Mason Q&A: President Mason talks family hires, higher education funding, and gun permits

BY DI STAFF | MARCH 15, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan: President Mason, a University of Iowa graduate student died on the scene during a standoff with police Sunday night. Does the university have any statement following this student’s death?

President Sally Mason: It was a tragedy. It’s very unfortunate. Always sad to see situations that lead to violence like this one and particularly in loss of life. My heart goes out to his family — what a shame for his family. My heart also goes out to the officers that were wounded in this encounter. It’s unfortunate all the way around.

DI: The Daily Iowan has reported throughout the week that when Taleb Salameh requested a gun permit from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, and that Dean of Students David Grady recommended that he not be issued a permit. Salameh’s psychologist said he should be issued a permit based on his evaluation. How much weight do you believe the university’s suggestions hold in situations such as these?

Mason: It’s never good to second-guess; it really never is in these situations. Professionals who work closely with these individuals should be in a good position to judge whether they are mentally healthy. In this particular situation, an unfortunate situation came about. Very well informed, smart people can still disagree about what should or should not have happened. It really doesn’t do us any good.

DI: A Des Moines Register investigation this year shed light on the information-sharing program between UI officials and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. The program was suspended for review immediately following the report. Is the information sharing program still suspended? 

Mason: Yes it is. We are waiting to hear from the Department of Education on whether or not [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] would allow us to share information the way we had been. Once we get some information from them, we will decide what the next steps will be.

DI: Do UI officials have any idea as to when that program would start up again?

Mason: I wish I did.

DI: In light of Salameh’s death and the records that have been obtained by local media, how important do you believe it is that the university does provide information to the Sheriff’s Office for students who apply for gun permits?

Mason: I think there is potentially a place for us to be able to share information that we might have that would be helpful to the sheriff. Again, we are going to wait and see what the Department of Education says with regard to what that information should be, if any. We are very much in favor of being able to cooperate with local law enforcement anytime we can be helpful and useful to them. It’s all about campus safety.

DI: The state Board of Regents approved a contract Wednesday with the UI’s Campaign to Organize Graduate Students after roughly five months of negotiations. While the board and the group ended up reaching a compromise on the contract, do you feel that this was an appropriate agreement? Do you think their concerns about student fees and employment rates are valid?

Mason: That’s not something I would disagree with in anyway. I am always pleased to see when groups can come to a negotiated agreement and we don’t have to go to arbitration, fight over what is right or isn’t’ right. At this particular junction, I think we are all in pretty good shape. I think that is something that we are going to pay very close attention to. It is always good to hear what is on the minds of our students, our faculty staff, and all of our constituents. We should pay close attention to these things.

DI: The Board of Regents also approved a contract with a private construction firm for Hawkeye Courts and Hawkeye Drive apartments. Officials now know that the apartments won’t be as affordable as they had previously hoped. How then do you believe the new contract will benefit students who say they may not be able to afford rent?

Mason: This is a tough one. It is a tough one because we’ve for too long had Hawkeye Court apartments that are just in extremely bad shape. Some of them were flooded and haven’t been opened since the flood. They need to come down; they are a health hazard. It’s not ideal living conditions. Because they were paid for a long time ago and we haven’t put a lot of maintenance into them, we have been able to charge low rent, below market rent. That’s the dilemma now. I am certainly very sympathetic to the students and their families that live over there and find it affordable and manageable given that they are not earning a lot of money at this point in their lives or their careers. We want to do the best job we can to try and find a way to create safe, affordable housing. It probably won’t be nearly as cheap as they have been used to, but we are going to try to do the best we can in working with the private sector to come up with some solutions. We at least have a voice in this process, so it’s not like we are simply turning it entirely over to the private sector and let the market drive whatever is going to happen. They know what are priorities are, and affordability is at the top of the list.

DI: Gary Barta told The Daily Iowan on Tuesday that the Athletics Department would begin its review of Tyler Barnes to see if there was a conflict of interest in his hiring. Do you think there’s a need for the university to be more sensitive about these types of hirings? 

Mason: I think we are very sensitive about these types of things. You can’t always anticipate who is going to fall in love with whom, so in this particular case it’s a little tricky. I believe the young man was hired before the relationship is what it is today — heading toward marriage. We have rules in place. We also have a way of managing so that it is not impossible for members of families to be employed at the university. We work very hard to put good management plans in place so that they are not supervised by family members. That would be unacceptable under any circumstances. I think that is where we are headed with this one, to make sure that Tyler can continue to be employed if that is what he wants to do and he is doing a good job. And that is he is not supervised by any member of his family-to-be.

DI: In the Athletics Department alone, there are a number of relatives who work together, namely the Ferentzs, the Brands brothers, and the Mims family. At what point would you say two family members shouldn’t be working together?

Mason: Well, obviously, if we can’t come up with a management plan that allows for supervisory activities that are not family members, that’s absolutely unacceptable. But we have lots of examples across this whole university. My husband is a professor here. He teaches in the Biology Department. I have no supervisory role whatsoever. Not even close. That is intentional. It is as it should be. If he has issues that are employment-related, he knows who he can go to, but he can’t come talk to me. There is nothing that I would do or try to do. We have lots and lots of those kinds of relationships. When you are in the Midwest and you are sort of the big employer, often you are in a situation where for a family to move to Iowa City and say the primary bread-winner has employment. For me, it was a condition of employement. I wouldn’t move here if there wasn’t something that he couldn’t do here. We see that a lot with couples. We just keep degrees of separation between family members and any role in supervising other family members. We’ve got very good mechanisms in place for making certain that we don’t step over the line in these cases.

DI: Teresa Wagner, a part-time employee in the UI College of Law’s writing resource center, was denied a new trial on March 8. Do you have a comment on the case now that the judge has sided with the defendants?

Mason: I am pleased with the judge’s decision.

DI: We spoke to faculty members at the College of Law who were frustrated with the policy of maintaining silence during the lawsuit proceedings. What would you say to them? What is your stance on faculty members openly discussing situations about the university, such as this lawsuit, that arise?

Mason: I understand their frustration. I sometimes share their frustration. I also understand the need, when we are in active litigation, not to be speaking out publically or trying to influence the process. People have a right to free speech. If you are in an administrator position in the university, that is a little different. But if you are a citizen or a faculty member and you have an opinion and you’re asked about that, you’re protected by your right to free speech. If a faculty member is being sued and is in the middle of litigation, I hope they would use good judgment in what they would or wouldn’t say publically. In the case of administrators, I think we very clearly follow our internal policy and guidelines. We don’t speak, we don’t talk about active litigation.

DI: The Iowa House education appropriations subcommittee passed $849.9 million in funding for state education on Wednesday. How confident are you that the legislators will approve the funding needed to make the tuition freeze a reality? Do UI officials have any plans in place in the event that the necessary funding for the tuition freeze isn’t obtained?

Mason: I’m still hopeful. Obviously, there is a process of negotiation that goes on every year, among the House, the Senate, and the governor. I am encouraged by what I see and hear. We will just have to wait and let the process play itself out. It’s an encouraging year. Sometimes, we argue about budget cuts — this time we are arguing about how much to give. It’s a big improvement. We have thought about it, but we are also very optimistic at this point in time that there will be funding. It is really up to the regents beyond that what would happen. We can propose a tuition freeze, we can propose a tuition increase, but in the end, it’s the regents that decide.

DI: Some legislators have expressed opposition to the Board of Regents’ plan to end the tuition set-aside program. With the tuition freeze in mind, where does ending the tuition set-aside program rank on your list of priorities, and do you think it’s necessary at all for legislators to meet all of the Board of Regents’ requests for higher education this year? What items deserve swift action?

Mason: It’s a very high priority. Certainly it’s a very high priority for the regent leadership. It would be wonderful obviously not just to end the tuition set-aside program but actually reduce tuition for residents’ tuition. That’s a piece of this. I think it’s a grand plan, and it’s one that remains a very high priority for all of us. That would be wonderful if they would, but we also know that resources are not free-flowing, and they are not unlimited. We are grateful for the consideration that the governor has given us so far and in both the House and the Senate. We are going to keep pushing as hard as we can for the priorities that we laid out. Certainly, the increase to the base — that would be great. We know that then allows us to move forward with the tuition freeze. We’ve got requests out there for some line items that are also important, like our state Hygienic Lab, and each of the institutions have those out there. The tuition set-aside plan is a great and grand program. I think it will allow Iowa to be unique, that we would be reducing tuition for resident students. It would really would set Iowa apart in a major way if the tuition set-aside replacement dollars were funded. The two special initiative, one of which I am extremely enthusiastic about, is the entrepreneurship — taking what we do in entrepreneurship and regent institutions and essentially loading it statewide.  Scaling it up so it can be a statewide initiative.

DI: How important is it to you, especially at this point in the legislative session, that students lobby for an affordable education?

Mason: I think it’s imperative. I congratulate them for a good day [Wednesday] at the Statehouse, where they had a chance to express their viewpoints and talk to Legislature. They had a press conference, and I think they did a wonderful job. I saw lots of great representation from our students here at the University of Iowa, and I was very proud of them, including our student regent.

DI: The UIHC parking ramp 2 has officially come down, and one can see all of the construction underway for the Children’s Hospital. Can you talk a little bit about the progress that’s being made on that project? Is the project still on schedule?

Mason: It’s now become pretty obvious. There are actually two webcams. You can watch on a daily basis what is happening on the construction site. It is kind of fun — the hole gets bigger. We did the same thing for the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building, which you can now see pretty clearly, actually. That building has really come a long way. I’ve got the webcam site on my computer, and probably once a week or so, I’ll check in and see how we are doing. It’s fun to see the progress, not just day to day but minute by minute even. We are a little ahead of schedule and certainly on budget. Those are important things. It’s because of the weather — the weather hasn’t been so bad that they’ve been delayed in terms of the things they need to do and that’s very helpful. They are moving ahead at full speed.

DI: Former Vice President of Strategic Communications Tysen Kendig left his position at the university in January. Have UI officials started to form a search committee in finding his replacement? Likewise, when can we expect a search committee to be formed for finding a new dean for the College of Education?

Mason: Search committee is in place. I gave it its charge the day before [Wednesday]. Vice President [Tom] Rocklin and Professor [Richard] Fumerton are co-chairing the search committee. Our student-body presidents, both the Executive Council president and the undergraduate student-body president, are both members of the search committee. Their work is just getting under way. My understanding [about the College of Education] is probably not until next year, but check with Provost Butler.

Let’s hope spring break is safe, and everyone has a good spring break. There are a lot of students that I know that are doing alternative spring breaks, going out and helping communities, some locally and some across the country. I’m so pleased when students decide that’s a great way to spend spring break. I wish everyone a happy and healthy spring break.

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