Q&A: Mason talks government shutdown, UI apartments, and E-Cigarettes

BY DI STAFF | OCTOBER 16, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan: On Oct. 1, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors held a community input meeting in which they specifically invited UI officials to give feedback on what should be done to address the spacial issues in the Johnson County Jail and C ourthouse. However, no UI officials attended that specific meeting. How seriously do you consider the spacial concerns to be, and what do you think should be done to address this issue that has caused controversy in the county as well as on campus?

President Sally Mason: We try to be good partners with the city, the county, all of those, but in the end, these are decisions that need to be made at the county level by voters, by citizens, not by us, not by the university. We will try to offer input and information, data, when we can, but it’s a greater responsibility than just the university’s.

DI: The university recently released renderings for the new Hawkeye Court apartments, now named Aspire at West Campus. In looking at the development’s website, we noted that the price per unit will increase quite significantly. Given that this area was designated a place for graduate students and their families to live inexpensively while attending the UI, how will the university ensure that those individuals will stay be able to afford to live there?

Mason: Well we’re working with a private contractor on these apartments, and obviously, they’ll be priced competitively. It’s not something we will have a great deal of say over, although we were very adamant about the need to provide affordable housing for our students and graduate students in particular, so we’ll see how this plays out.

There’s inexpensive housing, and then there’s housing that was the Hawkeye Court, which was substandard — it was not healthy, it was not good housing. We knew whatever was going to be built in its place would cost more. And we insisted that it at least be competitively priced with what goes on across Iowa City. Like I said, we’ll just have to wait and see how all of this plays out in the end.  I don’t think we ever suggested that it would be the same price or anything even close to that, because that just wasn’t realistic.

DI: Many officials from the UI and city are expressing confidence that despite the current 21-ordinance headed for a vote in November, it will not be voted down. If however, the ordinance was to be overturned, how would the UI go about turning back the clock to the way things were on campus and in downtown pre-2010? How are UI officials preparing for this possibility?  

Mason: You’re not asking the right person in this particular question, but I’ll be very clear about my priorities, and my priorities are continuing to look at the health and safety of our students. It was not a healthy situation nor was it a safe situation when 19- and 20-year-olds were allowed in the bars late at night and when lots of people would come to Iowa City on the weekends to take advantage of that. So obviously, we hope that this won’t go backwards — backwards is really not a good direction, especially when we’re thinking about what’s in the best interest of our students.

DI: Since Oct. 1, the U.S. government has been partially shut down. By this Thursday, the United States is expected to reach the $17 trillion debt ceiling. In what ways are you concerned these two events could affect the UI, and its students, faculty, and staff? Do you foresee problems for the rest of the Iowa City area? Have veteran-students been affected, and in what ways is the UI reaching out to help them?

Mason: The veterans in particular are one group of students that we are concerned about. We’ve made certain that we have no-interest loans available, should their benefits continue to be held by the federal government during the shutdown. This is certainly a group of students that we have great concerns about when it comes to making certain that they stay enrolled in school and that they stay on track in school as well. And the other thing that’s going on is we do — in our research office, somewhere around the order of nine to 10 research proposals per day, maybe $2 million a day is the figures I’ve seen recently. And what’s happening is those are just piling up in the research office — normally those would get shipped off to Washington, D.C., but because there’s no one working in Washington, D.C., in the federal agencies at this point in time, they’re simply sitting here as a backlog waiting for the government to reopen so that we can submit. It’s going to take some time obviously to process those applications once the government is up and running again, so it’s likely going to impede progress on research at the university. None of this is good. Gridlock is never good. It’s not good for the university, it’s not good for the country, it’s certainly not good for the citizens of the state of Iowa or anyone else for that matter. It’s a very unfortunate situation.

Faculty are the ones that are submitting the research proposals — so it’s affecting their research. And for veteran-students, if their benefits aren’t coming, in other words if the money they need to go to school isn’t being sent to them, we’re putting in place no-interest loans for them. So we can protect them, at least for a while, against any of the vagaries of this shutdown, but this affects everybody. In the end, it really does affect the entire country, and certainly if we were going to default on the loans that this country has, that would send a very bad message worldwide.

DI: By the year 2020, the UI has committed to becoming a 60 percent sustainable campus. What efforts have been made recently toward this goal? What would you say are some of the biggest accomplishments and what are some of the biggest hurdles not yet overcome?

Mason: We make what I call constant and persistent progress on sustainability on campus. Everything from looking at our Power Plant and using more bio-renewables in the Power Plant to generate power for the campus to all of the building and renovations that were doing just all done to very high and sustainable standards — those are some of the big things. Those are some of the things that we can point to and say, “Look, we have our first LEED platinum academic building on campus, College of Public Health.’ The new buildings that are going up for our students and our faculty in music and in art are going to be very efficient buildings. The reason we need a new pharmacy building for our students and our faculty again so they can do the kinds of research and have the kinds of world-class instruction and be the best pharmacist possible again all comes down to “let’s make this a much more sustainable structure so that it doesn’t cost the university, taxpayers, and others more money to run these buildings, in fact over the long haul it costs less.” So sustainability and efficiency, these things go hand in hand on our campus — I’m very proud of the many sustainable initiatives that we have on campus, everything from curriculum for the students to running the Power Plant more efficiently. We have plenty of progress to make.

DI: Last week, the UI Faculty Council debated where electronic cigarettes fit into the UI smoke-free campus policy. What is you take on this debate? Do you think the university should allow for the use of these devices that do not emit actual smoke? As the popularity of these devices increase, are you concerned about the health of the UI community?

Mason: For me in the end — and I’m the last step in this process, OK, it’s a process. Process is really important because what we need is input, and what I need is input from people who have information, who have done research, who understand the issues and then can present them to me. We’re a long way from that point, at least at this stage in the process. I think the debates and the conversations are just beginning, the information is just beginning to flow in, and at some point in time, when we get down closer to the end of the process, when it’s my turn to weigh in and decide whether or not it makes sense, whatever the recommendation might be, whether it makes sense for our campus, I’ll have enough information to be able to make an informed decision. I’m not there yet, so we’ve got a ways to go. We’ll see.

DI: Last week, the UI Faculty Council also discussed recent national court cases concerning faculty members’ rights to criticize the institution they work for. How do you think the UI should address this issue? Do you encourage criticism and feedback from faculty members? Why or why not?

Mason: Well, let’s start with the big issue which is a legal issue — we follow the law. So whatever case law tells us is obviously where we’re going to be. I’m a big believer in free speech; I think people should have the opportunity to speak out on important issues, and if it agrees or disagrees with positions that perhaps the university holds, then where else but a university should you have these kinds of conversations? So in many instances, I think there’s room for productive discussion of all issues and the debate on both sides of the issues. The court cases — I think we have to look at those just like the Faculty Senate was doing, and we have to be at least aware of what the perils might be if you step over the line, perhaps in one direction or the other and go too far or perhaps not far enough, I think we have to know what the parameters are and at least act within the law. I think it’s something we’ll learn about over time; it’s like anytime you’re building case law on particular issues, you look at particular instances because you look at examples, you make your decisions based on examples, and the courts make their decisions based on those same kinds of examples and how they’re argued to the courts. So being aware of what’s current and what the issues might be going forward is probably the most important thing at this point in time, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

DI: Late last week, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released report cards, grading U.S. colleges and universities on their vegan availability in dining halls. Citing one vegan entrée served at every meal and labeled vegan items, the UI only received a C grade. Do you think this grade accurately reflects how the UI attempts to accommodate vegan students? What would you like to see done to improve the UI’s reputation for the vegan community?

Mason: Students haven’t come to me in particular, perhaps they’ve come to Tom Rocklin with this issue, you might want to ask him whether this is an issue for our students. We’re always happy to listen to students if they have concerns. And if there is something that we’re doing or we’re not doing that they’d like to have us do — I’ll use the Learning Commons as a great example in our Main Library; when we asked the students what do they wanted in the Main Library, they told us, and we built it. And it’s being, I think, wonderfully received and heavily used as a result — so if this is an issue to the students, I think bringing it to Vice President Rocklin would make a lot of sense.

DI: Over the course of the past several years, the percentage of international students has increased in regards to the UI’s enrollment. How successful do you think that the UI — student organizations, faculty, etc. — has been in addressing the needs of this growing student demographic? What more can be done to ensure that these individuals are included in campus life?

Mason: I think we have a lot to learn. I think we’re learning all the time, but I think there’s plenty more to learn from our international colleagues. It’s great having the diversity that they bring to our campus and our community, but as with all things that bring change, and this, of course, brings change, there are many things that we need to learn and there are many ways in which we need to help our international colleagues be as productive as they possibly can here. It’s a learning experience for all of us — I think it’s a good one.

If you really want details on some of these, I’d go for example to the Tippie College of Business, because I know that they’re looking at a variety of programs and a variety of workshops and conversations on the different cultures now that are a part of the Tippie College of Business because they have a large number of international students over there. And to their credit, I think they really embraced the fact that internationalization, especially in the business world — its, no more obvious than it is in our very globalized business world. So not surprisingly a lot of our international students want to get degrees in finance or business or accounting or economics or whatever it might be — they’ve really dealt with it, I think, in a very proactive, up front kind of way having lots of cultures, lots of people from different cultures, how has that impacted just the daily lives of the faculty, staff, and students, I think that would be a great opportunity to get more details of exactly what’s happening here. We all see it — I mean you can’t walk around campus and not notice that it’s a very different place than it was four or five years ago, and I think it’s exciting. There’s a lot of liveliness to it with the different cultures and groups being represented on campus now that makes this an even more exciting place to be.

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