Q&A: Mason talks party school ranking, construction

BY DI STAFF | AUGUST 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan: President Sally Mason, construction on a number of high-profile projects across campus continue to move forward, on both sides of the river and across a number of departments. Of all the projects going on around campus, which do you feel are making the most progress and which do you feel have seen delays in construction because of the increase in student population?

President Sally Mason: You know, I don’t think we’ve had significant delays on any of our projects, which is the good news. They’re all moving right along. I would tell you, that in 2016 this is going to be a pretty exciting place because we’re going to be opening a lot of new buildings, and at this point — knock on wood — they’re all pretty much on schedule. So let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the weather stays good, that the winter’s not too bad, and we continue to make progress.

DI: In conjunction with the new slew of construction projects and the start of a new school year, how are UI officials, buildings, and traffic areas affected reacting? What specific measures did the UI implement during peak move-in periods? Finally, how did the UI work with city and county officials during the move-in times as thousands of new students and their families arrived to the area?

Mason: Well, you know, I want to thank Regent [Milt] Dakovich for helping us with Dubuque Street. Now, Dubuque Street, the interchange there, is not our project. That’s the Iowa Department of Transportation’s project. They’re responsible for those projects, and for a number of reasons the work on that project was delayed, and we got very concerned that with move-in coming and that intersection still looking like there’s a significant amount of construction to go on there, Regent Dakovich stepped in and got some very good information for us. The project got back on track. While we didn’t have it ready for move-in, we were able to make, I think, really good contingency plans. If you came in from the east, for example, on the Interstate, during move-in, there was great signage for where to get off and how to get right down to the residence halls. From what I could tell, traffic during move-in was not a major problem for us, and that’s great because I worried a lot with the Dubuque Street interchange under construction, the way it currently is, that that could be a problem. And we continue to be optimistic that there’ll be a lot of progress made between now and the football game on Saturday, so traffic doesn’t become yet another problem for us.

DI: Following the announcement that the University of Iowa moved up from No. 2 to No. 1 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? Several UI administrators pointed in the past to several Princeton Review surveys when they’re positive, should those be taken with any different context?

Mason: You know, we always look to see how surveys are done, and if a survey group is willing to share with us their scientific methodology, we tend to pay more attention to those. In this particular case, the party-school one, we don’t get a lot of information about how those surveys are done, so it’s very hard for us to know. We do have good survey information that shows us that dangerous drinking on campus is way down from where it was a few years ago, and that pleases me a lot. I joked at the President’s Block Party that we have a party school reputation, so here we are at our first party of the year. It happens to be at the President’s Residence, there’s no alcohol, and we’re having a great time. There were thousands of students out there, really, although it was hot, I think they were enjoying themselves. It was a lot of fun. So from my perspective, I want students to come here, I want them to understand that they’re getting a very high quality and very affordable education, and they seem to understand that even their comments that they make to the Princeton Review suggest that they understand that, and I actually do want them to have a good time. It’s what part of being in college is all about. This is a chance to make friends, to have really great social interactions, to learn a lot of skills and things that will be useful later in life; and it should be enjoyable as well as really high quality and prepare you for whatever career you’re going to have in the future.

DI: You recently selected Joseph Brennan, the former associate vice president for University Communications at the State University of New York-Buffalo to the vice president for Strategic Communication post. As Mark Braun transitions to his original role, what do you believe the two individuals need to do in the coming months moving forward?

Mason: You know, one of the great things about Mark having stepped in and served as interim Vice President for Strategic Communications is he learned a lot about strategic communications, and as we were recruiting, in this case Joe Brennan, Mark and Joe immediately connected. They’re going to work very closely together in the future. I did, in addition to hiring Joe as Vice President of Strategic Communications over the summer, a year ago Mark completed his M.B.A, and I restructured his job this summer too, so the two of them basically will be very closely aligned, in terms of making certain that our communications are as solid as we can make them going forward, and that we’re all on the same page. Tom Moore is a big part of that, and Tom is going to continue as our university spokesperson. I feel good about where we are in terms of communication going forward. I’m excited about Joe sort of taking us to the next level in terms of making certain that we are up to speed on the most up-to-date forms of communication — the kinds of communication that you like, not me. I’m of another generation, and I’m more than happy to read newspapers and check my email and do things like that. I’m not much of a fan of Twitter or some of the other social-media forms of communication, and we have to be, though, as a university. We have to be right up to speed with everything that you and your peers are interested in. So stay tuned.

DI: As construction continues to be heavily focused on the West Side of campus, 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 new West Campus Residence Hall is built?

Mason: You know, we have made some interim plans with all the construction on both sides of campus but certainly over on the West Side right now, with interim parking. I’ve got, I think we’ve got a better transportation center over there. We’ve got more buses. We’ve got more ways of moving people around. I think people are probably less thrilled with the idea that they can’t park right next to where they work, but, you know, we’ve got to make this project, and then we can get back, I hope, to something better in the not-too-distant future. I think parking is something that people always like to complain about. I’ve been at three different universities, and I have to say that parking here is better than at most, for what it’s worth.

DI: What specifically does Brennan need to bring to campus from a strategic-communication standpoint? In past interviews, he has spoken highly of public-research universities needing to acknowledge bad news — from social scandals to natural disasters — head on, before someone else does. What is your reaction to this and how does the UI plan on using his past experience at State University of New York to accomplish transparency and flood mitigation goals?

Mason: You know, Joe is very experienced, and that’s one of things that I really liked about his interview and the way he handled himself and the things he has to bring to the job. I agree with him that getting out in front of situations that can be difficult, challenging, problematic is the best way, always, to deal with it — trying to be as open and transparent as we can and provide as much information to the public as we can is always a goal. It’s not always easy. It’s not always easy because we have a lot of laws and regulations and compliance that we have to deal with — everything from students’ rights to privacy to staff and faculty rights and patients’ rights to privacy, so we’ve always got to be aware of those kinds of things, but I think and I believe and I think Joe believes as well, we can do a better job sharing information when and if it’s appropriate.

DI: When can you expect that UI officials will begin discussions with the Board of Regents and student leaders about extending the tuition freeze beyond this year?

Mason: Very soon. Because we are, right now, putting in our budget information to the Board of Regents so that we can start to have those discussions about what we want to do going forward. I’m really going to advocate to continue the tuition freeze; I think it’s a great thing, and I think it’s something that our students and their families very much appreciate, and I have to say I’ve had a number of conversations with individual legislators this summer, and I’ve thanked them profusely for their willingness to partner with us, because it was really the Legislature that made it possible. The regents can propose it, with our support obviously, but without the support of the Legislature, it really doesn’t work. And I fully expect that that’s what we’re going to try to do again this year.

DI: University of Iowa Student Government leaders outlined their three main goals to us Sunday, one of which being a charger checkout service at the Main Library Learning Commons, a bike-sharing program, and a textbook-rebate initiative. Each year, a new government body begins. What do you hope to see from student government?

Mason: You know, I’ve always appreciated the partnership that I have not only with our student government leaders but with our staff council leaders and our faculty senate leaders. Share governance really works here, and it’s important to me that all the voices are sitting at the table and that we have discussions about issues that are important to the various groups. I am very enthusiastic about our student leadership again this year. I thought we had spectacular leadership last year. I think this year we’re going to be well-served once again, and I like the ideas that they’re putting out there.

DI: What are your thoughts on their lobbying efforts in Iowa over the break?

Mason: You know, I couldn’t be more pleased with the way in which they have continued the discussions that last year’s leaders started with legislators. It makes a difference, it makes a real difference because obviously a lot of our students are from Iowa, so legislators are more than willing to listen to the student voices and hear what’s important to the students and hopefully understand how focused we have become as a university on making certain that student success is our highest priority.

DI: The class of 2017 is rumored to be another large class if not the largest on campus. How will the UI and city work to accommodate the large number of incoming students? 

Mason: You know, we’re always working on this. I don’t think this is going to be the largest ever. We have studiously tried to keep our incoming class at about 4,500, and I think we’re going to be close to that number. We could end up with a record campus enrollment again because retention continues to improve, just like happened last year. So although our freshman class isn’t getting larger, the number of students returning and the number of students staying with us to complete those degrees ultimately is, in fact, getting larger, and I like to see that, but let’s wait about 10 days and see where the numbers really are, and then we can comment on how large that freshman class really is.

DI: What are you most looking forward to this school year? What, do you believe, are the biggest challenges facing university officials this year, and how do they differ from those in previous years?

Mason: You know, I actually feel very optimistic about this year. The tuition freeze, obviously, for this coming year, the one we’re in, was very successful. I think we have a chance to continue that. The state of Iowa seems to be pretty healthy, and legislators seem to be in a very receptive mood in terms of working with us on partnerships. I like what we’re doing on the entrepreneurship initiatives we’re going to extend statewide. Some of the things we’ve been doing routinely here on campus and we’ve been doing in little pockets across the state, we’re going to expand those even more thanks to our Legislature again. So from my perspective with all the construction on campus, you know if there’s a big challenge right now, it’s that I spend a lot of time apologizing to people for all the construction but reminding them of the fabulous, fabulous facilities and opportunities that we’re going to have in just two to three years.

DI: As the new 14-story UI Children’s Hospital tower continues to take shape, what can you tell us about the future facility, specifically in regards to any new updates or features? How will its introduction to the hospital complex impact day-to-day operations in an already heavily-congested medical corridor?

Mason: You know, really, the River Landing Project was the project that made the big difference in terms of being able to accommodate the new Children’s Hospital, the construction project, and then ultimately the traffic that will be going into the hospital for the Children’s Hospital and for the main hospital. Having moved more than a quarter of our patient visits off-campus, out to Coralville right now, has made it possible to do this construction project without creating just a major nightmare in terms of traffic and congestion at our hospital. So, when the Children’s Hospital is completed we’ll see more traffic to the Children’s Hospital, but we’re ready for it. We’ll have new underground parking that will be ready to go. We’ll have the new facility that’s completed and new ways to get in and out of the hospital, which I think will make it a lot easier for our patients as well. So stay tuned. I think everything is being carefully planned and thought out. We all know that plans don’t always work as well as you hoped, so we’re going to adjust obviously as we see those plans starting to come closer toward reality, but I’m pretty excited about the direction that we’re heading with regards especially to these building projects. The Children’s Hospital, the research that goes on that’s associated with our children and Children’s Hospital and the medicine that goes on there hasn’t stopped. We still have a very, very active faculty; we still have lots of patients. What’s going to be different of course are the facilities. It’s a whole different way of doing medicine.

DI: When we last spoke, you told us that all HESCO flood protection barriers would be taken down within days of our interview? The last remaining barriers have only recently been taken down. Can you tell us the reasoning(s) for the delay in removal and the cost effects?

Mason: I don’t think it had much impact on cost. The delay simply had to do with timing. We wanted to be sure everything was done in time for the semester. I think that was the promise I made, that the flood-protection barriers would all be down in time for the start of the semester, and we did it staged in such a way that people who needed to get back in academic buildings. Those came down first, and people were able to get back in the building ready for the semester. Sandbags, HESCO barriers around the Power Plant, around the water plant, we didn’t feel an urgency to get those down; they don’t affect our day-to-day activities on campus, so it’s been staged in such a way that it should create little or no impact on the start of the semester, and that was the most important thing.

DI: Following the decommissioning of the HESCO flood barriers, a number of prominent campus buildings and areas have seen leftover impacts, particularly in regards to their landscaping. Does the UI have a budget set-aside to improve the physical landscape to these areas, of which include the Arts Campus and grounds surrounding the IMU?

Mason: You know, we do but we went from flood to drought, so it’s so dry right now. I suspect we’re going to take some time and really think hard about what kinds of landscaping we should be doing around some of these buildings. If you noticed, over by the Chemistry Building on the Cleary Walkway, there’s some beautiful landscaping that went in this summer, absolutely gorgeous. Yes, we do have a landscaping budget. Yes, we do plan each year for what the priorities are going to be. I thought it was essential that that Cleary Walkway be beautified in a way that spoke to the rest of the campus, the way we feel about the campus, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the landscaping that was done there.

DI: Do you have any specific updates in regards to Hancher Auditorium or any of the several large flood-recovery projects?

Mason: We’re on track. I’m pretty excited with the progress on both music and art. We’ve got the fences up in place, the bank buildings are down over where the music building is about to rise up from the ground. Probably the most dramatic thing you’re going to notice here in the next couple months is the old Hancher Auditorium is going to start coming down. Internally, that’s already happening, but there’s a lot of asbestos, so they’ve had to work pretty carefully over the past several months to do asbestos abatement inside. Once the internal deconstruction is done on that project, the rest should come pretty quickly, and it’s going to be pretty dramatic when that building disappears from the landscape.

DI: Have their construction and budget affected timelines following this past summer’s flooding events?

Mason: No, not really. The weather’s been generally good, other than the rain, which slowed things down for a few days. They were able to catch back up, I think, during the drought, since we’ve had very little rain since then. It all evens out over time. So far, so good.

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