Education

University of Iowa to discontinue institute providing local government support

'I am very disheartened by the university's decision'

The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa, in response to decades of state cuts to public higher education, is making good on a warning issued last month to reduce or eliminate centers or institutes that are based on campus but serve the state, region, or nation.

The university after nearly 70 years is closing the Institute of Public Affairs, which the Board of Regents and then-UI President Virgil Hancher created in 1949 with a mission to improve government operations — at the state, county, and city level — and help municipalities and agencies problem-solve.

A nonprofit resource housed in the UI College of Law, the institute has connected the university with policy makers on issues from public records and open meetings to strategic planning. In the 2016-17 budget year, more than 350 cities, counties, and regional agencies participated in institute-run programs that reached more than 1,000 government officials and leaders, according to the institute’s most recent report.

But its director Jeff Schott is retiring next week after 12 years, and UI College of Law Dean Gail Agrawal said in a message to the law school Tuesday the university isn’t replacing him.

“The College of Law does not have another faculty or staff member with the qualifications Jeff brought to the position,” she wrote in the email. “Unfortunately, the generational disinvestment in public higher education over the last 20 years requires difficult choices if we are to maintain our commitment to academic excellence in legal education and research. For these reasons, I have decided to discontinue the Institute of Public Affairs at the law school following Jeff’s retirement.”

The announcement comes after UI President Bruce Harreld last month told the Board of Regents his campus would make difficult decisions to absorb a $5.5 million takeback in state funding for the current budget year — just 90 days before it ends June 30. That midyear cut is the second in a row and part of a long-term pattern of defunding Iowa’s public universities.

In response, Harreld placed a five-month moratorium on new building projects and warned he would “reduce or eliminate activities previously supported by the state.”

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He didn’t disclose which centers or institutes he intended to evaluate “to determine financial feasibility” but told regents, “The university will be using our new budget model to identify and quickly close a number of centers and institutes that state resources no longer support,”

“We cannot let student tuition subsidize various activities that the State of Iowa no longer funds,” he said. “We now must trim those historical activities.”

Other UI-based centers or institutes that serve the state, region, and nation include the Cancer Registry of Iowa, facing a proposed state funding reduction from $149,051 to $145,476 next year; the State Hygienic Lab, which lawmakers have proposed cutting from $4.4 million to $4.3 million; and the Iowa Flood Center, looking at a recommended cut from $1.2 million to $1.17 million.

Schott, before arriving at the Institute of Public Affairs in 2006, served for 20 years as Marion city manager. Agrawal said discontinuing the institute doesn’t diminish his and the staff’s “important outreach and service” over the years.

“I realize this decision is a disappointing one to our community,” she wrote. “The University of Iowa will continue to be a resource for the state through the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement and the collegiate outreach programs.”

The institute — staffed by Schott and program coordinator Julie Collins — officially will close May 11. In the last full budget year, according to its 2017 annual report, it facilitated 53 goal-setting sessions with 33 local government organizations and responded to specific public policy and organization requests from 17 government organizations via 31 sessions.

Although its training, outreach, and strategic planning services were clustered in urban centers like Johnson, Polk, and Linn counties, it reached all four corners of Iowa and many places between.

Schott told The Gazette the closure is a loss to the state and its municipalities, many of which won’t be able to afford the resources if they have to get them from costlier sources.

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“That is the question,” Schott said. “How will these services and programs be provided in the future? Stresses on cities and counties are going to be even more significant with loss of backfill money from the state.”

He acknowledged financial woes for the institute itself, specifically tied to the recent loss of university funding. In 2005, the university with general education dollars covered the institute’s total costs, including salary and fringe expenses. That allowed the institute to use revenue collected through its service fees to build a small reserve fund.

The university over time slashed its support, requiring the institute to dip into reserves. And in the 2016 budget year, the university began requiring the institute use reserves to cover the full difference between its revenues and expenses.

For the 2017 budget year, the institute’s $211,875 in expenses outpaced its $106,260 in revenues by $105,615.

“Reserves are not sufficient to cover the difference or shortfall long term,” according to UI officials.

Collins, whose position with the institute is being eliminated, took issue with that argument in an email to The Gazette, reporting the program had enough reserves to keep running for two years.

“But the university decided to sweep our revenue because of the massive legislative cutbacks,” she wrote. “The decision to shut us down will save the university $100,000 per year and gain them the $250,000 of our remaining revenue that will last how long? That seems like a relatively insignificant amount when you look at the big picture.”

And it will leave communities in a lurch, Collins said.

“Especially the very small cities and towns that cannot afford to pay consultants to do what we do — goal setting, strategic planning, open meetings law training, board and commission training,” she said. “Now these services are going to be further out of reach to Iowa communities.”

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In an email Tuesday to city managers and administrators, Schott shared news of the program’s discontinuation and noted, “We are still actively exploring other alternatives by which IPA’s programs and services can continue.”

But, he added, “I am very disheartened by the university’s decision to discontinue the Institute of Public Affairs, which I strongly believe has provided essential services, programs, training and professional development to Iowa local governments.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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