Mason looks back and ahead

BY DI STAFF | APRIL 28, 2015 5:00 AM

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President Sally Mason: Well, let me start with a couple of things I’d like to share with the [DI], because we are getting down to my last days here as president, and one of the things that was made abundantly clear to me last week as I was sitting in the Board of Regents’ meeting and reflecting on some of the comments that were being made, and I thought some of the comments were really, really quite appropriate. What’s important to this university? What makes this university great? What is it that you all benefit from as students the most, and that’s really the people. It’s the people and the programs here.

Last week our shared governance groups, our Staff Council President Chuck Wieland and the Faculty Senate Vice President Christina Bohannan, got a chance to make some comments, and they were asked to comment on salary policy. What they were really commenting on is what’s important at the University of Iowa, and as I reflect on my eight years here, I have to agree with the comments that were made. The people and the quality of the programs here are what make this institution great.

Christina Bohannan probably said it as well as anyone could that what the faculty really care about here are the students and the programs, the great quality programs that are here. You heard it across the board. We also had the opportunity to honor three regents, Bob Downer, Ruth Harkin, who had served 10 years, Bob had served 12 years as a regent. Those are long terms; those are really significant service commitments that citizens of Iowa make to higher education, and those two certainly did an outstanding job.

But I also want to mention Hannah Walsh because Hannah is our student, she’s going to graduate this spring, and she served as our student regent. I’ve seen three student regents since I’ve been president, and I have to commend Hannah for really working hard as a regent, doing her homework, really understanding what higher education is all about and what it means to be a regent and what it means to be in a leadership position and what it means to represent students not just at this institution but students all across the state and public higher education.

And then, if I think about the great programs that are here, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know so many incredible people, whether they be faculty, students, staff, alumni, supporters of the university, people who care about the university because of the things that go on here. It’s been phenomenal, whether it was my opportunities to interact with incredible researchers like Ed Stone and Bud Tucker in the Vision Research Institute here.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to interact with these individuals, but they’re doing cutting-edge science that really is putting us on the verge of making the incredible breakthroughs, especially in eye medicine, so blinding eye diseases, the fact that they have been able to help so many people who suffer from eye diseases that in the past we just assumed would lead to blindness and no other outcome, and today they can say with confidence that we are getting closer minute by minute to cures for some of these terrible diseases that lead to blindness.

That is one example. I had the opportunity, and this started eight years ago when we had the flood, of getting to know people such as Larry Weber and Witold Krajewski. These are people associated with our Flood Center. While we had a lot of great hydrologists and people who are well-known in the field of hydrology and water science, the flood really allowed them to focus their attention on things that are really important here in Iowa, such as flooding. We’ve had three major floods since I’ve been president. I’m starting to feel like the flood president. I’m starting to feel like the one thing I know the most about is floods and flooding.

But I’ve also been privileged to have experts around me who have been through each one of these and have learned more each time we’ve been through an experience like that has helped not just us here in Iowa City but all across the state, all across the country, and even all around the world. That kind of research is kind of incredible, and those are very practical kinds of research. If we take it to a different level, we look at what our artists, and our musicians, and our writers are doing.

Marilynne Robinson, a great example of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is on our faculty who just continues. I think she has completed two or three books since I’ve been president, and each of those books has won major prizes — not surprisingly. She just continues to do her work really well, continues to teach students well, and continues to be a part of the Writers’ Workshop.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet former members of the Writers’ Workshop, people like, this is a name some of you might know, Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that name, they created a TV show that’s in syndication right now, “Blue Bloods,” if you’ve ever seen the show with Tom Selleck in it. This is their creation, and it’s been in syndication for a couple of years, and Mitch and Robin were the creators of that, but they’ve also worked on such shows as “Northern Exposure” and “The Sopranos,” so that kind of fame of Iowa people is just incredible.

So when I say this is really all about the people, I’ve mentioned some incredible faculty and alumni leaders, but even our student leaders, I’ve had the privilege over the last eight years to work with some incredible students on this campus. Whether it’s DI students, which I get to see every month. Whether it’s the leadership class that I’ve taught for the last seven years, whether it’s the students who participate in student government whom I get to interact with a lot as well, you guys are amazing, and you’re going to go on to do amazing things. Once you’ve obtained that undergraduate degree, you can go anywhere and do anything.

I’ve seen some of our students go off to places — in fact, the very first student I met, University of Iowa student, a young man by the name of Barrett Anderson, who was the student-body president when I was selected to be the president here. Barrett subsequently went on to Yale Law School, graduated, clerked with a major judge in Virginia, and is a practicing lawyer in D.C. right now, just doing amazing things and not unusual for University of Iowa graduates. They’re everywhere and doing great things.

So that’s my piece; it’s about the quality of programs. I’m very proud and pleased to have been president while we were rebuilding the campus from the flood, because I do think its changing the face of this campus pretty significantly and changing the face of Iowa City and reflecting on that is a pretty significant thing as well. All those new buildings — wow.

DI: In the recent UISG elections, both parties had a platform on making Nite Ride more accessible for both men and women. As the leader of the university, what would you say to that proposal and how feasible is something like that?

Mason: The limiting factor always tends to be resources and if we can expand Nite Ride to accommodate many more students, many more people. I don’t have a strong opinion whether it should just be women or should include all of them. I think the students should help us decide what the right mix is there, so going forward, I think we should listen to the student voices and see what we can do to make it happen.

DI: Dave Visin [interim assistant vice president for the UI police] had said there was a significant risk in dropping off both male and females at the same stop, opening up a possibility for a male passenger who wants to do harm to a female passenger at her residence. Do you think that’s a reason enough to not discuss opening Nite Ride to both males and females, and what recommendations would you make to the interim president on that?

Mason: I’d say keep the conversation open, sit and listen to all parties. Dave Visin’s voice is an important one, but so are student voices, so I think it is important that we listen to everybody on this one before a decision is made. I think it is going to take some more conversation to get to a good decision.

DI: You mentioned you were retiring to Hilton Head, South Carolina. How will that fall in line with your position as president emeritus and all to the agreements that were signed off on last January with the regents?

Mason: It’s all consistent. We only own one house, and it just happens to be there. I have a year where I’ll continue to do many things for the university and enjoy it, and then years beyond that, I’ll continue to do many things for the university, too. I can do them from lots of different places.

DI: What are your final goals and priorities in before the end of the year?

Mason: Well I’ve talked a lot about my goals and priorities. The comprehensive fundraising campaign that we have underway right now has certainly been one of those big priorities. That’s why I’ve been spending a lot of time with our alumni donors. We have our [UI] Foundation board meeting coming up this week and major opportunities for me to be with donors and alumni this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to that. It will be my last time to be with them collectively, so a big celebration coming up this Friday and this weekend. Making certain we hit our enrollment goals, and right now we seem to be running ahead of those.

We’re well ahead of the goal we had set. We set a goal for approximately 440 more students, and I think we’re going to be well ahead of that next fall. I feel good where we are on the enrollment side of things and on the efficiencies, making sure we stay on track with the TIER project the regents have put in place. We seem to be running well on course with that, too. So in terms of the priorities that I have for the last few months we’re right there, it’s all clicking.

DI: At her last regents’ meeting in Council Bluffs [April 23], Regent Hannah Walsh mentioned she had regretted voting for the performance-based funding plan. What your thoughts were on those final words as her term came to an end?

Mason: I thought Regent Walsh was very, very thoughtful in terms of the comments she made. I have a lot of respect for the work that she has done as a regent and ways she’s gone about her responsibilities as a regent.

DI: From the announcement of the AIB proposal until today, some things have kind of changed, so where do you see that going, and how does that change the university’s goals with the AIB campus?

Mason: Once the accrediting bodies got involved in this it got a little more complicated, I think both [AIB President] Nancy Williams and I envisioned a much smoother transition and the accrediting agency really doesn’t leave room for that kind of transition, unfortunately.

So as they phase out and begin to close down operations at AIB, we’ll be able to do our planning and what we need to do in terms of building programs there and doing there what we think is the appropriate thing to do in Des Moines. So I don’t necessarily see the ultimate goal changing, the timetable changes a little bit, and the smooth transition is not where I would have planned for or hoped for, but it wasn’t entirely in our hands either, unfortunately. So it’ll probably take a little bit longer, but I don’t see the ultimate goal of us being in Des Moines offering a whole variety of programs changing significantly at all.

DI: So do you know how long that timeline could change after the closing of AIB?

Mason: It really depends now on just making certain that programs we already have in Des Moines continue to grow — which they will — and new programs that we have planned for Des Moines get put in place in a timely fashion, and they will. So it’s just — I envisioned an opportunity for say a year where we’re working together jointly and we have to wait until AIB is done before we can get in there, so it’s about a year’s delay, that’s all.

DI: And with the students there, if the university has to wait until AIB closes and then the university moves in, what kind of spot does that put AIB students who might wish to transfer to the university?

Mason: That can still happen, easily. That can happen, in much the same way that we planned. It’s a process that is more step-wise rather than gradual than we would have enjoyed. A gradual transition where we know that we could phase students into our programs along the way rather than having to wait for AIB to complete its process would have been a lot easier. It’s still going to be very possible for students to transfer to the University of Iowa. In fact, many of them are right now to other options in the state as well if the University of Iowa doesn’t have what they’re looking for or need.

DI: Have the other two regent universities been involved with the planning process so far?

Mason: There have certainly been some discussions. 

DI: So last week, there was the adjunct faculty protest/demonstration for higher pay. Did you have any comments regarding that?

Mason: I’m certainly listening and sympathetic to the issues that they raise.

DI: A lot of the major construction projects on campus — the music building, the IMU, etc. — are coming to a close. All of these new projects, what mark are they leaving on campus?

Mason: I did mention it was a big part of my leaving and feeling good about how the university is going to be able to move forward. Full flood recovery was always a priority. At this point with the IMU about to fully reopen … I hope that’s exciting. For me, that’s exciting because it marks the end of a very trying time where almost  $1 billion worth of damage was done on this campus.

Now we can say we see the end in sight in terms of all of the recovery projects that have ben underway for quite awhile, virtually since I’ve been president. It’s nice to see those coming to a close, and it’s great to see the campus looking healthy and the town around it looking healthy, too. It’s a good thing.

DI: The Black Student Advisory Committee had its first meeting last week. What goals do you have for that committee, and what would you like to see accomplished by them in the future?

Mason: I met with it a little while ago, and we talked generally about setting goals and the importance of, as we go through a transition, the importance of working with a new president, and I gave them some tips and advice on how I thought that should happen and the ways in which they should think about reaching out to the African-American community on campus and listening to the voices and what is going on out there before we set a firm agenda going forward.

I think it is important that we hear from all sectors. A committee is great, but a committee works well when that committee is representative of the sentiment and the ideas and thoughts of the larger group that is out there. So that was a big part of our, at least, first conversation. They take that seriously, they’ve taken it seriously, and they’re clearly setting up ways in which they can have forums and do some serious listening to what is happening on campus and get some thoughts and ideas about how to move forward in the future too.

Unfortunately, I won’t be here in the future to help with that. I do want them positioned well so that when a new president comes on board, they can immediately start to have meaningful conversations with that individual and make good progress.

DI: Are there any future plans to open up advisory committees for other minorities and other underrepresented people?

Mason: In my last two months, I have to say, not on my agenda at this point in time. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. There are certainly a lot of voices on campus that want and need to be heard and deserve to be heard. And we have shared governance, and I’d have to say that I have opportunities once a month with our shared student governance to hear from a variety of different voices and groups, and that’s always been very useful.

It always has been very useful, and I hope the traditions of shared governance on this campus continue on into the future, because it’s a very valuable way to hear and understand the issues that are percolating on our campus, whether it’s from our students or our staff or our faculty.

DI: To ask a final abstract question, where would you like the campus to go as the UI transitions to a new president?

Mason: Well, you know the campus is poised for growth, and the number of students as it grows, it’s obviously going to increase. The diversity of those students is going to increase. I think the next thing that has to happen is the faculty needs to grow right along with it. If we have more students, we’re going to need to be absolutely certain to maintain the quality of the programs on this campus, that we have more faculty right along to go with it.

So that’s the next step for the future — to take a serious look at where the students who are coming to campus, where are their interests, and where do we need to make additions to make sure that our programs and our faculty remain very strong.

DI: Thank you very much.

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