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Mason discusses challenges

BY CHRIS HIGGINS | JANUARY 23, 2015 5:00 AM

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As University of Iowa President Sally Mason transitions to retirement, several challenges and crises during her tenure have resurfaced in media, meetings, and her reflection on her time here.

“These jobs are always filled with challenges,” Mason said in an interview with The Daily Iowan last week. “I think we faced all of those in a good way.”

Over the last week and a half, three major issues in particular came up: the 2008 flood, the recession, and communication problems with the state Board of Regents.

Mason has been lauded for her responses to the first two, while the latter came to light after a controversial comment she made last year.

“It’s a complicated institution, and there are always challenges surrounding it,” said Regent President Bruce Rastetter during a Tuesday meeting. “One of the appreciations [Regent President Pro Tem] Katie [Mulholland] and I have is that the communication has gotten better with President Mason.”

The three have conducted monthly meetings over the last year.

Eileen Wixted, the founder of strategic communication and crisis management firm Wixted & Co., which has done some limited work for the UI but not for Mason, was asked, hypothetically, what she would want to see in a university president responding to crises.

“Strong leaders recognize that operational decisions lead their communication strategy,” she said. “Leaders today must first think through business decisions they will make. They will then determine their communication approach and strategy.”

Wixted emphasized the importance of good communication but said good business and operational decisions take precedence.

She said in today’s “hyperconnected age,” the community expects communication “to come early, often, and well on all issues, and that is not realistic.”

In February 2014, Mason told the DI ending sexual assault entirely was “probably not a realistic goal, just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it …”

Many in the UI community reacted viscerally to the comment and responded with protests, a flood of letters to the DI, a speech interruption, a website called “NotInMyNature.com,” and social-media activism.

Mason was called to a special meeting with the regents regarding the comment, and communication issues going back years were discussed under the watch of reporters.

Regents said they did not think Mason kept them properly informed of what was going on, even though she had differing views of what transpired.

Mason apologized for the comment and implemented a “six-point plan” to combat the issue of sexual assault on campus.

“Watching the campus come together on this issue is very gratifying,” she said last week. “I’m sorry it took a stupid comment that I made to precipitate this, but I’m very pleased at how the campus has responded.”

Mason has been criticized for her administration’s response to a student rape case in 2007 and an employee sexual-harassment case in 2012 as well.

At a Tuesday meeting to discuss Mason’s retirement, all eight regents who were present showered Mason with praise during an open session following a private session to discuss her performance.

“[Mason] has responded to many changing circumstances beyond her control,” Regent Ruth Harkin said. “And throughout has been honest with [the regents] and has been very, very ethical.”

In particular, they positively noted her response to the devastating 2008 flood and the recession, which gutted finances after legislative funding for the three state universities dropped nearly 13 percent from 2009 to 2012.

“I’m sure they’re going to look around and see all these buildings and construction, and it will be undeniable that it happened on my watch,” she said last week.


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