Q&A: Mason talks diversity, construction, and tuition freeze

BY DI STAFF | SEPTEMBER 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan: It recently came to light that Darlene and James McCord who have pledged more that $3 million to the UI over the years have been charged with avoiding more than $700,000 in taxes. What is your response to this recent news? Are you at all concerned if they will withdraw any of their current donations and how do you think this reflects on the UI and other UI supporters?

President Sally Mason: I think we just have to wait on this one and see what happens in the legal system, and we’ll know a little better going forward what the ramifications might be long-term. But it is too soon to say.

DI: About two weeks ago, the Crimson White published an article concerning current racial and minority-driven segregations among the greek chapters. In light of growing sorority and fraternity numbers at the UI, what steps need to be taken to ensure that incoming and returning minority students who are seeking to be a part of the greek community are included? In looking at the makeups ourselves, we have indicated that there is that divide. In recent years, several new fraternities and sororities that are racial and minority specific have come to campus. How should they be included with the traditional fraternity and sorority councils?

Mason: Well, I certainly hope that’s the case here, Tom Rocklin would be a better person to ask this question than I would, because he’s closer to it, and sees the numbers, and has a better appreciation for this. One of the things that Iowa has always prided itself on is that we have been open and really equanimous in terms of how we treat people. We’ve been an institution that was the first to admit men and women on equal basis. We’ve been an institution that I think has been very welcoming to minorities, and more and more on our campus, the diversity is such that it is hard to see who’s a minority and who’s not anymore, which is just fine with me. I think that is the way our world is growing to be, that is the way college campuses should be, that’s the kinds of things our students should be exposed to. I hope that all of our students are open and about how diversity affects them.

And that means that sometimes there will be strains, sometimes there are opportunities to learn, sometimes there are opportunities to see that difference can be a good thing, sometimes there’s an opportunity to see that differences can provide challenges for us, too, so we have a lot to learn from having a very diverse community on our campus, and I think in the long run it will prove to be a very positive thing.

There shouldn’t be any different ways in which we treat one group or another. We really should be open to making certain that whatever opportunities are there for one group should be there for all groups. You know fraternity and sorority life — it wasn’t something that I gravitated toward as a student, but certainly I see the ways in which many of our students gravitate toward them. I’m particularly impressed with fraternities and sororities when they have a mission of doing good, of service, of activities that are beneficial to the university and the greater community in which they live. I like them when they form around those kinds of ideals. And I think we watch pretty carefully to make certain that as fraternities and sororities are forming on campus have a mission that makes sense in terms of who we are as a university and what a fraternity or sorority can add to a student’s life as a student here at the University of Iowa. So we will continue to pay attention to this and make certain that whatever is being done is being done in a healthy and good way for our students.

DI: This month, The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa released their current student enrollment numbers. The numbers indicated that Iowa State has surpassed the UI. What does this say about the UI’s role in regards to the state’s economy and the UI’s acceptance process?

Mason: Well, I’m not sure it says anything about any of those things. I’ve been very clear in terms of our enrollment since the flood in particular that while we are rebuilding our campus, especially major academic facilities like our music building and our School of Art building and building for the first time a new residence hall. Right after the flood, we had a surge of about 500 additional students. Our freshman class grew from about 4,000 students to almost 4,500 in one year. That was a strain on resources given that we had flooded buildings and we were already at capacity when it came to our residence halls. So we had to do certain things, and I said over the next five years we will learn to accommodate this new number — 4,500 — and we’ve held pretty steady on it. So I’m pretty happy with where our enrollment numbers are overall, and I’ve said that repeatedly for the last several years that we’re not in a position to grow right now. But we are positioning ourselves in the future, perhaps, to get larger. We’re in a much better position now to think about what size we should be. I don’t believe that it’s good to grow too fast because you have to be able to accommodate students in terms of making sure they get to classes they need. That means having the professors and instructors to teach those classes and even more importantly having a place to offer those classes so that you are not having to take classes at 11 at night on Saturdays and Sundays. We’re trying to balance these things in a way that makes sense given where we are as an institution, and we are still recovering from a natural disaster today that caused almost a billion dollars’ worth of damage on our campus.

Our freshman class has been holding somewhere between usually 4,400 to 4,500 for the last five years. And that’s what I said to our folks. I said, “OK, we’ve got 500 more students, let’s hold on to that number, let’s just make that our stable number now, let’s not grow bigger right now.” We can think about that again perhaps a few years down the road once we have these buildings repaired and the new buildings up and the new residence hall. The new residence hall is going to bring us 500 additional beds, that’s going to help a lot.

DI: The University of Iowa Student Government is continuing with talks with local law-enforcement agencies about improving campus and near-campus lighting, even to go as far as driving with officers into those neighborhoods at night. Following the completion of the Quadrangle ravine that brought about improved lighting aesthetics, what can you tell us about the UI’s plans about incorporating that type of lighting in future or current projects? What does that mean for campus safety?

Mason: I haven’t really followed in detail. I know on campus, we tend to be pretty responsive to students if their showing us areas on campus that we have control over that could use more lighting. We’re generally pretty happy to respond to that, and we should respond to that. The town itself is different. I don’t have much control over what happens in the town, so if our students are working with Iowa City on this, I think it’s great. They can be very useful in terms of local neighborhoods. Is there a need for more lighting out in the neighborhoods? I have no idea where we might be with something like that. That would not be something that we would necessarily even directly participate in. But I would applaud students if they’re getting involved in it.

If it’s on campus, we’ll be responsive. You know our public-safety people are pretty good at assessing whether or not there is a need for additional lighting, so bringing it to their attention is exactly the right thing to do. That’s exactly what we should be doing.

When we first started programs [such as SafeRide and NiteRide] they were very heavily used, so now the question becomes does this new class know enough about NiteRide and SafeRide to be using them effectively, and if not, we need to do some more advertising and just make sure that students know — especially the new students. Every year, we have to sort of re-educate because were starting with a new group. The students who knew about this in previous years, some of them may have graduated and gone on to do other things or are not living in the residence halls, so we have to start over.

DI: The state Board of Regents is currently proposing an extension of the current tuition freeze to the Iowa Legislature. Have there been any discussions about extending the freeze to students outside of the in-state undergraduate student group? If so, what has been said in the discussion?

Mason: At this point, no. At this point I think the focus really remains on resident students, and that’s consistent with the mission of the regent institutions. We are the public universities in the state of Iowa, so not surprisingly the Iowa Legislature, the Iowa Board of Regents, that’s their main focus. I think we’re trying with some success to keep tuition increases for nonresident students either low, very modest increases, or below inflation and cost of living at this point in time. So we’re not looking for large increases, even in the nonresident tuition, but we are obviously very much focused on a tuition freeze for resident students, just because of who we are and where we’re located.

DI: The Partnership for Alcohol Safety recently came out in support of the 21-ordinance as it goes to the ballot on Nov. 5. What are your thoughts on the partnership’s endorsement and what do you think it would mean for the UI if the ordinance were to be removed? If the ordinance were to be removed, how would it impact the UI's relationship with the city?

Mason: Well, I’ve always been in support of the 21-ordinance, and I’ve seen the difference that it makes when it’s been in place versus when it wasn’t in place. This was not a healthy environment. The downtown in particular was not a healthy environment for our students prior to the 21-ordinance. We’ve had enough time now I think that some of the so-called dire consequences that were predicted by those who oppose the ordinance have not come to pass. In fact, we’ve seen great improvements overall in terms of the health and safety of our students, so from my particular vantage point I think going backwards now doesn’t make any sense for the university or for the community. The university and the community have been one on this issue. We have worked together to support the 21-ordinance, and we’re going to work together. Obviously, we’re optimistic that this will stay in place after the Nov. 5 election, but there’s going to have to be some work done to make certain that that happens. I’ve told some students who are either new or were here when the 21-ordinance wasn’t in effect [that] it really was unfortunate that Iowa City became very attractive to lots of people, lots of outsiders, on weekends who came knowing that they could prey on our students, and I don’t think that’s good for any reason. We pride ourselves on providing a quality education and a good and high quality of life for our students. That was not good or high quality life for our students. They don’t come here any longer because it’s not the wild crazy place that it was, and it’s not a wide-open place where you can come and prey on co-eds on the weekend and do so seemingly with impunity. So I think getting away from that, staying away from that, and not having a repeat of that, is in everybody’s best interest, including the students.

We track our own students’ behaviors and we’ve certainly seen decreases in everything from binge drinking to arrests. Everybody said it would just mean there would be lots more wild house parties, and while I think there are probably more house parties, we haven’t seen the incidents of those go beyond anything that wasn’t realistic. So that didn’t seem to happen either.

DI: 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?

Mason: I don’t know that any of them have seen any delays. I mean we’re pretty much on track with all of them which is amazing considering how much is going on. It’s really frightening sometimes to see all of the cranes now going up. It’s almost a new crane a week right now, and we still have a few more, obviously the music building and the art buildings. When we get to the point where construction is a little further along, there will be big cranes up for those too. The landscape around here looks quite different now.

I really do [have this thing with cranes]. I’ve joked about this thing over at the Children’s Hospital. I call one of those Dr. Robillard’s crane, the other one Dr. Finn’s crane. There’s two actually up for the Children’s Hospital because we’re building parking structures simultaneously with the Children’s Hospital. Then I call the one at Hancher Chuck Swanson’s crane because he’s the director of Hancher, and as soon as we get David Gier’s crane up for the music building — I’m not sure who I’m going to give the [art building] crane to, I guess it would be Jon Scott’s.

It’s kind of an amazing thing to see here in Iowa City all of this building. Nearly a billion dollars worth of construction is underway right now. The weather’s been good, so that’s helped keep most of these projects on track. Hancher Auditorium is coming down now, so not only do we have the construction crane to help build new Hancher Auditorium, but we have a smaller crane with a wrecking ball that is taking down older Hancher Auditorium, just one more project.

A projects that is a little harder to see right now is the [IMU]. The bookstore used to be in the basement of the Union, and it will someday be back there. We have lots and lots of smaller flood projects that get lost in the mix. Our theater building, Mayflower, the Advanced Technology Labs, the IMU — all of these projects are underway as well. So the big projects are real obvious and we keep an eye on those — the residence hall, that’s Tom Rocklin’s crane — as for the new residence hall. So there are a lot of projects right now. As long as the weather’s good, I think we’ll be staying on track.

I was worried and I think we all worried whether there’d be enough construction workers to do all these projects. But so far we’ve gotten really great bids on all these projects and the construction companies have taken advantage of the good weather we’ve been having and really making tremendous progress on these. We poured record concrete yesterday at new Hancher Auditorium. At the same time the wrecking ball was taking down old Hancher Auditorium. So the most amount of concrete poured ever on a project in Iowa happened yesterday at Hancher Auditorium.

I’d be remised if I didn’t at least mention that we completed a big project this fall and that was the learning commons. I’m so impressed with how busy it’s been. It’s packed. And students are in there working. I mean they really are in there doing exactly what we hoped they’d be doing — taking full advantage of the technology, working day and night. The café seems to be very busy so the food opportunities there are good ones, which that’s what we hoped for. So I think more and more you’re going to see learning commons be part of what we want to have in academic buildings. As much as anything it’s the kind of space that students are telling us is the most useful space that we can build for them right now. And it is breathtaking. I went in there the other day and just “wow this is the library holy cow.” It’s quiet in there so you can work and that’s the interesting thing. The number of people that are in there but it’s still a good quiet space. People are being very respectful of each other and the need to go there to do work. [The lobby in the past] was a space that students would use but not to their extent that they’re using it now.  And it’s open — I mean I think everyone likes the hours that it’s open. [It’s] more student friendly — people friendly really.

DI: Going along with the topic of campus construction, what can you further say about the significance of the demolition of the Hancher/Voxman/Clapp complex? What does this project say about the importance of maintaining the Arts Campus, and will Hancher remain its “centerpiece” of the Arts Campus and if so how?

Mason: Well if you’ve seen the drawings of new Hancher Auditorium I think there is no doubt that when you come down Dubuque Street [it will be] the first thing you’ll see — especially at night. It’s going to be spectacular at night because the lights in that building will really highlight its architectural beauty. It’s one of the first things you’re going to see on the University of Iowa Campus. So there’s “Welcome to Iowa City,” and there’s Hancher Auditorium sitting right there on the hill overlooking the river. And what a magnificent way to enter the campus, so to speak. And as a gateway into the campus I think we celebrate the arts here all the time. Hancher’s always been a showcase piece for us in terms of a facility that allows us to highlight the more creative aspects of the work here that gets done on campus but also the creativity of the people who want to come and be a part of our campus whether it’s the Joffrey Ballet, whether it’s some other kind of musical theatrical performance, it’s going to be an amazing facility. It’s going to attract amazing people both to campus and back to campus. And it’ll be a great, great place for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and just people from Iowa to come and visit and enjoy the performances as well as enjoy commencements and other activities. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t weddings and things like that inside Hancher Auditorium in the not too distant future.

DI: Following a nearly month-long new semester period, what do you believe, are the biggest challenges facing University officials this year, and how do they differ from those in previous years?

Well obviously balancing all of these construction projects is a juggling act that we’re all going to have to deal with. As we build the Children’s Hospital, just for example, we’ve had to build a road through the field house so that the main entrance to hospital can remain open as the construction on the hospital and the parking structure there continues to ramp up. So you know, a lot to juggle, a whole lot to juggle on the infrastructure side and then making sure obviously that we can continue to deliver very high quality education to all of our students. That’s always first and foremost in our minds.

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