Early in the spring semester, UI President David Skorton set aside time to chat with Parent Times about service learning, tuition changes, the rededication of a University icon, and more. He also announced that he would leave the University to take the top job at Cornell University on July 1.
First of all, how will your departure affect the University?
This is a superb university with a 159-year history of excellence, and it’s been a huge honor and privilege to be in a leadership position here. What’s most important, though, is the love the people of the state of Iowa and all the alumni and friends have for this university; the strength of the faculty and staff; and the strength and loyalty of the student body. I’ve always been optimistic about the future of The University of Iowa, and I remain so today.
What do UI students stand to gain from the Year of Public Engagement?
I think the dream of every parent who has a child in an institution of higher education is that they come out with skills that allow them to interact with the world in some meaningful way. What students have to gain from the Year of Public Engagement is an increased focus on activities geared toward the external world. Some are service-oriented, like encouraging more volunteerism and philanthropy. Another aspect involves service learning—ways of adapting the curriculum to increase the relevance of the educational process. For example, in addition to classroom time and readings, students in service-learning courses are out in the world doing things, performing service as part of the for-credit experience.
Can you talk about differential tuition and the recently approved changes in tuition for engineering students?
The cost of education at any level, whether it’s high school, college, or graduate or professional school, varies widely depending on the field that one is studying. So the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, approved a policy where the university administrations can ask for tuition to be different, based, for example, on what is being taught. This fall, junior and senior engineering undergrads at both Iowa State University and The University of Iowa will pay an additional amount of tuition, and that is because it is more expensive to supply all the things necessary for an excellent engineering education than it is for some other disciplines. That’s not to say that engineering has any greater intrinsic value—it just costs the University more in facilities and other areas to teach it. That’s the rationale behind it.
Last fall you announced several initiatives to internationalize the University, such as creating a Latino/a studies program and boosting funding for international exchanges. Why is this effort important for the University—and for undergraduate education?
Despite a drop in applications from international students here and nationally since 9/11, we’ve maintained more or less a stable population. We have a tradition at Iowa of being open to international students and scholars, so there’s a wonderful international diversity on campus. What this does for students, particularly for those who do not study abroad, is greatly expand their horizons. They might have a roommate or somebody next to them in class from one of over 100 countries, including some from cultures vastly different than our own. That’s an element of diversity of huge educational importance and value.
I think there’s widening recognition that higher education has terrific potential for extending hands across the seas and bringing people closer together. And because we have this strong legacy at this university, I think it’s very important that we’re a part of it. There are some chances for real understanding and cultural relations here. I don’t want to lose that opportunity in a time of international tensions and concerns. We’re not going to make the world a more secure and reasonable place without making these kinds of public or cultural diplomacy efforts.
The UI Foundation announced last fall that its Good. Better. Best. Iowa fund-raising campaign had reached its goal of $1 billion more than a month early. How will the new funds benefit undergraduate education?
The campaign more than doubled the amount of philanthropic funds available for student aid during those years. Students also will benefit from the 14 capital construction projects that will be completed as a result of the campaign. And, of course, there are funds for professorships and endowed chairs.
The complexion of the university is really changing—even public universities with stable support from the state, which in general we have had, now need to turn to philanthropy to grow and to maintain excellence. We need to count on our alums and friends to help us be the best we can be and stay that way.
The Old Capitol is set to reopen in May. What does the reopening signify for the University?
Here I sit with a coaster depicting the Old Capitol—it’s such an icon at the University. I’m very grateful to the people who are taking what was a disastrous circumstance—a fire that destroyed the dome—and turning it into a renaissance of the Old Capitol, not only the structure, but also the programmatic aspects of it. When this project is done and the place has been dedicated, I think it will be a huge source of pride for everyone in the state of Iowa, not just here at the University—from K-12 schoolchildren to scholars interested in the history of 19th-century Iowa. There’ll be something for everybody.