When Sally Mason accepted the offer in June to become The University of Iowa’s next president, her thoughts drifted to her parents.
“I am the first person in my family to receive a university degree,” she told the crowd gathered at the Iowa Memorial Union for the official announcement of her UI appointment. “And now I am the president of one of the world’s great universities…I think my parents would be very proud—very amazed, but also very proud.”
Mason’s father was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who came to the United States as a child and never had the opportunity to finish middle school; her mother barely finished high school. Taking the reins at Iowa, Mason says, has been a personal accomplishment, and she is excited about the job ahead.
“Aside from the friendliness of the people here, I have found that Iowans clearly value education,” she says. “One of the first phone calls I received was from Governor Chet Culver. We talked about our commitment to higher education in particular, but also to education in general. The values he articulated certainly resonate with me.”
Undergraduate education at Iowa has been and will continue to be a top priority, Mason says.
“The fact that parents are willing to entrust their sons and daughters to us means that it’s our responsibility to provide a safe, healthy, and vibrant learning community—to ensure that our students are well prepared for whatever life may have to offer them.”
In her first few months as president, Mason already has met with students, faculty, staff, and administrators to learn more about the University. She also has visited with alumni, friends of the University, Iowans, and community leaders, and appeared at the Iowa State Fair in August.
“I’ll be traveling throughout the state to learn what The University of Iowa can do for our rural towns and major cities,” she adds. “I’m excited to hear Iowans’ ideas and dreams, to learn their vision for this university and its place in our state and in the world.”
Mason also emphasizes the importance of affordability and accessibility as well as quality.
“I know that those things compete pretty significantly sometimes—and in ways that make it hard to be credible on both fronts at the same time,” she says. “Fund-raising will be very important.”
During her tenure as provost at Purdue University, Mason invested both professionally and personally in diversity and innovative research and education. In 2004 she and her husband gave a $2 million deferred gift to support Purdue’s Discovery Learning Center, one of 10 interdisciplinary research centers in the university’s new Discovery Park.
Mason also raised funds for and implemented a number of major diversity initiatives at Purdue. Those include the creation of a Native American education and cultural center as well as a Latino cultural center and the establishment of two programs funded by the National Science Foundation that work to increase retention and graduation rates among students in science fields, especially minorities.
Creating a diverse campus community, Mason says, requires risk-taking and hard work.
“One of the first questions I asked the deans when I got to Purdue was, ‘How many women and how many underrepresented faculty did you hire last year?’ I got a lot of stares, as if to say, ‘Uh-oh. I don’t know the answer to that question. Do you?’ ” she recalls. “When they realized I was going to ask them that every year, it suddenly became very important to have something to report. That begins to send the message that diversity is important to the institution. I’ll be asking those same kinds of questions at Iowa.”
Mason says she hadn’t considered pursuing higher education until she was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky.
“I was very lucky to have an advisor who subsequently became my research advisor and, almost from the very beginning, said, ‘You should think about graduate school, and you should think about becoming a professor,’ ” says Mason, who earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
Mason adds that she is eager to meet parents and family members of UI students.
“I hope parents will take advantage of opportunities to visit campus,” she says. “I’m sure some parents, especially those living in Iowa, have opportunities to attend football games and other campus activities. I plan to be as visible as I possibly can at those events, and I invite parents and others to come up to me and share any thoughts or ideas.”
by Sara Epstein Moninger and Lin Larson,