It seems as if the semester has just begun, but its December! Students are looking forward to vacation, but not to final exams. Meanwhile, President Coleman has had a busy semester of talks and appearances all over the country, as well as on campus. We asked her to talk about the challenges of communicating effectively to many different audiences.
In any given month you might go from a forum with undergraduate students upset about a tuition increase to a Board of Regents, State of Iowa meeting and then to a Rotary Club in western Iowa. How do you vary your approaches to these different audiences?
As I travel for the University my job is to translate the University for the people of the public and to translate the views of the people for the University. I think its a very important role. I might craft what I say in a different way for different audiences, but I like my message to be consistent for all of them. I talk about our aspirations as a University, what we would like to become; what we need to reach that goal, what we need to invest in our studentsand thats exactly what I think it is,
an investment. Its an investment in the experiences that students need not only to get that first job but in everything they will do in life.
I always learn when I listen to students. My memories of what life was like when I was in college are not necessarily relevant to what students face today. I really appreciate it when students come to see me or send me e-mail to tell me what they need or to ask questions.
How do you communicate in times of controversy? When you need to make a decision that cannot please everyone, what is your process?
I think my responsibility is to listen to students, collect information from faculty and staff members, and then format decisions in a way that is easy to understand.
We just completed a strategic plan and thats a good example. My responsibility was to set the parameters for a new plan. Then we asked for input from everyone, students, staff, and faculty. We put a message box on the World Wide Web so that people could sign in and give us reactions to the draft of the plan. I was very pleased by the thoughtful comments that came in. We let the information we received shape the final plan.
Do you get many queries from parents? When do you have a chance to talk with them?
I get to interact with parents at Parents Weekend, where I give some general discussion points and then take questions. I meet twice a year with Parents Association board members, who represent the interests of a lot of parents. Membership on the Parents Board is an extremely important volunteer position, and we are grateful that people are willing to undertake this service. They collect the views of other parents and feed them back to us.
Individual parents e-mail me sometimes. If its a general question I can answer it, and otherwise I give them an idea of how they can get the information they need. Sometimes its a specific question about something that is happening to their son or daughter, and in that case most often I would put them in touch with someone else who could help. E-mail is a very useful way to communicate. Because I get so many messages, parents can expect that my answer will be brief and to the point, as it is with staff and faculty. I could not do what I need to do if I didnt keep things brief!
But is that the best way for parents to get something done? Its hard to negotiate from a distance.
One message I would have for parents is that sometimes they need to rely on their son or daughter, rather than starting with me. College is a time to grow up, and parents wont always be there to intervene for their student. Parents always should be concerned about whats happening with their student, but I think they should say, "What have you done to solve this problem yourself?" If the problem is academic in nature, has the student gone to the professor, and then the department chair, and then the dean, and finally the provost? If its a housing question, has the student gone to the resident adviser, then the hall manager, and then Residence Services? Is this a question that should go to Student Services? Students frequently do know the route they should take; if parents do it for them they are not learning how to take care of problems for themselves, which is one of the main aspects of growing up. Its perhaps one of the most valuable things that students can learn.
Parents must be very interested and want to know what happened along the way as the student tries to solve the problem. Then they can be really proud when the student is able to take care of it without their help. But of course, were all ready to help if all else fails.
Are there any particular issues that parents contact you about? What are their concerns?
When I hear from parents I dont hear a single issue, or even several single issues. Its usually more individual circumstances. And I do believe that in a well-run institution thats the way it should be. We have a lot of hard-working people at all levels of this institution to help resolve issues.
Whats likely to come up this year with the capital budget requests to the State of Iowa?
Im always concerned that the state be willing to do its part, and not back off its commitment to educate its students even for a minute. We will be submitting capital budget requests this year after a couple years of moratorium. Well be asking for funds to complete Phase 2 of the Biology Building renovations, to complete an Art and Art History building, and to build a new building and classrooms for Journalism and Mass Communications. Those are facilities that are greatly needed and the state needs to fund them.
I expect also during the next year the Board of Regents will take a long look at progress weve made on our Strategic Plan, whether we have moved up our graduation rates, whether weve attracted the proper mix of students in terms of diversity, and if weve been able to attract and retain a diverse staff. These are all ongoing matters, and well be communicating about them on an ongoing basis, too.
(Even for a university president, communication is not always possible. At this point a Battle of the Bands concert erupted in Hubbard Park, outside the Presidents window, and the interview promptly came to an end!)