Q&A with UI President Sally Mason

BY DI STAFF | AUGUST 28, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Daily Iowan: The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board decided to dismiss the conflict of interest complaint filed against Regent Bruce Rastetter by the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Do you think this was a good call?

Mason: The only thing I’m going to comment on here is how much I appreciate the effort that citizens put in to volunteer jobs like being a regent. This is a tremendous responsibility they do it virtually for no pay, and they do it really because they have deep interest in doing a job that is very, very challenging, and at the same time few rewards come along with it other than the rewards of getting to know the universities better and the special schools.

So I have tremendous respect for all the regents. I don’t have a comment for anything else for you on that.

DI: How do you think this particular incident has affected how the public views the Board of Regents?

Mason: I have no idea. Without surveying the public, I’m not going to comment. I get to work closely obviously with the Board of Regents and as I said, tremendous respect for people who are willing to volunteer their time and serve in a capacity like a regent.

DI: Following the announcement that the University of Iowa moved up from  No. 4 to No. 2 on the Princeton Review’s list of top party schools, UI officials said there’s no scientific or valid method behind the survey. Do UI officials want to change the university’s image as a party school and, if so, how?

Mason: Apparently, our students are more than willing to fill out surveys. That’s certainty one of the things we’ve learned from that. But you know I went this year for the first time, I actually went to the Princeton Review, and I read what they wrote about the University of Iowa, and it’s all based on what students say. I don’t know if you’ve read this or not, but it’s really quite nice in many respects. I mean it says some of the things that … I’m really delighted that our students think this is true. University of Iowa — this is on academics — students say “University of Iowa manages to pull off an amazing feat: It’s a ‘Big Ten university full of exciting opportunities, ” yet it’s still able to maintain “a small-college feel.” Moreover, as the state’s flagship school, Iowa provides a “great education” at a “reasonable price.” And it goes on and on in a very positive vein, and in fact, if you’ve just read what they have to say here from what the students are telling them on these surveys you’d think — wow, what a great place to go. And maybe that’s why our enrollment keeps growing because it’s up again.

It’s hard for me to know exactly how the Princeton Review does its survey work. My guess is that our students who are very, very used to filling out surveys get another survey, and they see this, and they say, “Wow — we can be the best,” and they fill it out, and they say some awfully nice things in addition to unfortunately also pointing out that we have lots of parties, and it’s a fun place to be in that regard. It’s a mixed bag of news. No one I think enjoys seeing their school on a party-school list, but by the same token, once you read through what the Princeton Review has written, it’s hard to deny that these are some of the very same things that we pride ourselves on — making a large Big Ten school feel very at ease and at home for students and creating an environment where students feel like they are getting a great education for a great price. [The Princeton Review’s writing on the UI] is really not at all something that one would be ashamed of. Now that said, we have plenty of work to do. On the issue of alcohol abuse, binge drinking, something we’ve been working on for a number of years, and certainly we’ve taken a pretty firm stand the last couple of years on this, and along that vein people always ask me are we making progress. And all the statistics say we are making progress. We keep statistics in terms of students and their binge-drinking habits. We keep statistics in terms of all kinds of things related to the so-called “party school” atmosphere and the use or abuse of alcohol in particular. So we now those numbers are now starting to tilt in a different direction than they were. And that’s a very, very good thing.  But, I would tell you that every now and then, you get something from a student that surprises you completely.

And Dr. Rocklin shared with me an email that he got from a student just last week, and it takes your breath away. What this says is the student says that I just filled out the student-life survey, but she wanted to tell her story. And her story, very simply, she said she entered as a freshman in ’08 and she went to the downtown bars a lot. Not surprising. This was before the 21-only ordinance. She did that and says over the next few years my grades my health, my overall well-being suffered. The 21-only ordinance was passed about six month before her 21st birthday. “Despite the initial student outcry, I recall feeling secretly” — this is the student now — “secretly relieved that I feel less peer-pressure to drink. There are no shortage of house parties on any college campus certainly, but the truth is my access to alcohol was dramatically reduced. In that period of calm I was able to seek professional help for my substance abuse.” Then she goes on to talk about how he’s been sober now for a year and a half, how what a difference it’s made in her life, and she thanks Dr. Rocklin for the hard work that he’s done on this. You get one note like that, you see one life that’s been turned around in ways that it wouldn’t have been, if we hadn’t tried to do something serious about the issues that were out there, and you can’t help but feel like you’re doing the right thing for young people.

And we try. Do we always succeed? No we don’t always succeed. I would hope that the media would from time to time pay as much attention to these kinds of stories because, I mean, quite clearly peer pressure plays a huge, huge difference in terms of how student try to cope with these things. That she didn’t want to speak out other than anonymously says to me that peer pressure still plays a huge, huge role in how our students are trying to cope with some of these really challenging situations. The media could really help turn that around if the peer pressure started to be in the other direction.

We do have advisers, we do have workshops, we do have ways in which we can cope with that. But I think that, you know, a lot of it with the peer pressure is, well, in some cases what’s going to draw attention to this. Negativity, really extreme situations will always draw attention to a situation. The good news stories less frequently draw attention. Here we have a tremendously good-news story.

What I said to Tom [Moore] was that if there’s one story out there, there’s probably more out there. But they’re lot less likely to come forward because their friends may all say, “Oh, you’re just, you know, you’re a goody-two-shoes — we don’t want any part of that, you can’t be part of our group.” It’s really unfortunate, because if you get to a situation like this young person was in, where substance abuse was really taking over their lives in a very negative way. Turning that around isn’t easy. It takes a lot of courage. It also takes, in many cases, help from friends and peers, and I think if more friends and peers were willing to step up and help in these situations — folks who were beginning to suffer from these adverse situations would be able to turn it around faster. And you’re right, I think there’s more we can do out there.

DI: Do you have any plans for any new groups on campus to help students cope?

Mason: I think Tom and I and others will without doubt be talking about these things. Kelly Bender from the Alcohol Harm Reduction group, I think her comment when she read that [letter] was it brought tears to her eyes. It did I think to a lot of us who read it. And it just solidifies our desire to continue to do more for our students to make certain that they can be safe and healthy. And that there are good choices out there for them.

DI: In recent years, UI officials have implemented or started several programs, including the Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan, Think Before You Drink, and, most recently, the Responsibility Matters advertising campaign. At the same time, the UI has gone up in the Princeton Review rankings from No. 9 to No. 4 and, this year, No. 2. With all these programs in place why do you think students continue to see the university as a party school and perceive it the way they do?

Mason: Well, if you read what’s written in the Princeton Review, and if those are the comments that our students are making — it isn’t all equated with just being a party school. I mean, it’s a broader, deeper, and more nuanced context than just about partying. It’s about an environment here that our students love. It’s about coming here and having a college experience that they talk about widely with their friends, that they share with their friends and relatives. And they do so in a, for the most part, a pretty positive way. The party-school atmosphere — I dare you to show me a college campus that doesn’t have aspects of partying that go along with being in college. I think that for good for bad, for better for worse, it’s part of the college experience. The fact that our students are coming here and they’re seeing not only the party aspect, but it goes beyond that, it goes to a really good environment for education, and a really good environment for achieving goals beyond college.

That’s part of what I take away from this. Now, that our students seem to aspire to be No. 1 on that list, I’m not thrilled about that. But, as I said, I continue to be a little more interested in the other comments they’re making to go alone with that.

DI: University officials, namely Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin, sent an email to the undergraduate population Aug. 24 asking for students’ perception of the university’s stance on alcohol. Rocklin told The Daily Iowan that the survey was created in response to the renewal of the Anheuser-Busch contract. Did Rocklin express these concerns with you that he had, and what kind of changes could you picture UI officials making if the responses are negative?

Mason: I wouldn’t say concerns as much as curiosity because we get asked these questions about a contract — this is a contract that’s been in place for 20 years. And the media keep asking questions about this. Anheuser-Busch is a business decision. It’s a business that resides here in Iowa as it does in many other states. It’s a legitimate business; it’s a legal business. As Gary Barta and I have been saying from the very, very start — safe, responsible, legal. That’s the message that we’ve been working on, and that’s the message that Anheuser-Busch, “drink responsibly,” they continue to work on that message as well. The real question is, So what perception do our students have that prompts you to continue to keep asking these questions over and over again — is there something out there that we’re missing? Or not. So that’s what this is all about. How do we know? We survey students.

DI: Some students have expressed their confusion with the contract and to go along with the “Responsibility Matters” and other campaigns that the university has while holding a contract with Anheuser-Busch. Is there anything that you would like to say to students to give a concrete answer as to why you’ve renewed the contract?

Mason: And we’ve been clear: safe, responsible, and let me emphasize that last part, legal. And that’s what we’ve been about from day one. That’s what the 21-only ordinance has been about.  That’s what all of our comments have been consistently about from the very get-go. We’re not prohibitionists. I joke with my husband that I probably drink three beers a year, but I am not against drinking. I am not against alcohol consumption. I am against alcohol abuse. I am against doing things that are dangerous and, frankly, not safe. And I am against doing things that are not legal. And I’ve been very consistent with that message. I was asked the question at one point in time, “Well, what about smoking? You’ve banned smoking from campus. Why would you do that and not alcohol?” I said well, the last time I looked, alcohol was legal for one thing and that people who drank responsibly were not dying. Now, cigarettes, we have some pretty good evidence that show that cigarette smoking most definitely, and even secondhand smoke, can lead to some pretty adverse health consequences — including death. So from my perspective, those are very different. And from my perspective, the message there is very different as a result.  No one I know who has ever had a beer and has behaved responsibly after drinking that beer has died. Many people I know, including my mother who smoked all her life, died because she smoked. So from the perspective of trying to equate one with the other, I don’t think you can do that, and second, I don’t think we’ve been at all inconsistent in our message. We’re not about trying to harm good businesses and businesses practices that are here in Iowa and around the country. We’re not prohibitionists; we are simply making some very solid statements about how you behave if you’re going to be first of all, an adult and consume alcohol in a responsible way. Now, there’s also another aspect to this. We’ve also told our Athletics Department that they have to be self-sustaining. Now what does that mean? That means I don’t give them any tuition dollars, they don’t get any general-education fund dollars at all, no state appropriations, no tuition dollars. That means they have to support themselves so, not surprisingly, as any other business would try to support itself, it looks for sponsors, it looks for ways in which moneys can come to the operation that makes sense. And not everyone agrees, because not everyone necessarily thinks that alcohol in any way shape or form should be supported by any organization on campus. I would tell you that at least with the Anheuser-Busch contract, there’s no campus advertising, none in our stadiums, none in our immediate sphere.  It’s all external, it’s all outside. And that was really the compromise that 20 years ago, when this contract was originally signed, that was how it was going to be going forward. Now, we get one thing, and by the way Iowa State has the very same contract. That said, I don’t quite understand the obsessive attention to this. I do understand how some of our faculty and some citizens don’t want any affiliation with alcohol whatsoever. I respectfully disagree on that front, and I respectfully disagree for all the reasons I just mentioned.

DI: FEMA officials announced in early August that they were siding with the UI following an audit done by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. How will you continue to make sure that the university follows its projected timetable for flood recovery efforts?

Mason: We are, and we really appreciate, obviously, FEMA’s support. I think that was a very difficult situation. The Office of the Inspector General came in and did an audit of the work that FEMA had done for the University of Iowa since our flood, and I think came back with what FEMA has now acknowledged were some very valid suggestions. And I also feel very, very good that FEMA in its wisdom said that while we very much appreciate the suggestions from Office of the Inspector General and likely will make changes in the future, the University of Iowa really shouldn’t be affected by those changes going forward. So, we obviously are continuing to plan our facilities and our new buildings from the flood, and we’ll continue to work very closely with FEMA.

DI: With the construction of the new dorm up-and-running, some students believe the noise produced from the construction can be disturbing. Are you concerned about the new location of this dorm with so much traffic and movement flowing through the West Campus with the four existing dorms, the athletics facilities, and hospital buildings, that there may be too much going on?

Mason: You know, unless our students are sleeping in late, and I mean real late, the noise really shouldn’t be an issue. Because they’re not working afterhours, and they’re not working at what I would consider to be a very, very early hours in the morning, either. Yes, I have warned the campus over and over again that with the flood-renewal projects, with the new residence-hall construction, with the hospital modifications, there is going to be a fair amount of construction, noise, and mess on campus for several years. Short-term pain for long-term gain. And that’s exactly what we’re experiencing right now is some short-term pain but for what will be I think some magnificent long-term gain for the community and the campus. Hold tight — I know for some of the students it’s going to be a tough one because they’re only going to know construction. That residence hall will be open in 2015, so that’s a pretty short period of time, but for students who are here right now and are having to have to try to find ways to avoid the construction or who like to sleep in late during the week, that’s probably going to be what we might hear from them.

DI: Does the university have any plan in place for dealing with a lack of parking, an increase in traffic, and an overall increase in people once the dorm is built?

Mason: The residence-hall situation right now is that we don’t have enough rooms to accommodate students who want to come here. We’re working to address the parking issues; I think those will be addressed by the time the new residence hall is up. We don’t encourage freshmen to bring cars to campus for one thing. With the Cambus system, with the public transportation that we have in this town. And, in fact, with moving the traffic flow away from the hospital, because when the new River Landing clinic opens up in October, that’s 800,000 patient visits a year that won’t be made up to that side of campus. Instead, they’ll be out in Coralville, just off the interstate, where we built also lots of good parking to take care of exactly what you were just describing, which is it does get congested up there. And we’re working on alleviating that congestion by a whole variety of other projects. So I think by the time the residence hall is completed, we’re probably going to be in pretty good shape with regard to traffic flow and parking spaces that are needed or not needed for managing these operations. We do think about those things; it’s not that we don’t. We absolutely do think about those things, and the planning process is ongoing.

DI: Does the university have any tentative ideas on what it plans to name the dorm?

Mason: Not yet.

DI: The university recently updated Burge Residence Hall. Are there any other plans currently in place to improve the quality of other residence halls on campus?

Mason: Yes and part of getting that new residence hall underway and completed allows us to then look at existing residence hall space and say how can we make this better quality space for students and accommodate the needs of today’s students as opposed to the needs of students 40 years ago or 50 years ago, when these buildings were built — some of them are even older than that.

DI: When will these updates to existing residence halls take place?

Mason: They’ll be a phase in; likely some things will get started sooner rather than later, but again, it might be an interesting story for you to go talk to Tom [Rocklin]. He and Von Stange can lay out what they’re thinking and what their plans are long-term.

DI: The University of Iowa Student Government plans to unveil its latest initiative today or sometime this week. Safe Ride is a transportation option for both males and females to get where they need to go on campus, with several restrictions. Do you think there’s a significant need to have this kind of transportation option available to both men and women?

Mason: The students know best, and I think if our student government has looked into this and feels that it’s the smart thing to do, we certainly want to listen and be responsive. [Nite]Ride obviously was started a few years ago, and we targeted it toward our young women because we definitely did not want young women to be in any way at risk at night if they were out, especially if they were out by themselves, and it seems to have been pretty successful. So if it gets expanded to include young men as well, so be it.

DI: UI officials recently transported a 100-year-old barn at 711 Melrose Ave. to a new location just around 100 feet away so officials can start work on the more than 250-space parking lot that will be built in that location. Though the space will give way to a parking lot for UIHC, what is your stance on preserving historic parts of Iowa City that many say shouldn’t be tampered with?

Mason: We’re always listening to people’s concerns when we’re about to embark on a new project, and I think when there are valid concerns raised we try to respond. Moving the barn is a good example of concerns that were raised, we listened, we moved the barn. We try to do that with every project, and it’s not always easy, but we do try to be responsive to the community and their concerns. We want to be obviously good citizens in this community as well.

DI: Flood-recovery efforts are an ongoing process for both UI officials and the state Board of Regents. What right now would you say is the immediate next step in recovering and rebuilding those parts of campus that were affected by the flood?

Mason: Well, there’s so many projects. The Iowa Memorial Union — that’s a huge project now that we’ll get underway with. Obviously, beginning to clear the sites for the three new buildings, that’s going to be a big part of what goes on this year as well. And we continue with the planning process for the new buildings as well as well as for reoccupying some of the space that has been affected by the flood and we’re still not in. The IMU being one of the big projects that’s out there still. There is as you know, we give a flood report [to the regents] — not sure that I’ll ever live long enough to see us when we don’t have to give a flood report to the regents — but the flood report generally updates the regents on where we are on a variety of projects. So that’s one way to keep up with how things are progressing on campus. There’s always progress being made; there’s always more progress to be made. [The flood] was a huge, huge event on this campus in 2008.

DI: Following Professor Malik Juweid’s termination on Aug. 23 for disruptive behavior in the workplace, how has the university learned to manage situations such as this one for the future? Do you think the university responded well? Why?

Mason: I think you see how difficult situations can be at times. I was pleased by the way the faculty panel conducted itself and conducted its business, and I was pleased with the outcome. I think it was the right outcome. You learn from every one of these situations. You hope you don’t have to face another one in the future.

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