Although Mother Nature has thrown her a few curveballs, President Sally Mason is not deterred after arriving on campus a year ago from Purdue University. In fact, she tells Parent Times that she is excited about what lies ahead for the University.
The weather. We had a challenging winter—I had to close down classes twice, which hasn’t happened in many, many years—and obviously the summer weather wasn’t an improvement. In fact, the flooding has been more challenging than I think anyone would have predicted. So certainly my biggest surprise has been the weather, something over which we have no control.
What are your goals for this next year?
We’ll continue to build the leadership team. So far we’ve added Wallace Loh as provost, Paul Rothman as dean of the Carver College of Medicine, and Kenneth P. Kates as CEO of the hospital. We’ve got an interim vice president for research. We’re also beginning to think about a new strategic plan for the University, a campuswide process that will involve students.
With flood recovery and strategic planning, we’re not without challenges, but I am feeling very optimistic about the coming year, about where we will be heading and who will be helping to lead us there.
You announced in April that the University would focus on sustainability—both in the institution’s use of energy and in academics. What does this mean, and why is it important for students?
Taking this on is a major challenge for the University, but I think it’s logical and timely. We have a lot of people very excited about participating—whether it’s in our day-to-day operations or our curriculum. We’re already using renewable resources in place of coal—oat hulls from Quaker Oats to help power the campus—and we’re starting to build interesting curricular initiatives.
I heard from a number of students and student groups last year about their interests, both short- and long-term, in sustainability—from getting better recycling in the residence halls to doing more on campus with regard to sustainability and climate issues. And I think this is an area where universities should be leaders—if not at a university, then where else? We clearly have the talent, the thought leaders, and the innovators to tackle these major problems.
The provost provided all first-year students with a copy of A Long Way Gone, this year’s selection for the One Community, One Book project. Are you planning to read it, too?
Actually, I had almost finished this memoir before I left Purdue. What a powerful story Ishmael Beah has to tell. It’s about a young man who is put in a very difficult situation at a very young age, and he comes through it. It tugs at your heart, but there’s a lot of hope. The book is definitely an interesting and worthy read, and I plan to reread it.
You’re teaching a leadership class this fall for 30 first-year students. What drew you to this opportunity, and what are your goals for the class?
My former boss and mentor at Purdue offered a similar president’s leadership class, and I always thought it was a great idea. He had the students meet weekly at his home. I was able to participate on several occasions, telling these young people—from an academic administrator’s perspective—what leadership was all about and firing them up. The intent is to give 30 individuals the opportunity to be part of a leadership class that involves the president, the senior administrative leadership team, and a lot of friends and alumni who are leaders in their particular endeavors. I arrived too late last year to put it in place, but I plan to offer it every year.
How do you stay in touch with the needs and concerns of students?
I meet regularly with student leaders as well as with all of the leadership groups on campus—that’s what shared governance is all about. I also go to as many campus events as I possibly can that involve faculty, staff, and students, and I do campus visits every year to each college.
In an uncertain economy, what can the University administration do to keep higher education at Iowa affordable?
That’s one of our biggest challenges. We’re experiencing increased energy and food costs, and we’ll have to manage those without passing them on to students. We are a bargain by any measure—the lowest tuition of all of our Big Ten peers—and we’re working hard to put more resources in place and to help students and their families find those resources. I advise students and parents not to assume they know everything about financial aid until they’ve visited our Office of Student Financial Aid. Scholarships change every year.
I’m a first-generation college student. College costs were always a strain on my family, but we figured it out. I’m sort of a living testament to how valuable an education can be. It’s worth the investment, and students will come to appreciate it.
What advice do you have for UI parents sending a child to college for the first time?
We’ve got great people and great resources here, so give your students a little space and let them explore. Try not to worry too much. Chances are they’ll develop into the fine adults they’re capable of becoming. Remain supportive and let them find their way. In this age of constant communication, it can be hard to pull back, but part of growing up is learning to take responsibility as adults. College is a great way to ease that transition.
by Sara Epstein Moninger