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End of an era

BY BENJAMIN MARKS | JULY 30, 2015 5:00 AM

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For University of Iowa President Sally Mason, it has been a long eight years.

She faced both rising floodwaters and party-school rankings. The entire country wanted to talk about sexual assault, and frustration manifested on the UI campus. Controversies came and went. But Friday will be her last day at the UI.

Mason began as president eight years ago, taking over from former UI President David Skorton, who had taken the top post at Cornell University. He recently began a new position as the head of the Smithsonian.

In January, Mason announced she would officially retire from the university on Saturday.

“After eight years at this wonderful institution and with my 65th birthday approaching, I feel that 2015 is the right time, both personally and professionally, to retire,” she said in the announcement to faculty, staff, and students in January.

From the floods of 2008 to sexual assault to sustainability to fundraising, many agree Mason’s time at the UI has been marked by many different events, both lauded and controversial.

Mason: The Rebuilder

Perhaps the most notable even to occur during Mason’s time was in June 2008, less than a year after she took office. The flood, which rose to record heights, damaged large swaths of the Iowa City area, forced 20 university buildings to close, and caused more than $1 billion in estimated damage to the university.

The floods have left their mark on almost every aspect of Mason’s time here, from the demolition and reconstruction of dozens of new facilities to record-breaking fundraising.

“After the floods hit in June [the UI] actually opened up the next fall, which is amazing,” Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said. “It was quite a triumph of will by the university and everyone around here.”

Many, including Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, said the flood and its aftermath was the defining moment of her time in office.

“The 2008 floods and the incredible amount of work that had to occur as a result of the floods is certainly a hallmark of her presidency,” Hayek said. “Coordinating temporary spaces and making major decisions about facilities and trying to secure as much funding as possible to flood-proof the university and rebuild.”

Former UI President Willard “Sandy” Boyd also commended Mason’s attitude after the floods.

“She responded positively to the flood, which was obviously devastating, but her sprit never was dampened, and look where we are today,” he said.

For Executive Vice President and Provost Barry Butler, however, Mason’s legacy goes beyond just rebuilding.

“This was more than erecting buildings,” he said. “It was maintaining a forward-looking vision for the institution while dealing with a major disaster.”

Mason: The Fundraiser

At the same time she was dealing with the damage left by the receding water, Mason faced another challenge: obtaining enough funds to replace the estimated $1 billion the flood cost the university.

“The flood was unique; there has never been anything like that before,” Boyd said. “It was a devastating period and then frustrating trying to get the money to go forward.”

Shortly after the floods, Mason faced what Dvorsky called a “triple threat” from the floods, a shortage of funding, and a lack of regent support.

“The floods came and devastated a lot of buildings on the UI campus, and that’s when support in Des Moines started to erode as far as funding,” he said.

Hayek agreed.

“[It was] difficult times in terms of changes and priorities of the regents, the attitudes of the Legislature and governor toward higher education,” he said. “I think she operated within a difficult environment … Those were and are tough waters to navigate.”

Nevertheless, Dvorsky said she persisted, and incoming Interim UI President Jean Robillard said fundraising will always be a part of her legacy.

“I think Sally was spending a tremendous amount of time fundraising and was very successful at it,” he said. “And I think if we look at her legacy 10 years from now, she will have set up the university ready to reach new heights.”

In June 2010, officials announced the UI had raised a record of $466 million of outside funding for research, a 9 percent increase over the previous year, and in January, Mason announced the university had raised more than $1.4 billion of its $1.7 billion campaign, which is scheduled to end this December.

“Fundraising is bringing scholarships for students, is helping programs to grow, is helping us to recruit faculty,” incoming interim President Jean Robillard said. “And if you look at all that, she really set herself apart, especially with the floods, and used it to make the university ready for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Mason: The controversial leader

Over Mason’s tenure there have been several controversies surrounding sexual assault at the university.

The first in a string of incidences came in August 2008 after then UI political-science Professor Arthur Miller was charged with soliciting sexual favors from female students in exchange for better grades. Shortly after the allegations arose, Miller killed himself in Hickory Hill Park.

After the incident, Mason declared that all staff and faculty at the university would undergo mandatory sexual-assault training, and she hired Monique Di Carlo as the UI’s first sexual-misconduct-response coordinator.

Months later, however, another professor, Mark Weiger, was accused of sexual harassment of a female graduate student. Shortly after the suit was filed, Weiger, too, killed himself.

Weiger’s case was settled in January 2010 for $130,000, and Miller’s case was settled in 2012, also for $130,000.

Shortly after these incidents, the regents hired Stolar, a St. Louis-based law firm, to investigate a sexual-assault case involving two then-Iowa football players.

After the investigation concluded the UI did mishandle the case, Mason fired two university officials for their involvement, General Counsel Marcus Mills and Vice President for Student Services Phillip Jones.

A few years later, Peter Gray, an Athletics Department staffer, resigned in 2012 after a UI investigation reportedly found he violated university sexual-harassment policy. More controversy ensued, but this time, Mason was the target.

In a monthly Q&A session with the Daily Iowan, she discussed sexual assault on campus and said ending the issue was “probably not realistic given just given human nature.” This comment set off protests and anger in the community. Students and others protested on the Pentacrest and at an open forum, berating the UI for its policies and lack thereof.

From this, the six-point plan was born. It included additional funding for Nite Ride, an updated warning system, and policies to crack down on offenders. Mason later apologized during the forum, sharing a story about being groped by a young man when she was an undergraduate student.

Throughout other parts of her presidency, Mason continued to spark some controversy, from ire about the $54,175 salary her husband dew for attending fundraisers to accusations of secrecy and lack of communication in UI administration, which some connected back to the air of secrecy surrounding the 2006 presidential search.

In 2006, all candidates in the search were kept secret. After the regents rejected the four finalists, they were forced to start over, this time selecting David Johnsen, the dean of the UI College of Dentistry, to lead the search. The regents eventually selected Mason.

Dvorsky drew parallels between the 2006 searches and the one currently underway.

“I have a lot of faith in Dr. Robillard,” he said. “Like Dean Johnsen, he’s a qualified person and very even-handed, and they’ll have a really good search this time.”

Other highlights of Mason’s time include being named in 2011 the vice chairwoman of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors, which guides the governing policies for the conference, as well as pursuing the sustainability goal of having 40 percent of the UI’s energy come from renewable resources by 2020.

Another large victory came for Mason in 2010 with the passing of the 21-ordinance in Iowa City.

Previously, Hayek said, the university had taken a fairly neutral position on the issue. However, he said, in 2010 there was a “tipping point” in which the city was increasingly tired of dedicating resources to downtown, and the UI was frustrated at its reputation as a party school.

When the time came to defend the ordinance in a November vote, Hayek said Mason’s endorsement and support was vital.

In addition, he said, the city and university have been fast partners with a good working relationship on a number of other issues such as economic development, neighborhood concerns, and student housing.

“It’s incredibly important to the university and city to maintain that level of collaboration,” he said.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a university that winds its way through the community like the University of Iowa does. You could be standing on various locations, and not know for sure whether you’re on university ground or not.”

Beyond

While the flood might always be Mason’s legacy, for many others it’s her much less-lauded accomplishments that they value.

Former Regent Hannah Walsh said while the flood and fundraising will always be tied to Mason’s name, the thing she values most is the Student Success Team, which Mason started in 2008, as well as the Presidential Leadership Class which Walsh said helped her grow as a professional.

“I think in a lot of ways she’s become a maternal role model for me,” she said. “Being a woman, and especially in the state of Iowa, being in power and being in a position where you’re making really difficult decisions, I got to see that firsthand with her.”

Walsh said she believes Mason opened up opportunities not only to her but to other young women as well.

And you could argue that, for a time, she was among the most powerful women in the state. She was the second female president in UI history — Mary Sue Coleman was the first. At regents’ meetings, she could be found sitting at a table flanked by other UI administration — the only female president of the three public institutions.

“I think she really paved the way for young women to step up to leadership roles,” Walsh said.

But Mason’s only returning her nameplate, metaphorically. She will receive 60 percent of her current $525,828 salary, or nearly $315,500, during her transition year. She will also retain tenure as a professor and have full office and secretarial support. Her ongoing deferred compensation plan will be in effect as well, paying out $625,000 after June 2016.

For most people, Fridays are just another end to a long week, a time to relax and unwind after work. For Mason, however, this Friday will mark the end of a very long workweek indeed — 2,922 days long to be precise.


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