Q&A: President Sally Mason

BY DI STAFF | JULY 25, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down with President Sally Mason on Tuesday to talk about her recent trip to Asia, the UI’s contract with Anheuser Busch, and the timeline for flood-recovery projects.

DI: The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General’s recommended reversing replacement funding for the new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, and the Studio Arts Building. Are you worried that FEMA will listen to the recommendation? What’s the next step in this process?

Mason: Of course I’m worried. It is very concerning to hear these kinds of things. And we have kept in good touch with the governor’s office, in delegation with our two senators. They have all been tremendously supportive, and the government in particular has worked very, very hard having conversations with key people in Washington, D.C., wo are in FEMA and Homeland Security. So we will move forward with these projects just as we planned, but we are waiting for the final word with how FEMA will respond to the report and what that might mean in terms of a timetable for our replacement projects. So hang in there.

DI: Have UI officials decided whether they will pursue litigation as an option for FEMA funding for the Art Museum replacement?

Mason: You know, that’s kind of a last resort. At this point, we are looking at some other options, but we don’t want to enter into any kind of adversarial relationship here. We really wish to work collaboratively with FEMA, and I still think there are some possibilities there. So we want to see those options first.

DI: The UI originally planned to knock down two banks in downtown Iowa City in order to build the a new music building this fall; what is the next step for UI officials in response to FEMA?

Mason: Well, obviously, we are going to wait to hear from FEMA before we tear those down, but Bank of the West moved last week into the Old Capitol mall from here, so at least one of the banks has been relocated, and the other bank is in the works to be relocated, so it’s not full speed ahead, but we are not really slowing down, either.

DI: The university renewed its contract with Anheuser-Busch in June, and the new contract allows the beer company to use the Tigerhawk logo for marketing purposes. It was reported the university will receive $43,000 in the first year, and that money will go to the UI’s Alcohol-Harm-Reduction Plan. How will the money be used?

Mason: You need to ask Tom Rocklin. He’s the guy who’s in charge of the Alcohol-Harm-Reduction Plan, and he has worked very hard to make that successful, and I think things are going pretty well.

DI: Do you think there will be a separate marketing plan for the reduction plan?

Mason: Actually I think [Rocklin] is going to use those dollars for Alcohol Alternative Nights that we have, so the activities. But you need to talk to him, I am not going to speak for him and tell you how he is going to spend his money. He can do that better than I can.

DI: Many people in the community — particularly members of the Partnership for Alcohol Safety — believe the deal is counterproductive to the university’s responsible drinking efforts, despite the inclusion of a “drink responsibly” message? Do you think they have a point?

Mason: Well, you know the contract has been in place for a long, long time. I’m not sure if it’s had much of an effect. I’m not sure it will have much of an effect going forward. But I certainly appreciate their points of view.

DI: How exactly does this contract compare to your dissenting view of the fan cans that were sold and advertised a few years ago?

Mason: Well, you know the fan cans — nobody ever asked our permission; it was not part of the arrangement, the agreement, it was just done, and that’s what we objected to. Had they asked our permission, would we have agreed to a new contract or something new like that — probably not. It’s one thing to have an existing contract, something that has been in place for a long time that we know is working, and that conforms with our safe, responsible, legal concern for things; and it’s another thing to go off on your own and do this without warning or permission.

DI: The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that the UI does not have to release student records to the Press-Citizen concerning an assault case from 2007. With all the time that’s passed since the original request was made, what is your stance on open records and transparency between the school and news organizations?

Mason: From the very beginning, I’ve always said I am fine with it. We turn over tons and tons of documents, but I will not compromise students’ right to privacy. FERPA is a federal statute that says a student and a students records; they have a right to privacy. We cannot even share those with your parents, so why would we share them with the Iowa City Press-Citizen? We’ve tried to be very, very careful and follow that very closely. In this particular case, I am a big believer in protecting our students, and their right to privacy. So it’s good that the Supreme Court affirmed that.

DI: In June, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed an ethics complaint with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board against Regent Bruce Rastetter, and the members are calling for his resignation or dismissal. Have you been following this story? Do you believe the actions of state regents directly reflect the regent universities?

Mason: The only thing I am going to comment on here is that I have tremendous respect for all of our regents. They do a tough job; it’s not like they get paid to do it. They do it, really, as citizen volunteers. For me it’s always a pleasure to work with the regents, they care about these institutions; that’s what I care about. I really can’t comment on anything else because I just don’t have any information that is relevant.

DI: A Hawk Alert was administered June 22 for a reported shooting near Mormon Trek and Petsel Place. Officials told us students who are not enrolled in summer courses at the UI did not receive the alert. Do you think this is an efficient way of keeping students safe despite the number of people who stay here over the summer and don’t enroll in summer courses?

Mason: Well, obviously, we can look at that; we are always looking for ways to make Hawk Alerts as useful as they can be. I suspect we are just going to learn every time the opportunity to use the Hawk Alert [arises] what might be working and what might not. It is a tremendous job to try to notify thousands and thousands of people quickly when things happen, and Hawk Alert continues to be a work in progress.

DI: What are a few things you and other UI officials are focusing on most this year? How will this year’s incoming class be different?

Mason: You know, I don’t think this year’s incoming class will be too different from last several that we’ve seen. It’s going to be about the same size, it should be about as diverse, it should be about as talented. I know that they are planning on some tweaks to the OnIowa program that was started last year.

We will all be watching carefully how the library commons is coming along. We have already broken ground for the Children’s Hospital. You will see some big changes over by the Field House.

DI: You recently took a trip to Asia. Can you share your experience with us?

Sally Mason: Oh goodness, how much time have you got? We recently completed visits to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Taipei, Shanghai, and Beijing. At each place, I have to say the turnout of Hawkeye alumni, people who have been affiliated with the university, care about the university, students who wanted to come to the university, it was tremendous it really was. It was a fabulous trip in that respect. We started in Hong Kong at the M.B.A. graduation. We have an M.B.A. program in Hong Kong that the Tippie College of Business runs. On her first official day of work, Dean Sarah Gardial was there with me to graduate a group of about 20-plus M.B.A. students who finished their M.B.A. requirements in Hong Kong this year. It’s a tremendous opportunity to meet some alumni and shake their hands. And then the next night we had an alumni event, and they were all invited to come to the alumni event as well plenty of our other Hong Kong alumni, so it was a real special treat to be there for the graduates. I hope that not every class of our Hong Kong class of M.B.A.s expects the dean and the president to come to their graduation. That would probably be not very realistic.

We also visited the Hong Kong University for Science and Technology. I’ve actually had the opportunity to previously visit the [university]. It is a model university in Asia for the kinds of science engineering technology that many of the young people over there want to study. It’s in a beautiful location overlooking a bay in Hong Kong, and one of the senior vice presidents happens to be an Iowa alum, and a number of their senior administrators happen to be Purdue engineers, so that was nice for me to be able to return there and see some of the things that they have done since my last visit. But also then introduce some of our senior administrators and several deans who were along on this trip, including our dean of education, our dean of pharmacy, and our dean of business, to the folks at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. So that was very, very good and Downing Thomas, too. He makes a lot of these connections available for us. So we have a wonderful relationship with that university in terms of being able to do both educational as well as research exchanges. We renewed our commitments to each other in terms of providing more opportunities in the future, so that was very productive as well. The alumni event in Hong Kong was well-attended — I think there was somewhere between 70 and 80 people. It was a lot of fun to hear peoples’ stories about their time in Iowa City. Some of these were very senior people, some of them were younger, so a number of folks were able to talk about what is was like in Iowa City in the ’70s and ’80s, as either students here or graduate students here. We have a number of professional graduate students there as well as a dental-school alum — he and his wife hosted us for dinner one evening while we were in Hong Kong, and that was lovely to be able to talk to him about the many ways in which he supports the dental college here. So Hong Kong: tremendous.

We then flew over to Taipei in Taiwan. That’s the first time I have ever been to Taiwan — very, very interesting country, small country situated on an island. The air quality in Taipei was the best of all the places we visited in Asia. That has to do with where they are located and where the jet stream flows. But they’re a small island that has some of the same challenges that we see here in the United States with hurricanes and flooding, so they have a number of natural disasters that they work with. We only spent one day, actually not even quite a full day in Taipei. It was a very, very productive day. We spent some time at the National Taiwan University, where one of our alums, a very, very prominent individual, Dr. H.Y. Lee, still holds a faculty position. In addition to his faculty position there, he is the Minister of the Interior for the entire country. His responsibilities have to do with things like flood mitigation, disaster recovery, and he spent a good deal of time showing us with PowerPoint and other kinds of presentations the kinds of work he’s been engaged in Taiwan. To make sure the infrastructure of the entire country is not only up to date but prepared for earthquakes or typhoons and major flooding and those sorts of things. He is just a stunning individual and an alum of ours. He wouldn’t answer my question when I asked him, but I asked him if he was going to run for president of Taiwan. I honestly believe he has all of the skills and the ability, and given what he is doing for the country right now I think he could one day find himself in the president’s seat in the country of Taiwan. So again we had a lot of alums, about 50 alums for dinner that evening. H.Y. Lee was there with his wife, and it was delightful having spent the day with him and heard of all the exciting this that were going on, both with respect to his position at the university and his position at the government. And Larry Weber, our director of flood control here, was also over there with us. In fact he stayed on in Taipei with them with what would be the equivalent of their flood center. So we are sharing expertise we are sharing ideas there with some very, very great collaboration with the kinds of things that they are doing to recover or mitigate against natural disasters. Simultaneously, they are seeing how our flood center can help them. That was a short 24 hours but very productive.

And from there we went to Shanghai, and when we arrived at the airport, I had been warned that one of our alums, Michael Lee, had prepared a special welcome for us. So as we were coming through customs, we got off the plane, and as we were coming through customs to enter China through Shanghai, I could see out the door a whole group of young people in Iowa T-shirts, and they were yelling and waving and waiting for our arrival, which was quite special. It really was to see, most of these young people were either students of ours currently or students who would like to come to the University of Iowa or alums. Actually, the leader of the pack was Jennifer Lee, Michael’s daughter. She was born and raised in the United States so she was kind of our tour guide. We had an extremely productive two days in Shanghai, where we visited East China Normal University, where we actually have collaborations going on already. Our College of Education in particular was interested in having conversations with East China Normal. We spent the better part of the afternoon with people there. We also had the very special opportunity in Shanghai to meet with the Shanghai Writers’ Group. A number of these writers have been in our International Writing Program. These are some of the most prominent and famous writers in China today. Chris Merrill was with us for that part of our visit, and it was quite energizing to sit in a room filled with writers that some of which I knew by name, some of whom I knew by their work and some whom I hadn’t met before. But so many of them spoke so wonderfully about their time in Iowa City and how they hope to come back. So that was very special. Again we had another alumni event, so this time we probably had about 100 to 150 people at this event. Many were alums as well as a number of prospective students; students who would like to come to the University of Iowa that evening as well. Our days were pretty full, but interestingly enough we had the opportunity to visit ACT in china. So ACT, our local company here is international, and they actually have an office in Shanghai, so we met with Andrew Todd, the director of this office, and he gave us a very nice presentation of the kinds of things ACT is involved with over in China with Chinese education and American education, and the intersections with the two and why ACT is even in China.

DI: When you talked to people about their time in Iowa, was there a particular response you got most often?

Mason: People always mention the people. The smallest city we visited was 19 million people, so when they talk about Iowa City, for most of the Chinese whether we are talking about Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Mainland China, Iowa City is the tiniest of villages in their experience. So they talk about the people, they talk about how quiet it is, how pretty it is, how clean it is, how safe it is. They have some very fond memories of making friends and making friends easily here. And they all talk about a desire to come back if they have the chance, which is music to my ears. And I think that the writers especially have the opportunity when they come through the International Writing Program to really have the freedom to write about anything they want to and the time to do it. That is what the International Writing Program is all about. We bring writers from all over the world, sometimes from very challenging places, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and certainly parts of China, and these writers sometimes don’t have the freedom to write what they want. Coming to the United States often gives them the chance to do some things that they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to do without this program. We were able to announce a gift that we learned about just before leaving, an anonymous gift of $500,000 to support the International Writing Program and the gift was Nieh Hualing, Paul Engle’s wife, who is still with us. Hualing who is Chinese by birth, this gift was given in her name. She gets to decide how the gift is to be used and she has decided she wants it to bring over Chinese writers for the international writing program. Which is a tremendous opportunity, and will certainly help us to bring them over. Of course Chris Merrill is thrilled as the director of the international writing program. And his friends in Shanghai were thrilled to hear that, as well as our writing friends in Beijing.

And then we went to Beijing, that was the last leg of our trip. When we originally planned this trip I said to my husband, we are going to three cities, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai. And I said it would be a shame for us not to go to Beijing so you could see the Great Wall [of China]. So we were just going to take a vacation day so we could do that. But of course, when people found out we were coming to Beijing, we could no longer do that. So we had an alumni event, in fact we started an alumni within an alumni event at the summer palace in Beijing. One of our alums in Beijing, wonderful woman, made it possible for us to have a luncheon in what now is a private resort. They turned a part of the summer palace, what used to be the summer palace, into a resort. There’s only 50 members of this resort and it’s members only, so when we found out we had a lot of people that wanted to come, because they wanted to go see it, but it doesn’t work that way. So we ended up with about 80 people for lunch. It was tremendous not only to see the summer palace but to be able to connect with many of our friends and our alumni there. So it was a lot of fun to connect with younger and older alumni, some of our Americans who were working in China and some of our Chinese Americans in China and some of our China born who are our alumni and now living in China. Then we went to the writer’s museum in Beijing and again Chris Merrill went with us.

So we had an amazing time, we connected with a lot of friends of the University, a lot of alumni, we did a lot of events, I think we spread a lot of good will and a lot of positive University of Iowa. And we did get to see the great wall.

DI: The number of international students coming to the United States has increased by 75 percent over the past decade. Given that statistic, do you anticipate the UI will see an increasing international enrollment or presence in the coming years?

Mason: I think if we want more international students we probably could. See, right now we are trying to hold enrollment stable. So we aren’t really growing those numbers. Clearly, there is great demand for American higher education. While the young people I saw clearly were interested in the University of Iowa, an opportunity to study anywhere in the United States is highly valued by the Chinese students, by the young people there. They very much want to take advantage of higher education whether they can go to a university in China, or over here, they are equally excited about the opportunities.

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