Regents to look at transparency, openness at universities

Iowa's three public university presidents met Tuesday during mid-year evaluations

URBANDALE - Policy changes related to transparency and accountability are coming to Iowa's three public universities, in part due to questions and criticism about openness in recent months, the president of the state Board of Regents said Tuesday.

The regents at a meeting next week will consider requiring each university to appoint a transparency officer who reports directly to the regents and consults with each university president; appointing a nine-member transparency task force to develop recommendations on ways to create and maintain maximum transparency at the regent institutions; and asking that the task force complete a report for the March meeting "to show the public that we are dedicated to providing Iowans with the transparency they deserve." Those steps were outlined in a draft document, provided by the board office, of the item expected to go to the regents next week.

These steps were discussed with the three presidents Tuesday during the mid-year evaluations of the university leaders, held in closed session at the board office, Regents President Craig Lang said after the meeting. The proposed changes are partly due to attention from the media and the public after several campus controversies in recent months, Lang said. But regents also want to make sure they are in line with the intent behind changes to Iowa's Sunshine Laws approved last spring, he said.

Lang and board President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter have met with Bill Monroe, Gov. Branstad's transparency adviser, to get advice on the subject. Monroe and others argue that Iowa law gives public agencies the discretion to release some records that are now being withheld by the universities, Lang said in the draft document.

"The amount of recent news stories regarding the apparent lack of transparency at regents institutions is troublesome," Lang said in the draft document expected to go to the board. "My fear is, if the patterns of behavior highlighted in these numerous reports continues, the regents' universities and the board of regents itself risk an erosion of trust and support from the people of Iowa."

Several controversies drew attention and dogged University of Iowa President Sally Mason in recent months, including the investigation of a former Athletics Department adviser accused of sexual harassment. Additional scrutiny came to Mason's employment status when in December, it was revealed she has been an at-will employee since Aug. 1, after her initial five-year contract with the board expired on July 31. The board in August asked Mason to improve the university's statewide outreach and relations with the Legislature.

Mason and Lang on Tuesday said her mid-year evaluation, which lasted about 90 minutes, went well. She updated the board on her progress on five stated employment goals, highlighting her work to increase communication, raise millions more for scholarships and identify and meet with key legislators. Mason also pointed out a new UI website that shows the county-by-county impact of the university on the state.

In talking to reporters just before her evaluation, Mason, 62, said she was upbeat about the meeting.

"The university's not perfect, we have plenty of things that we can work on and there's always things going wrong. But in general, we're getting ready in May to kick off the comprehensive campaign and we're $970 million toward the goal of $1.7 billion, so I feel pretty good about that," she said. "I look forward to the advice, that's one of the things that these sessions are always really useful for."

The regents "continue to encourage her to reach outside of Iowa City" with key stakeholders, Lang said Tuesday, adding he "would certainly hope" that Mason is well positioned to stay secure in her role.

Lang said the issue of Mason's at-will employment status was not discussed in Tuesday's evaluation, and he said it's a "change in philosophy" among board leadership that the university presidents will start in the job with a contract for several years, but then become at-will employees once the initial contract expires. He expects that to happen for Iowa State University President Steve Leath, who just marked his first year of a three-year contract, and for the new University of Northern Iowa president, likely to be chosen next week. The intent is that once they are established in the job, the presidents show each year that they are making progress on goals, Lang said.

"The at-will employee is something that we think is important for all presidents," Lang said. "We don't believe in providing any kind of long-term contract. We think it ought to be renewed every year, that was the intent with President Mason."

Mason, 62, has said the lack of a long-term contract does not concern her. The leaders of faculty, staff and student governance groups on campus have stated their support of her leadership.

Also after Tuesday's meeting, Lang said the board next week plans to approve an increase of $25,000 to Leath's deferred compensation package, after his successful first year.

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