Q&A: Mason talks Pharmacy building, campus construction and Dance Marathon

BY DI STAFF | JANUARY 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Mason to discuss the tuition freeze, Gateway project, and Dance Marathon.

The Daily Iowan: As the Legislature opens session this month, a tuition freeze for regent universities has again been a discussion for lawmakers. What kind of work have University of Iowa officials been doing to continue this freeze?

President Sally Mason: Well, we’re obviously going to keep working with legislators throughout the whole session to make sure that they understand the importance of the tuition freeze. The governor kindly included it in his budget, so we were thrilled obviously to see that the 4 percent [increase in general operating appropriations for universities] was there, [along with] the recommendation that would allow us to freeze tuition.

I think it’s great for our students if we could do this two years in a row. It would make history, which is exciting.

It’s been a priority of mine to keep costs down for college education as low as we possibly can, so freezing resident tuition is something that I advocated for last year and this year, and I was really pleased when the Board of Regents took it up, and I was very please obviously when the Legislature took it up last year. My meetings thus far with legislators has been very positive on the notion of a tuition freeze, so we’ll see where it ends up. Hopefully.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed. Our students have been great, by the way. I want to say, in particular, that the student response to this and the students writing thank-you notes to legislators, and going to the Statehouse, and expressing how important this is to them and their families has been very helpful as well. So I hope the student support stays strong as well.

DI: The University of Iowa launched its redesigned website this past month. Why did the university choose to streamline its online presence?

Mason: It’s one of these things that you should always look at your website and see if it’s doing what you expect it to do and if it’s effective. I’m not the best person to look at a website and decide what’s effective. I think our young people who visit our website regularly are the ones who are best equipped to let us know whether it’s good or not. We know that over time, especially with students, the interest in websites changes: what they look at, what they do, the kind of information they provide, and it’s not just for students and their families, it’s for other people as well.

We wanted to make sure we had a website that is appealing and was useful — so, I think it was time. It had been six or seven years since we overhauled the website. It was time and, thus far, I’m still waiting to see what people think. Students’ ways of viewing website have changed over the years, and we just want to make sure that we’re connecting with all the right groups and making sure that it’s user-friendly.

DI: Gov. Branstad allocated $2 million for the planning of a new College of Pharmacy building in his budget after vetoing the project last year. Long-term, what else do you need from the state and the state Board of Regents to make this project possible? Is there a timeline in the works for a new pharmacy building?

Mason: Obviously, it needs legislative approval, but we actually had that last year. The last step was really making sure that the governor understood the importance of the project and was on board with that.

Clearly, he’s there now, so we’re feeling pretty good that this project is on track for success in the Legislature this year, but until they’re done and until the recommendations are signed off by the governor, nothing is for certain.

So we just keep emphasizing the importance of the project. I’m not sure I have all the exact information on the timeline, but we’re in planning. We started planning this year. We’ll continue planning probably for the next nine months or so, and then, obviously, the next thing is construction. Constructions going to be complicated because it involves building a new building but also tearing down part of the old building, so much like we’re doing across the river. If you noticed, Hancher Auditorium is totally gone now, and new Hancher is coming along nicely.

They’ll be something like that for the Pharmacy Building, where we start phases of the construction where we start building the new building and start tearing down the old building. Obviously, we can’t tear down the old building until we’ve got a place to put people, so that’s going to be a little different from some of the flood projects we have underway with buildings that have been abandoned for five years. They’re going to stay in the old building until we can move them into the new building, and then we will start the teardown process. I’m sure that Dean Letendre would be happy to speak at length about plans for this project.

DI: Last week, Purdue University had a gunman on its campus, and one student was killed. Now that this violence has entered Big Ten, what initiatives is the university doing to maintain campus safety?

Mason: Well you know we have a history here, so it’s not like this is new to the Big Ten. In fact, I think we were the first university in the Big Ten to experience a shooting on campus, back in 1991. We’ve been acutely aware of these issues for a long, long time.

It’s always a sobering moment to say the least when something like that happens. Having been at Purdue — I spent six years at Purdue as the provost. This would have been an issue I was dealing front and center with if I were still there, so my heart went out, obviously, immediately to the people who are dealing with this and certainly the individual who was killed in this incident and the young man who was arrested as a result of having committed a murder, basically,

Student safety and welfare is always front and center on every campus. I’ve never been on a campus where that wasn’t the case. It’s clearly the case here. That doesn’t mean that you can always prevent or even predict when these kinds of things are going to happen, but it is about response.

In this particular case, it sounds like the response was appropriate. It was rapid. There was no further damage that was done as a result of this particular incident. It doesn’t make it any easier for anyone who was there and experienced it. I’m sure the campus is trying to recover emotionally and mentally from what happened last week.

These are tough situations every time they occur. No school is immune from it. I wish I could say there were places in which you didn’t have to worry about this, but I’m afraid that’s not true. We always have to be vigilant. We always have to be prepared.

DI: Last week, a group of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics doctors paid $150,000 to settle a medical malpractice lawsuit to the estate of David Baldus, a former UI law professor. How does the hospital respond to these suits? How does the university respond to a case where the plaintiff is a cherished UI professor?

Mason: I think you’d have to ask them. These are not issues I typically am involved in. I don’t have much to say. It was litigation, and it was settled. Pretty much, it’s over. I’ll tell you the loss of a professor is always a sad day. He was a very esteemed professor in our law school, and my heart goes out to his family, but beyond that, in terms of the litigation, that’s not generally something I’m personally involved in unless I’m personally named in the suit, so I don’t have much information that I could share.

DI: Last week, the Iowa City City Council voted on designs for the Gateway Project and it is set to go ahead after lengthy delays. The project consists of raising Dubuque Street to the height of 100-year plus 1 foot and redesigns the Park Bridge to 200 plus 1 foot. How will the city’s plans affect the university?

Mason: That one I’m very much interested in.

Thank goodness. We need to do that. Obviously, it has a huge effect on the Mayflower in particular. It will also have a huge impact on access to campus and Park Road bridge. Having been here through the flood and watching water go over the Park Road Bridge and watching tons and tons of debris back up against Park Road bridge and knowing if that bridge were to collapse, we would have been absolutely destroyed.

I don’t even think we’d be talking about how to come back from an event like that. It’s just too devastating to think about. So, the sooner we get on with this project and get it done, the better off we’re all going to be: the better off the city’s going to be, and certainly the better off the university’s going to be. I’m glad to hear that it’s moving along in the right direction.

DI: How has Dance Marathon grown to become part of the University of Iowa culture?

Mason: It just is part of the culture. I remember seven years ago, when I arrived, and I was told about Dance Marathon and what the students were doing and why they were doing, and that was the first year that they were attempting to raise $1 million in a single year.

So, I was concerned, and I wanted to make sure that they hit that goal. Lynette Marshall, the president of the UI Foundation and I went to Dance Marathon that year, and we hung around toward the end to make sure that they were going to make the goal. I think I had my checkbook with me just in case. I was going to do whatever I could to push them over, but they did it without a lot of help from me or any one person.

It was a great group effort, as it always is. And since then every year, they’ve exceeded the $1 million mark. I think they’re likely on track to exceed to goal yet again this year. I’m excited. I’ll be there towards the end of Dance Marathon as I always am to be able to offer some words and encouragement and thank them for all the good that it does for kids and their families. These kids with cancer, the stories are just amazing, they really are. They tug at your heart. Sometimes they tear your heart apart because they don’t all end happy. Many of them do these days, and that’s a good thing. I applaud our students for the great work that they do in raising money for this really good cause.

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