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A president's perspective
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Sally Mason joined the University of Iowa in 2007, becoming the university’s 20th president. She’s since focused on keeping undergraduate education affordable and of high quality and led the campus through unprecedented challenges. President Mason recently addressed questions about the university in 2012 and beyond.
What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for the university?
Flood recovery continues to be a huge challenge. A billion-dollar flood event is not to be underestimated by anyone, and I think we’ve done a remarkable job of putting in place things that needed to be in place temporarily. It has been gratifying this year to reopen Art Building West, to have the plans approved for the Iowa Memorial Union, and to see the designs for the new art building. Also, with construction beginning on the new children’s hospital and the movement of some of our ambulatory health care out to Coralville, the whole face of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics will start to change in dramatic ways over the next several years.
What university accomplishments from the past year are you most proud of?
There are probably too many to count—some of them are very small accomplishments, and some are much larger. Having plans approved by the Board of Regents for the buildings that were damaged beyond repair by the flood is huge. And the news on the fundraising front is spectacular: since Ken and I arrived at the University of Iowa, more than $850 million in private funding has been raised. We’ve also got a number of tremendous efforts under way with the recruitment of new faculty into clusters.
I’m also very proud of our student accomplishments. Each year, we set new highs in the number of students studying at the university, and these students are routinely more academically accomplished and diverse than their predecessors. The year before last we had a Rhodes Scholar, and this past year we had two Churchill Scholars. Our students are excelling, and that’s a testament to the caliber and quality of students who are choosing to come to the University of Iowa, and to our ability to help them excel in these national scholarship competitions.
Significant progress has been made in reviving the arts campus, and you mentioned changes at the hospital. What can visitors to campus expect to see this fall?
Probably more construction than they’d like to see! Those coming for football will notice a lot of construction on the athletics side as well as on the hospital side. The “bubble” is gone, but an impressive, new indoor practice facility has arisen, though not in the same spot. With the hospital right across the street from Kinnick Stadium, they’ll notice changes in road access to the front entrance of the hospital.
Those coming in from the west off of I-80 will see the new health care facility by the Marriott in Coralville. That is where our doctors will be delivering some ambulatory care services. So when you come for your check-up, that’s where you’ll see your internist.
Site preparation for the new Hancher likely will be under way this fall, so those who come to the Levitt Center or park in those lots will notice some dirt moving around, and later in the fall they may see the old Hancher starting to come down. We’ll also be starting site preparation downtown on the corner of Burlington and Clinton streets in anticipation of a new School of Music building that will make Iowa City an even more vibrant place to be.
What strategies is the university employing to keep tuition affordable in these difficult economic times?
We’re thrilled with the legislative session this year. Tuition is set by the Board of Regents—and we’ll work closely with the board on this issue—but our goal is to keep tuition as low as we possibly can. Thanks to the good work of Gov. Branstad and the Iowa Legislature, we think we will be able to do that going forward.
Although we’re routinely ranked as one of America’s best buys in higher education and offer the second lowest in-state tuition in the Big Ten, we continue to look for efficiencies and ways we can save money and not pass additional costs on to students. We’ll always strive to be careful and frugal with the dollars we spend with an eye toward affordability and access.
What is the role of private support at Iowa? How important is it to the overall UI mission?
It is playing a bigger role every year, even in the everyday operations of the university. It’s really important to have friends willing to step up and provide money for scholarships, professorships, and programmatic needs—for things that are important to us as well as to the donors. Obviously, we have many donors who support athletics, and we really appreciate that. Whether it’s for athletic scholarships or athletic facilities or athletic programs generally, all of this support is very critical to our ability to continue to be a top-tier public research university.
You traveled to China this past summer. Why is such outreach important?
This was only my second international trip at Iowa geared toward alumni relations, fundraising, and student recruitment. The number of international students on this campus, especially undergraduates, has increased significantly in the last four years, and we have about 1,500 Chinese students. So it was a great time to make a trip to Asia. We timed it so that I could be in Hong Kong for the graduation of the students who are in our M.B.A. program there. We also visited Taipei, Shanghai, and Beijing to connect with our alumni, look for opportunities to fundraise, and especially look for opportunities to continue to attract good students—they add a lot to the cultural diversity of our community and to the university.
In addition, the visit came on the heels of a mission led by Gov. Branstad to help promote economic development throughout Iowa with partners throughout China. At the University of Iowa alone, international students contribute more than $280 million to the state’s economy, so building relationships in this emerging economy yields direct benefits for all Iowans.
Tell us about the university’s efforts to assist first-generation students.
This is something very near and dear to my heart. As a first-generation college student myself, I have been struck by the fact that about 25 percent of our students are first-generation. Still. I know a lot of people think that number is dwindling, but it’s not dwindling nearly as much as one might think. I have a lot of affinity toward students who are coming to college as the first in their family to do so. I know how confusing it can be, and how daunting it can feel. So we are developing programming to help prevent students who might be feeling overwhelmed by the size of the university or just by the whole notion of college from falling through the cracks.