Mason talks alcohol safety, regents resignations

BY DI STAFF | JULY 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Daily Iowan: The Partnership for Alcohol Safety reported a 33 percent reduction in emergency-room transports for students in the last 12 months, but officials are reporting earlier calls. How do you think this might relate to the number of house parties in the UI area?

UI President Sally Mason: It's hard to know that with great accuracy because we don't monitor house parties. I know Vice President [Thomas] Rocklin, not long after the 21-ordinance went into affect, was actually out late at night and evening in the neighborhoods looking to see whether we could detect any evidence of increased noise. We also checked with police about increased complaints about noise and things like that. There really hadn't been any increased reports. Anecdotally at least, at this point in time, it's hard to say if house parties have increased dramatically or whether there is increased danger with house parties, where people maybe won't want to call for emergency services. It is something we are going to pay attention to and see if we can help monitor better.

There's a lot we still need to understand. It has only been about a year since the 21-ordinance has been in place. We are learning what kind of things are happening as a result of that and what things we need to pay close attention to. Our focus continues to be on safety and health issues. We want to make sure students are safe and even if they are engaging in risky behaviors, there are safety nets in place. One of the things you learn is a lot of the habits you pick up in college stay with you for life. I worry if I see excessive binge drinking or that kind of risky dangerous behavior that it could really develop into a real problem later in life, that's exactly what we want to avoid. We need to help students get beyond that or understand what the limitations are. It's not about encouraging you not to have fun because I want you to come here and have fun.

DI: What was your reaction to the resignations of Board of Regents President David Miles and President Pro Term Jack Evans?

Mason: I have tremendous respect for both David Miles and Jack Evans. They are tremendous people and great leaders on the regents, I enjoyed working very closely with them. The regents are volunteers; they do this job for no pay. I think sometimes people forget they are doing this as citizen volunteers. They provide, I think, a tremendous benefit to Iowa and Iowans and certainly other institutions. I also have tremendous respect for Craig Lang and Bruce Rastetter, the new leadership.

These are just very fine people. The Board of Regents are appointed by the governor, so not surprisingly, the governor has his priorities and makes decisions accordingly. I'm really pleased to be working with this group of regents, and they are very committed to helping higher education in Iowa.

DI: You were president of the UI for much of Miles' term as president of the Board of Regents — what do you think was the most important thing Miles did for the UI and state universities during his tenure?

Mason: He was a very strong advocate at a very difficult time. For the University of Iowa in particular, he was president when we had our flood, he was president when the economy tanked, and he's had a very steady hand on leadership during those very difficult times. He was someone that I and others here could lean on when we needed help from the regents getting through these difficult times. Despite the challenges that we faced, this university is continuing to grow. If you take what happened with state appropriations out of the equation, nearly every other variable in our equation has improved and increased. I give a lot of credit to a tremendous management team I have here, but I also give credit to the regents and their willingness to help us when we needed help.

DI: How do you think universities will fair under President Craig Lang and President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter?

Mason: I think we will continue to do just fine. It will be a different style, but I think its one that hopefully will allow us to get back on track when it comes to being able to effectively argue our case across the state of Iowa. I do a lot of traveling — in fact, I was out in northwestern Iowa last week. I am always happy to spread the word about what's happening at the University of Iowa. This is a great place with great students, and great faculty. We've got a lot of positive things going on here, and people really enjoy hearing about it. It's sort of like the caucuses — people want to hear firsthand from someone from the university. We have a lot more of that kind of work to do to make sure our stories about the University of Iowa are better known across the state.

DI: What adjustments — perhaps to funding — do you see the UI making under the Republican regent leaders?

Mason: We obviously hope to work closely with the governor and the Legislature on making a case for the importance of higher education to the future of Iowa. Especially to young Iowans and out-of-state students who are getting an education here. One of my experiences is when I have the opportunity to talk with a lot of new graduates, many of them coming from the Chicagoland area, I ask them, "Would you stay here in Iowa? Would you like to work here in Iowa?" and the answer has resoundingly been yes. The challenge then is there aren't enough good jobs here to keep many of these tremendous young people who we get to educate and train in the state. Were constantly looking at creating new jobs to be considered, especially in this climate we want to do whatever we can to be helpful to the state. Specifically in terms of making certain that young people receive the best possible education and are prepared for whatever jobs are out there. We don't have the kinds of typical job-training programs they need unless you consider medicine or law to be job training.

What we do is try to broadly train individuals so they're virtually ready for anything that comes their way in what is increasingly a very globalized and very interdisciplinary work force out there.

DI: Former Regent President Michael Gartner wrote an opinion piece for the Des Moines Register this past weekend, in which he criticized several aspects of the state universities. Among those criticisms was the idea that Faculty Senate oversteps its governance bounds by trying to manage the university itself instead of focusing on curricular matters.  In terms of UI leadership, what's your reaction to this statement?

Mason: I absolutely enjoy working with my team. It consists of a lot of other administrators, Faculty Senate leadership, student leadership, staff leadership, and the Staff Executive Council. They are all tremendous people who care deeply about this institution. It's worth listening to them always, whether it's our students, faculty, or staff, these people contribute a lot in terms of thinking and their ideas.

I'm a big believer in making certain that you hear people's voices before really important decisions are made. That's the way I'm always going to operate. I think as a leader, the more people who you have to bring input into the process, the more willing they are to follow you. From my standpoint, having been through a terrible flood, having been through a terrible economic crisis, and maintaining what I consider to be a very positive morale on this campus through some of those devastating times, has been because were all working together, and we do it for the good of the whole.

For me it's been a very positive thing and I've been delighted with the very thoughtful and in very intelligent conversations, discussions, and input I get with all sectors. Universities are at a tremendous point in their history. Sometimes, there are ideas that universities are resistant to change, but we change all the time. There's lots of evidence for that — often, you have to be immersed in that to see it though.

One of the things we did last year that I thought was a tremendous change has required a lot of effort on the part of faculty. They retooled themselves and have been very well-received by students were these high-tech classrooms we built called TILE classrooms. You really get a hybrid of the outstanding use of technology with a faculty member right there, so you're having conversations while using all this technology, and you're really learning on the spot. It's an astonishing new way of learning and I think is changing the curriculum.

Another example of curricular change that has happened as a result of the flood is prior to it, we had our artists scattered in five or six different buildings over on the West Campus. But now they're all together in the open Menards Building on Highway 6, and as a result, they have the opportunity to be interacting in interesting ways.

If you extend that, there will be new wave of higher education in the future in the formation of clusters we're making in the faculty. We are recreating interdisciplinary teams around big issues and big questions such as aging, obesity, genetics, sustainability — water sustainability in particular.

These are huge international questions that need to be addressed. We will be able to hire clusters of faculty in these areas, which is really going to put us on the map for the future in terms of research and in terms of what's going to be appealing to students and what they want to study.

We're changing all the time; this is a constantly evolving system, and it's fun to be on the inside of it watching. I just hope we can get that message out to the general public and have a much better appreciation for it.

DI: Gartner also asserted universities waste money on search committees, specifically mentioning your search for general counsel despite telling the Board of Regents you were confident in choosing Carrol Reasoner. What is your reaction to this stance?

Mason: Search committees have numerous functions, and it really depends on the position you're going to fill and what you're trying to accomplish with the search. There are times when I think search committees are absolutely essential to give the campus, the public, and all the constituents who care about the university a sense that yes, in fact we have found the best person for this position. There are also times when we know we have the best talent right here, and we have the opportunity to side step or abbreviate the search process, and I think that's appropriate, too. And the question is how to balance that. In my experience, if you have a good team in place— and I feel very good about the team we have in place here, we actually have the lowest administrative costs of any of our peer institutions. Whether we're talking Big Ten institutions or others, if you look at Iowa's administrative costs, you'll see we have the lowest, and I'm proud of that.

It also says that we need to be certain we have the right people in the right jobs because we don't have nearly as many people as other institutions. I feel extremely good about the team we built. It was built by a combination of sometimes doing a national search and sometimes filling the position with someone we know is absolutely right for the job. It takes a lot of conversation, and it's important to have those conversations. Once you've had them, if there's a general consensus across the campus that the right person is in that place, terrific, get on with it, save the money.

DI: In that same opinion piece, Gartner also said he feels professors aren't spending enough time in the classrooms teaching because of the focus spent on research. What do you think officials at the UI could do differently to increase the presence of professors in the classroom?

Mason: I watched our professors closely this year when we built our new TILE classrooms. Literally dozens and dozens of them signed up for training so they could effectively use those classrooms.

That took a lot of their time that will improve their classroom teaching and improve the way they spend their time in classrooms as well. I'll use my own experience because I was a biology professor and taught about 500 students a year. I had a lot of contact with students and spent all day long with them in my laboratory. Some of it was hands-on learning such as doing experiments and talking about experiments. Some of it was wonderful social interactions, where we could talk about what was important to us and get to know each other better. It was really a seven-day a week, 10- to 12-hour a day lab with students around you all the time. That's hard to measure. You can't measure all the things the faculty do all the time. I think the perception is sometimes that faculty only serve three hours or six hours a week in the classroom, and that's just not true. It's an inaccurate picture of the kind of work our faculty at a research university are doing because so many of them are doing one-on-one mentoring with students on research projects. They are doing service-learning projects; many of them are even taking the time to go abroad when they are with students constantly. Our faculty, and one of the things I really appreciated about being here in Iowa is how engaged the faculty here are with students. I do think we need to do a better job of trying to describe to people how busy and engaged the faculty are with students, which isn't always formally in the classroom.

DI: Local legislators, regents, and school officials have said with Lang and Rastetter taking the leadership spots, politics has crept its way into higher education. What role should politics play in higher education?

Mason: The governor makes appointments to the regents. The governor is elected through a political system, and it is what it is. Our state appropriations come through the Legislature through the political process, so there's always going to be a political piece to what we do here. We hope, obviously, it's not partisan politics and hope people all across either side of the aisle understand and appreciate the value of higher education and are supportive of it. My job, and the job of my team here, is to work as hard as we can so people understand that.

DI: What would you say your relationship as UI president has been with Gov. Terry Branstand in your presidency?

Mason: I had the opportunity to interact with this governor when he was president of Des Moines University when I first arrived. Obviously, since he has been governor, I've had the opportunity to interact. I am also taking part of his summit on July 25 and am looking forward to that. I serve at his pleasure; I serve for the people of Iowa and make certain that these institutions and this institution in particular remain a strong and healthy environment.

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