’re determined, absolutely determined, to keep these projects moving, and they have been moving. You know the design is continuing to move forward and all the planning for these continues to move forward. I think all of us now are getting excited about doing some groundbreaking, maybe even tearing down some buildings in the not too distant future.

DI: Who did you say was responsible for keeping these projects on track?

Mason: It’s, a lot of it is coordinated through our senior Vice President Doug True. And I know Doug True and Carol Reasoner have been working very, very hard with FEMA getting some of these things tied down in a major way. But it’s a team effort. Rod Lehnertz has been involved from the very beginning. Donna Pearcy in Risk Management. So we have a team of people here internally that from Day 1 have been on top of these things. And it’s not for lack of effort on their part that they aren’t moving faster. But it is an enormous undertaking, I’ll tell you that. These buildings are not insignificant in terms of size, scope, all kinds of other things.

DI: Are you happy with the dates that have been set for the projects?

Mason: Yeah, you know, like everyone else, I would like to see more, faster, more, faster, more, faster, but I think they’re realistic, and I think that we’re going to continue to push very hard to keep on target with those dates, and if they move again we’re going to need very good reasons for why they move.

DI: Do you have any significant project that is most important to you in terms of when it’s finished?

Mason: They’re all important. Those three big buildings in particular. You know, I’ve got my eye on those. And I would tell you that I’m anxiously awaiting FEMA’s response on our appeal on the Art Museum. That’s another project that we believe there needs to be a reconsideration by FEMA, and we’ve made I think a strong appeal in that direction, and now we wait on its timetable. So, you might ask the same questions of FEMA.

DI: How long do you think it will take for it to respond?

Mason: They, generally they tell you there’s a 90-day window there, from the day you send the appeal. Now, if they ask a question. For example, if they come back and ask us another question, they can reset that clock. So there are lots of things that can happen along that way, but we’re certainly hoping that within the next two to three months we would hear something. And I will tell you that our congressional delegation, Sens. [Tom] Harkin and [Charles] Grassley and Rep. [Dave] Lobesack have written very, nice, strong letters of support for our appeal.

DI: Two months ago at the state Board of Regents meeting, Regent Jack Evans told Vice President Doug True, among others, that the public is worried about the trajectory of the projects. What would you say to the public who have worries about how long the projects are going to take?

Mason: I share their worry. Absolutely, I share their worry. I mean if this were totally under our control, if it were totally up to us, I think we could accelerate the timetable significantly, but we have to be very careful and we have to follow all of the processes that our dictated by FEMA. This is not under our control at all. OK, what we have under our control is the ability to continue to work closely with them, and we’re always ready to go and work with them. There’s a team with them today. And progress is largely in their hands at this point in time.

DI: The governor and Legislature are getting close to setting a budget, but there is still some threat of a government shutdown. Have you talked to the governor or regents about this possibility?

Mason: There’s been some conversation with the regents, obviously. And I presume the regents are speaking with the governor. I think the governor’s been very clear that he’s not making plans, contingency plans or whatever his contingency plans are, they’re not being shared at least. We’re probably less directly affected by a government shutdown, largely because of the way we get our state appropriations. We wouldn’t get our first block of money in state appropriations until Aug. 1 anyway. So we have a window of time. We don’t anticipate any interruption of services to patients or students. I don’t think you’ll notice a thing. It’s kind of hard to predict because none of us have been through this before. Obviously, we’re thinking about it. We’ll address the issues as they come up.

DI: So, you don’t think the effect that it would have on the university would be very large or noticeable?

Mason: No, I don’t. No, again, I don’t think our constituents are going to notice it. Whether anyone internally notices it. I think our budget people are nervous because they have to try to meet payroll and make sure that all of the normal kinds of paperwork gets done on time. That takes time when you’ve got a payroll as large as ours. But, you know, they’ve been good at doing it, and they’ll work overtime if they have to get it done. We’ll see how it works.

DI: Is this more or less what you’ve discussed with the Board of Regents or has there been anything else?

Mason: No, there hasn’t been any detailed planning or any directives at this point in time on what will or won’t happen.

DI: When the budget does get passed, it looks like higher education is going to take a hit. Do you think that higher education is still a priority in Iowa and do you think support will eventually be restored?

Mason: You know, whether the state can afford to restore the support that’s been lost over this period of time, it will take a long time to figure that out. This is, the cuts have been substantial. Now, do I think Iowans still believe in education? K-12 and higher education? Absolutely. I don’t hear from people that they don’t believe in the power of education. Or in what education provides to the future of our young people. I don’t think that’s really what’s driving some of this, what’s driving some of this is that there just isn’t enough money to go around. There just isn’t enough money to support everything that the state’s been supporting. I think for a long time the thinking, unfortunately, for elected officials and others is that higher education is something that if you want it you need to pay for it. Rather than taxpayers support going to pay for it. And that I do think is unfortunate, because I was you know I’m still a big believer in the power of public education at all levels whether it’s K-12 or higher education. I think this country built itself on that notion for people like myself, first-generation college students who wouldn’t have had opportunities like I have now had it not been for public education at all levels. It’s unfortunate to see the shift in who pays for it now. Do the taxpayers pay for it generally, or do individuals who want to take advantage of it pay for it individually. Now that said, I still believe that an Iowa education, especially for Iowa kids, is very affordable. We’re going to work hard to continue to keep it affordable. I know there’s always consternation abut tuition increases. We work very hard to make sure that financially needy students can get the financial aid that they need and financial aid packages, and we’re working, I’m working overtime to raise money for scholarships and for ways that will make an education for all of our students.

DI: Do you think support for higher education will eventually be restored?

Mason: Well, what do you mean by restored? I guess that’s the real question here. Will we go back to what we enjoyed previously? I don’t know. You know, I’m not going to count on that. That’s too risky. I’ve got students that need to be taught and they need to be taught in a high quality way which means I’ve got to hire faculty and staff that can do that job and do it to the best of their abilities. And I can’t really depend. I mean, what we’ve learned through this is that there are some forms of support that are a little more dependable than others. So, I’m not necessarily going to base all of my planning on one bucket of money. I’m going to make sure to diversify as many buckets of money as I can in that regard.

DI: Why do you think that higher education is taking such a hit in the budget?

Mason: Well, again, I think it comes down to as people look around and say, Well, who’s paying for what? And what are the priorities. I think it’s probably a lot easier for some people to say, well, I’ve already got my higher education. You know, I paid for my share of it. And I think students coming along should pay for their share. This is really something that I think the public needs to think more seriously about as well is that you know there are all kinds of way of thinking about higher education. Too many people think that higher education costs an outrageous sum of money. You know $50,000, $60,000 a year. There are many private institutions where you could pay that much money. You’re not going to pay that much money to go to a place like the University of Iowa. And that’s intentional. That’s not what public education was ever meant to be. And it’s not what public higher education should be for the public. But as more and more taxpayers are saying to elected officials and others well we can’t afford to do everything and if I have to pick on higher education because I’ve already got my higher education or I don’t want to take advantage of higher education, well, that’s not for me. Or someone like me, I don’t have children so as a taxpayer, it would be very easy for me as a taxpayer to say, Well, I don’t want my taxes to go to support that. I don’t even have any children, so what do I get out of it? I actually take a very different view of it. I absolutely want my tax dollars to go. In fact if I could pick where my tax dollars go I would say send it to higher education. That’s where you’re producing the next generation of leaders for this country, and I want an educated work force. I want an educated group of leaders. I want people who actually appreciate and understand what a liberal education is all about. What it means to be educated, the importance of what education did, that study-abroad experience that you had. I want kids to have those experiences, and I would be happy if all my tax dollars would go there. But I’m not necessarily in the majority; I’m not necessarily, or it’s not the way that all people think about it. If you give someone my age a choice between their Medicare and supporting higher education for somebody else. What do you think they’re going to pick? It’s hard. It’s real hard. So these choices become very, very difficult.

DI: What would you say to people who don’t want their tax dollars to go to higher education?

Mason: Oh, you know I would probably try to get them to come and meet some of our students, because I think that might inspire them. It might even change their minds. Because I think our students are some of our most powerful spokespeople when it comes to being able to convey what education is doing for them. Or better yet some of our graduates who have been out a year or two in the workforce. In their first jobs, they’re thriving, and they’re really looking forward to starting a family and looking forward to doing all kinds of exciting things with their lives. I mean it’s really about providing chances for that next generation. And many generations to come.

DI: And you think that would change those taxpayers’ minds about that?

Mason: I don’t know. But I think it’s worth a shot. I think if they actually saw a lot of what goes on here it might. I know when we bring alumni here, for example, when I’m fundraising, they bring alumni here, maybe people who haven’t been here in quite awhile, and they look around, and they see the facilities, and they see the energy and excitement that the young people are bringing, they see the kind of research that’s going on here. They see the types of things that we can accomplish at a university with world-class faculty, very bright and talented students. They often get excited, and that’s how we get them to commit to gifts for the institution. Or on another front entirely, they come here for their health care. They come here because there’s a crisis with their health, and they get a treatment, they meet a doctor. They’re treated by some nurses. They get world-class care. They get treatment maybe they could get no place else in the world, and suddenly now, they’re interested in giving back and doing something important and significant for the university. It’s a wonderful way for us to showcase the excitement and the really groundbreaking kinds of things that go on here.

I like Dance Marathon. Dance Marathon is one of my favorite activities. Well, for lots of reasons. You couple our patient base, you know, some of our children with cancer in their families with our students and with our staff members and some of our faculty and people like me, and suddenly you’ve got really powerful, a really powerful way to show what our students can do. A really powerful way to show what gifts can do and what they can make to the university. And particularly to a cohort in the university that you wouldn’t necessarily even know or hear. I mean, children suffering from devastating diseases that we’re finding cures for or that we’re finding treatments for. And that we can help families with. Now, not every child survives this, but many do now. I think about my own experience growing up — we had some very close family friends, two little boys that I grew up with. They were nearly the same age as me; twins. And one of them at the age of 5 developed childhood leukemia. And he died. He would be alive today. If only he could have waited 30 years to get that disease, because now, the cures are there. Now, that’s not a death sentence. And it’s places like the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital, where you can see miracles like that happen nearly every day. So, you can tell I’m pretty enthusiastic about this place.

DI: In February, you mentioned that more faculty were losing their jobs if —

Mason: I did? I don’t believe I’ve ever said that, but more faculty were losing their jobs? No one is losing their jobs.

DI: That you had to cut more faculty because of the budget.

Mason: We haven’t hired as many faculty.

DI: Do you think that with not as many tax dollars going to higher education there will be more problems with faculty, not being able to hire them, things like that?

Mason: Actually, it’s a priority to hire faculty. We are hiring faculty. We’ve continued to hire faculty all through the downturn. That’s been our priority because as we collect tuition dollars, because we have more students coming to the UI. We have to make certain that we have the faculty to teach them. So our resources are being diverted to make sure the teaching is strong here. That means faculty, graduate teaching assistants, staff that help with the students in terms of advising and those kinds of service activities. That’s the priority. No, faculty aren’t losing their jobs. I promise you.

DI: But, hiring faculty is a priority for you?

Mason: Absolutely.

DI: What sort of faculty are you looking for when you’re hiring new faculty?

Mason: The provost can give you a good sense of the kinds of hiring that we’ve been doing. Just recently, we’ve done what we call cluster hirings in areas of expertise that help us not only in the teaching front for our students but on the research front. To make us an even stronger university in areas where we excel. So that’s exciting. Now, that’s not the only place where we hire faculty, because we’ve got to hire when we’ve got faculty retire or faculty leave for other jobs, other places, we have to make sure that if they’re leaving from critical disciplines, that they’re replaced so that we don’t lose the expertise that they had and they were giving to our students. We can’t afford to lose that. So we’re doing really two kinds of hiring. What I call the regular hiring to fill the vacancies that are created in the disciplines where we absolutely must, and then we’re doing the exciting cluster hiring in areas of excellence where we want to really grow some expertise.

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