Higher education

Low turnout for University of Iowa forums comes at busy time of year

Protest group urges boycott, 'refuse to be used'

About 30 staff members and fewer than a dozen students turned out Monday for the first University of Iowa public forum aimed at guiding development of a new strategic plan for the university. Before the meetings, critics called for a boycott of the forums, suggesting few could attend during what is a busy time in the academic year. (Vanessa Miller/The Gazette)
About 30 staff members and fewer than a dozen students turned out Monday for the first University of Iowa public forum aimed at guiding development of a new strategic plan for the university. Before the meetings, critics called for a boycott of the forums, suggesting few could attend during what is a busy time in the academic year. (Vanessa Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A half-hour after University of Iowa activists called for a boycott of seven meetings announced last week as part of the administration’s aim to involve the campus community in its development of a new strategic plan, about 30 people turned out for the first meeting Monday afternoon.

Fewer than a dozen students turned out for a separate evening discussion on the topic.

Discussion at the first meeting, intended for UI staff members, centered on the university’s growing enrollment, the diversity of that enrollment, the impact on employee resources and what it has meant for morale.

“We are good at recruiting staff and faculty, but once they’re here, we need to have a better onboarding or a better way of integrating them in so we all feel like we’re part of the same team,” Erin Brothers, vice president of the UI Staff Council, said during the first Monday forum. “Staff often doesn’t feel like they’re part of the team.”

Discussion during the student-specific Monday evening forum focused on concerns with inadequate academic advising, mental health counseling and veteran services — although only a handful of students participated in the discussion.

Earlier in the day, the advocacy group Iowans Defending Our Universities issued a news release criticizing the university’s “accelerated development process” for a new 2016-21 UI strategic plan.

“What’s the rush?” the group’s release stated. “Why initiate a serious planning process at this time in the academic year when everyone on campus is at peak effort and then conclude it in the summer when most students and many faculty are off campus? ... Refuse to be used. Boycott these hastily called forums”

As proposed, the university’s Strategic Plan Development Group will lead seven public forums between Monday and May 5 and then submit a new strategic plan to Tom Rocklin, the UI vice president for student life, and Provost Barry Butler by June 30. The new plan will be implemented in the next budget year, which begins in July.

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Sarah Hansen, assistant vice president for student life, and David Cunning, chairman of the philosophy department, are co-chairing the Strategic Plan Development Group and say the community-involvement process means the final plan “should hold no big surprises for the campus.”

Hansen said traditional planning processes can take more than a year, but this new accelerated method could allow the campus to start working toward goals sooner.

No one who attended either of Monday’s meetings mentioned the proposed boycott and instead focused their comments on issues they perceive across the university and ways they would like them improved.

Brent Gage, associate vice president for UI enrollment management, said this method of community planning presents an opportunity to create a guide for all sorts of decision-making in the coming years.

“I think the exciting thing is the process of developing a strategic plan the way this community is going about this,” he said. “[It] really helps us define, as an institution, what’s important, what we value, what we perceive ourselves accomplishing and trying to move toward becoming.”

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