Q&A: Mason talks flood recovery, 21-ordinance

BY DI STAFF | JULY 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Sally Mason this past weekend to discuss recent flood-mitigation efforts and the 21-ordinance, among other campus issues.

The Daily Iowan: What did you think of the last academic year?

President Sally Mason: I thought it was a pretty darn good year all the way around. It is getting really exciting. A lot of great things are happening. We were able to freeze tuition for our resident students, which I’m excited about, and I expect some of our students are very excited about that. It was a great team effort.

Obviously, the Board of Regents put the effort forward, the Legislature supported it, and I’ve been out thanking lots of legislators who did lots of good work on our behalf.

We almost had another flood, compared to 2008. I was really pleased to see how well we prepared for that. I’m excited about the student-success initiatives that will be in place for this fall, including the Learning Commons in the library.

I’m watching that new residence hall and thinking that’s going to be very exciting for our new students in the future. And I think we’re going to have a nice healthy enrollment again this fall. It was a great academic year last year, and I think we have another great one coming up.

DI: President Mason, perhaps the biggest story following this past school year was the potential for flooding on the campus. While many of those concerns are now gone, do you have a timeline for when officials will start clearing floodwalls, HESCO barriers, and sandbags from campus?

Mason: I think it was a healthy scare for us. I don’t think anyone anticipated having another flood so soon after the 2008 floods, but we had a good plan. After that flood, we learned so much, and we executed that plan perfectly. So all of the preparation that we did to keep any damage from happening to the campus this time really paid off. I sometimes laugh that I was actually excited when we opened the boathouse up to see whether or not it was flooded, because it was built to flood. It was built to take on floodwaters if necessary. And we came within half an inch. We haven’t fully tested it, but I was pleased that we were able to get everything done without any chaos, no missteps, the building were all protected, Mayflower will be open and ready for business this fall, and I’m so pleased about that. I’m very excited about how well our people have planned prepared and executed.

DI: Has this recent flood helped you prepare even more for the future?

Mason: You learn a little bit each time. It’s nice when you’re not having to deal with a 500-year flood that’s doing massive damage to the campus. So with a smaller flood, we were able to see, for example, when we put the wall up around Art Building West, we were told initially to be prepared to do that, that it could take five days, and we may have to hire a contractor. We had the contractor all set and ready to go. We did it in less than three days. What we learned is if we really pushed we could do it in a day. That’s really good to know. You don’t always have as much time as you’d like to prepare per flood.

DI: Does the university have any estimate on the cost of these flood mitigation efforts?

Mason: You know it’s somewhere in the $3million to $5 million range for the whole thing. That means putting it up and taking it all down. We haven’t taken it down yet. We’re just going to get started on that right now, so once it’s down, we’ll have a better guess as to what it cost.

DI: Do UI officials anticipate any delay in time or increase in cost for any of the major flood-recovery projects?

Mason: I don’t think so. In fact, the construction projects, which there are a lot of them, are still on budget, on time, and proceeding at good rate, which I was really glad to see. We were in the process of taking down the Hancher Auditorium, but all that work is inside, because it’s asbestos mitigation. It’s things that have to be done very carefully and safely by professionals, and the last thing we needed was that building to flood again. We successfully protected Hancher from flooding again; the work is proceeding without any interruption. And I’m very pleased at the way all of these projects are proceeding.

DI: As the university continues to rebuild following the 2008 flood, have UI officials altered the way in which they market certain programs and facilities to prospective students?

Mason: We’ve been pretty proactive and making sure people understand that our art programs and music programs are fully functioning. And we use some of the money that was donated by people who love the university during the flood to provide scholarships to music and arts students when we were fearful that they might not want to come here because our building were so damaged. Our faculty has stayed with us, our students have stayed with us, and now, of course, they have a lot to look forward to, and they’ve helped with the planning. Some of them will be here for the grand opening. It’s very exciting.

DI: President Mason, you’ve been working “at will” since Aug. 1, 2012. Since then, you’ve re-prioritized your goals for transparency and strategic communication at the university. How much longer do you anticipate you’d be willing to work “at will”?

Mason: I’ve been working at will since I arrived here. You know, once a year we go through an evaluation. We go through a midyear evaluation in January and we go through an evaluation in August. I’ve got a lot to report at the August evaluation. I’m pretty pleased with the progress that we’re making on the goals that I have and the goals for the university this year. Hopefully, it’ll be a good report and will be well-received.

DI: What do you expect to see in the August Board of Regents’ meeting?

Mason: What I do is takes the goals that I shared with the board, and I’ll give them a full report on any progress we’ve made and any challenges that we have. Then I’ll start working with them to outline the goals for next year. I’m hopeful that they’ll be as positive about the results as I am.

DI: We learned last week that the 21-ordinance will be brought before the Iowa City City Council again after two bar managers successfully gathered enough signatures for their petition. Most of the current students weren’t here before the ordinance was implemented. What would you say to those students who want the ordinance to be repealed?

Mason: It’s too bad that they weren’t here before that time because, honestly, my biggest concerns and the reason I ended up being a big supporter of a 21-only ordinance was for their safety. It had become very unsafe in downtown Iowa City on weekends.

It wasn’t because of our students. It was because too many people were coming to town because they knew that any age could get into bars, that underage drinking was rampant, that it had gotten a little wild in terms of being really unsafe, as a place for people to go. I just don’t want to see that happen again. I just thinking it’s an unhealthy environment. It’s not a legal environment, either. Unless the laws change, and it’s legal to drink at 18, it just makes no sense to have the appearance of promoting underage drinking. Which is unfortunately what was happening. And while I think we could probably, if it were just our students downtown enjoying the venues, I think it would a relatively safe environment, but it’s not. It’s lot of people coming from other communities and people taking advantage of students who are drinking too much. And students are enjoying themselves perhaps too much, and that sometimes leads to unintended consequences. I just don’t want to see our young ladies get hurt. I don’t want to see our young men get hurt. That’s what was happening.

DI: What do you think encouraged that atmosphere?

Mason: There was no place else where you could go. Nineteen and 20-year-olds were allowed in the bars basically until they were closed. And it’s very hard to monitor that. When you have thousands and thousands of young people showing up on weekends, it’s very hard to have any kind of safe controls in place to help monitor that. People who’ve lived in Iowa City for a long time will tell me now, they’ll go downtown, and they’ll feel safe.

DI: UI officials recently told The Daily Iowan that the search was nearly complete for candidates to fill the vacant position of vice president for Strategic Communications. Do you know when we can anticipate those candidates to be chosen and make visits to campus?

Mason: We have the candidates coming in in July. I’m optimistic and looking forward to meeting the three finalists. The names are typically announced several days in advance. We’ll put on a good show, so they’ll want to come to the University of Iowa.

DI: Now that Gov. Terry Branstad has signed into law a bill allowing a tuition freeze at Iowa’s three public universities for the next school year, do UI officials plan to implement a new marketing strategy for in-state students to highlight that feature?

Mason: We’ve been out there with some “best buy” billboards, both in the sate of Iowa and surrounding states. I have to say my presidential colleagues have commented that on their way to work they get to see the University of Iowa billboards. I just smile and say, Aren’t they nice? I don’t think we’re going to change our strategy at this point in time. We’re just going to let people know that this is a great university. It is a best buy and has been for a number of years. We want students to consider us when they’re going to college.

DI: When do you think officials should start discussions about extending the tuition freeze beyond the coming school year?

Mason: Those conversations will start very soon with the Board of Regents. I’m sure that we’ll be having conversations with the board and the board leadership about what we’d like to see for tuition next year. I’ve been pretty vocal about trying to hold the line on not raising the in-state tuition rates. And to the extent that we can keep the tuition down as much as we can. The Legislature really helped us out tremendously. The regents made a great case for that, and it worked beautifully.

DI: Why is it so important to do this for in-state students?

Mason: Because we are the University of Iowa. I want to be sure that Iowans know that we’re committed to making sure that Iowans get the very best education. I don’t ever want to discourage students from out-of-state from coming here, but we want to make sure that Iowans understand that we are here, because taxpayers in this state have made a big investment. Much of what you see around here is because of the taxpayers of Iowa were willing for us to use their tax dollars to build this institution.

DI: We hear this upcoming freshman class is one of these biggest you’ve seen — why do you think that is?

Mason: Our enrollment numbers are going up because of our retention. We’re always making sure that the students that are here are successful, which to me, means eventually graduating with their degree. So we’ve worked hard on freshman retention. Freshman year is the tough year. Whether they’re homesick, or have a hard time making friends, we loose freshmen for lots of reasons. We worked hard to try to turn the tide on the reasons that we have control over. So if somebody comes here and is simply not having a good experience, we can fix that. I can’t always fix the home situation or the family situation that cause people to want to go home or have to leave or transfer, but we can sure make certain that we’re delivering the best possible education and opportunities while they’re here. That’s working pretty well these days, so our campus enrollment is going up, not because we’re growing the freshman class but because we’re retaining more students and ultimately graduating more.

DI: What initiatives are you using to help with retention?

Mason: The Learning Commons in the Main Library is just the latest in a number of things. It’s going to be open 24 hours; that’s what students said they want. It’s going to be wired, so you go over and use what ever devices you need. You can work individually; you can work in small groups. And there’s even going to be a café. The other thing is the new residence hall. One of the things we’ve learned that helps us a lot with retention is living/learning communities. Our freshmen, most of them, will be part of a living/learning community, and by the time we get the new resident hall built, all freshmen will be in living/learning communities. It’s a great way of helping students make connection right away. Especially with others taking the same courses they may be taking.

DI: The Daily Iowan recently reported that the Quad ravine on campus is under renovation. Officials said the renovations will make for a safer walkway. Are there other areas of campus that you would say need improvement to ensure students’ safety?

Mason: One of the things that we do every summer is lots of these projects like that. We’re always looking for where can we make some improvements on student safety. The blue lights, we thought of taking those down because pretty much everybody has a cell phone these days, but after talking with students and others, we decided we should leave them up at least a while longer because students feel that they still are a very valid safety measure on campus. We’re always asking students for the kinds of things we could be doing on campus to make it a safer place, to make it more friendly, prettier. By the Chemistry Building and by the Blank Honors Center, that use to be kind of an ugly area. It’s absolutely beautiful now. We’ve spent most of the summer landscaping that and really turning it into now a more student friendly pedestrian area. There are benches out there, there are places to sit, the ambiance is so much nicer than it was. Summer is the time we get a lot of this stuff.

DI: How do you receive this feedback?

Mason: Sometimes directly from the students. Our facilities managers are always out looking at the various facilities and the campus itself and making suggestions as well. They all get filtered through Doug True’s office. Decisions are made on how to spend, whether it’s campus safety or whatever it may be, our facilities budgets.

DI: What are your overall goals for this upcoming year?

Mason: They’re pretty simple actually, because we’ve started our big goal. We had this comprehensive fundraising campaign. We’re going to raise $1.7 billion, and we’ve got a few more years to finish that campaign. We’re a little over $1 billion. We’ve got some big gifts that we’re working on, one that we’ll probably announce in August, and all of these initiatives are very exciting. Continuing to work on our student-success initiatives to make sure that the campus is welcoming and safe, those will continue to be priorities of mine as well. And making sure that these building projects and flood-renewal projects stay on target, on budget, on time. These are all part of my priorities for next year. Academically, I think we’re in a real good position. I look forward to continuing with very strong programs that continue to do very well nationally and internationally.

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