Opportunities, Challenges Await New UI President

August 28, 2015

By Josh O’Leary at The Des Moines Register

When the new University of Iowa president sits down for his or her first briefing on campus, there will be no shortage of issues on which to be brought up to speed.

From a changing student population to potential funding cuts to controversy in the Athletics Department, the successor to Sally Mason will be charged with guiding the university through a pivotal moment in its history.

The new president also will inherit a number of once-in-a-generation opportunities. Seven years out from the flood of 2008, UI has navigated federal bureaucracy and local construction schedules to stand ready, within the year, to open a new School of Music, Art Building and Hancher Auditorium. Increased recruiting efforts have led to record numbers of incoming students, both from within the state and from around the world. And the UI Foundation is in the homestretch of its $1.7 billion fundraising campaign that is the largest in its history.

The two of four finalists candidates named so far include the sitting president of a college, Marvin Krislov of Oberlin College in Ohio, and the provost of a university with a top-tier, academic hospital and medical center, Michael Bernstein of Tulane University in Louisiana.

The names of the final two finalists will be announced separately Sunday and Monday, 24 hours before each arrives on campus to meet with various groups and participate in a public town hall meeting.

As the campus community comes out to meet the four finalists — and with the Iowa Board of Regents is scheduled to meet Thursday in Iowa City to announce UI’s 21st president — here’s a rundown of the most pressing issues that will be handed off to Mason’s successor at that initial briefing:

State funding: Mason’s final year at UI was marked largely by the debate over the Regents’ proposed overhaul of how the state distributes funding to its three universities.

The new Regents’ model would base 60 percent of a university’s funding level on the number of in-state students enrolled, meaning UI, which is made up of more out-of-state and international students than Iowa State and Northern Iowa, could stand to lose tens of millions in state dollars in future years unless it makes big changes.

In response, Mason said UI was up to the challenge of serving more Iowans, and the university vowed to increase its enrollment by 2,000 students over the next four years.

Critics, however, have said the new model would pit the public universities against each other in a competition for state money, and argue that the push for in-state students by UI will come at the expense of the Iowa’s private colleges.

Growing student population: The new president will enter at a time when UI plans to serve more students than ever before. UI has ramped up its in-state recruiting efforts this past year in response to the Board of Regents’ directive, and a record first-year class of more than 5,000 students is projected when enrollment figures are finalized in September. By comparison, last year’s freshman class was 4,666, with more than half coming from out of state.

UI’s total enrollment was 31,387 last fall, just shy of its record high of 31,498 in 2012. But with UI upping its admission rates for both in-state and out-of-state students, that number may will be eclipsed this semester.

Housing will be one of the key challenges with that growth. UI opened a new dormitory this fall — the 10-story, 501-bed Petersen Residence Hall on the west side of the river. But with Quadrangle Hall, which has 358 beds, scheduled to be demolished, the net gain won’t make a huge impact.

UI has begun construction on a 10-story dorm along Madison Street that would house 1,023 students and be the largest residence hall on campus when it opens for the 2017-18 academic year. UI also is planning a future west campus dorm, partly tailored to student-athletes, that would add 500 to 600 beds.

Athletics Department turmoil: It’s been a year since Athletics Director Gary Barta fired successful field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum after he said he received multiple accusations that the coach mistreated players — a decision Mason stood firmly behind.

The issue, however, is not going away. Griesbaum, who has alleged that a systematic gender bias exists within the Athletic Department, has filed a civil rights complaint with the state and is expected to file a lawsuit. And the firing has led to an outcry from the coach’s colleagues and former players, and has resulted in national scrutiny of the department.

Griesbaum’s partner, Jane Meyer, could also factor into the court battles ahead for UI. Meyer was a senior athletic department administrator before being reassigned to Facilities Management after Griesbaum’s firing, with UI citing pending litigation as the reason for the transfer. Four players from the 2014 team also have filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging gender bias by Barta.

Arts campus revival: The new UI president’s schedule in 2016 will be filled with a number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, most notably at the new Hancher Auditorium, School of Music and Art Building. After years of planning and construction, and the long-term displacement of students, performances and events, all three major projects are on track for completion next year. Their openings will represent a major rebuilding milestone after the devastating flood of 2008 wiped out much of the arts campus.

Additionally, planning is underway for the new UI Museum of Art, which will be built through a public-private partnership with local developers at a downtown Iowa City site. The project is still in the design stage, but UI is expected to present plans to the Regents early next year. The museum’s opening will give UI’s 14,000-piece art collection — which includes Jackson Pollock’s famed “Mural” — a permanent home for the first time since it was evacuated ahead of the 2008 flood.

Influx of international students: UI’s student population is an increasingly global one, with the number of international students more than doubling over the past 15 years. In 2000, there were 1,792 international students on campus; in 2014, there were 4,360, accounting for 11.1 percent of the undergraduate population.

UI has become a destination for thousands of Chinese students in recent years, and in 2014, students from China accounted for 60 percent of UI’s international students.

With that influx, however, has arisen challenges in assimilating Chinese students into campus life. A UI survey in 2013 found that international students feel significantly less respected and have less a sense of belonging than domestic students, including domestic minorities. And university leaders, in a 2014 report by the non-profit news organization Iowa Watch, acknowledged that while Chinese students are finding academic success, UI has work to do in regards to integrating international students.

Efficiency study: Even as the student body grows, the new president takes the reins at a time when the Regents are scrutinizing the operations of the three state universities to make them leaner and more efficient.

UI this year is moving forward with implementing plans for making key changes highlighted in the Regents’ 2014 efficiency study, specifically in information technology, finance and human resource services. University officials have said that any decrease in staffing would come through attrition or voluntary retirements.

Sex assaults: Though increased awareness plays into the numbers, reported sexual assaults are on the rise at UI, which, like universities nationally, has grappled with how to address the problem. UI police received 14 reports of sex assaults on campus in 2014, up from four reported incidents the previous year. And off campus, Iowa City Police received 80 reports of sex assaults last year, up from 55 the previous year.

Sex assaults proved to be a thorny issue for Mason, who in 2014 had to publicly apologize after the student newspaper quoted her as saying that ending sexual assaults entirely was “probably not a realistic goal just given human nature.” After protests against Mason and a public forum in which the president revealed she had been the victim of a groping incident while in college, she issued a six-point plan to address the problem.

With two sex assaults having already been reported to UI this month — one before the semester even began — the issue continues to be a critical one.

Hospital expansion: Big changes also are in the works on the medical campus, where construction continues to hum along on the 12-story, $292-million UI Children’s Hospital tower. The project is on track for completion in the late summer of 2016, coupled with the construction of a new $65 million parking garage.

And the hospital’s growth hasn’t just been on campus. UI in recent years opened an out-patient clinic on Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, where it owns land set aside for future expansion. It also is in talks with the city of Coralville about the possibility of partnering on a new sports medicine clinic that would be built alongside a new arena.

Meanwhile, UIHC has been working with a private developer on the construction of a new office facility in the Forevergreen Business Park, which is near the UI Research Park in northwest Coralville. The new offices will house up to 900 employees in an effort to free up space on its main health care campus to make room for continued growth in its clinical, research and education programs and services.

Free speech and campus inclusiveness: Race and First Amendment tensions reached a boiling point last year inside the president’s office, where students converged to protest a sculpture placed on the Pentacrest that depicted a Ku Klux Klansman plastered with Civil Rights-era newspapers.

While the sculpture’s artist said his intention was to raise awareness of the continuing existence of racist ideology, many black students and community members called the sculpture’s presence on campus traumatizing. UI eventually removed the sculpture, which had been placed without the university’s permission, and Mason issued an apology for the university’s delay in doing so.

The removal proved to be just as controversial as the sculpture’s message, however, with UI taking fire nationally for squelching free speech on campus. Earlier this year, a watchdog group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education named UI among nation’s “10 worst abusers of student and faculty free speech rights.”

Schools: University of Iowa