Asking for a Budget Cut

U. of Iowa faculty are bothered that their president co-signed a letter endorsing a plan to cut the university's budget by $50 million.

October 31, 2014
University of Iowa President Sally Mason.
(University of Iowa)

Faculty at the University of Iowa are bothered that their president publicly backed a plan to cut the university’s budget by nearly $50 million.

Privately, some faculty were horrified by seeing President Sally Mason’s signature on the letter endorsing cuts to the university. Other professors understood that Mason may have signed the letter at the insistence of the state university system's Board of Regents.

The letter asks the legislature to adopt a new funding model that would eventually take money from the University of Iowa’s and give it to other public universities in the state.

Mason signed the letter along with the presidents of those other two universities – Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa – and two leaders from the state system, which created and approved the plan. According to the letter, which is dated Oct. 14 but was made public this week, the University of Iowa may lose about $46 million in coming years, while Northern Iowa would gain $24 million and Iowa State would get $23 million.

Alexandra Thomas, the president of University of Iowa’s Faculty Senate, said Wednesday that most faculty are bothered by the letter. But, Thomas said, some faculty are giving Mason leeway because there may be some “political exigency” that caused Mason to sign it.

Thomas said she didn’t expect the Faculty Senate would take formal action against Mason, but all options remained on the table.

“We realize it’s going to be very important for us to work with all stakeholders,” Thomas said, “so while the letter is bothersome to us, having a public internal strife probably won’t help us achieve of our goal of a vibrant, healthy flagship university for the state of Iowa.”

Mason said she signed the letter because it also asks for money from the legislature that would spare the university from cuts in the coming budget year.

“I signed this letter because it asks the legislature to support the Board of Regents’ request for $12.9 million to offset the immediate impact of the new funding model on the University of Iowa’s budget,” Mason said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the Board of Regents decided to revamp how it distributes money. Its new funding formula put a huge emphasis on in-state student headcount. In order to avoid losing millions of dollars because of the new formula, the University of Iowa is blitzing the state with a heavy marketing and recruitment effort for next fall’s class. The more in-state students it gets, the less money it stands to lose because of the new funding model.

The new model has not yet been approved by the legislature. So, some University of Iowa supporters are lobbying lawmakers not to adopt the new model. Mason's administration can't lobby against the model, though, because it risks rupturing the relationship she has to maintain with her bosses, the Board of Regents, which support the model.

Even before Mason’s letter was made public, at least a few professors had been harboring doubts about the administration’s reaction to the funding formula, which may have far-reaching consequences for University of Iowa and other public and private colleges in the state.

Mason did push for a different funding equation that put less emphasis on how many in-state undergraduates are enrolled, but her efforts were largely unsuccessful.  So, now the university is trying to what it can to boost the number of in-state students it enrolls.

That certainly means the University of Iowa will enroll more in-state students, but at what cost? College leaders are already predicting a family feud within the state’s existing public and private colleges for Iowans.

Edward Wasserman, a former president of the Faculty Senate, said the funding plan is asking the university become “more provincial.” Currently, Iowa is a top research university that gets 12 percent of its students from abroad.

He also wonders if the university can deal with hundreds or thousands of new students while facing budget cuts without hiring more adjuncts. That, Wasserman said, might contribute to the slow and steady erosion of tenure track and research jobs at the university.

“I think the administration really had no choice but to plan for the worst and proceed accordingly,” he said. “It’s the only rational thing to do, although I don’t think one would want to espouse glee or enthusiasm for this change in enrollment tactics.”

Robert Downer, a member of the Board of Regents who opposed the new funding model, said the cuts caused by the model will result in either a measurable decline at the University of Iowa or astronomically high tuition that will exacerbate the brain drain. In his view, the model “seriously defunds graduate and professional education programs at the University of Iowa, which from my perspective are the shining star of the public universities in the state of Iowa."

Downer, an Iowa City attorney who used to be chairman of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact and was student president at the University of Iowa in the early 1960s, also worries about the effect on other undergraduate institutions.

“Among the reasons I am opposed to it, I think it wages war on the private and community colleges in Iowa, which have been an important part of the education system within our state,” he said.

Critics outside the university have said the model really isn’t performance-based at all, insofar as most of the money is distributed based on headcount and not outcomes. The head of the university system has pushed back against this criticism.

Bob Donley, executive director of the Iowa Board of Regents, said Mason had been an “outspoken advocate” for the university as the board put together the funding plan.

“Once the Board of Regents approved the Performance Based Funding metrics, President Mason turned her attention to helping the University of Iowa achieve the best possible outcome under the new formula,” Donley said.

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Ry Rivard

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