Kicking back with the Regents

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Matthew P. Brown, guest columnist

The working life of teachers in the summer is often viewed with curiosity and even a bit of misplaced envy by the public. We educators are used to questions about our summers “off,” even as we continue the work of research and teaching throughout June, July, and August. But what of the nine-member body that oversees Iowa’s public universities this summer? Just chilling.

At the University of Iowa, the faculty hive is no less active in the summer months than it is during the school year. Sure, the bees buzz at a different tempo. But scientists use the time to write grants that bring national money into Iowa, strengthening the economy. Historians pursue research that explores the past in order to understand the future. Engineers recruit students from across the world to come to Iowa, and so to enrich the local talent pool.

This summer I edited manuscripts for the University of Iowa Press, a jewel in the crown of the campus’s writing initiatives. I mentored a splendid humanities student, who earned her doctorate and joined the faculty at Grinnell College. I wrote, I researched, and, yes, I taught: an intensive class on Edgar Allan Poe — aptly, in the dark, dank basement of the English-Philosophy Building — with a set of energetic and impressive undergrads. These modest contributions were part of the larger industriousness exhibited by teachers at all levels across the state this summer.

The Board of Regents, by contrast, spent the summer devising ways to kick back a little. The Regents, we learned in June, planned to hold fewer meetings per year — a new policy they reconsidered when critics rightly pointed out that their work already lacks transparency. They reduced their workload by tolerating the practice of unadvertised hires, most egregiously that of a Republican insider as a vice president at Iowa State University.

To be fair, the Regents got busy — though in ways outside their job description. Regents Bruce Rastetter and Larry McKibben enabled a land purchase that benefitted their employee, ISU President Steven Leath, in what surely looks like a conflict of interest.

Tasked with public stewardship and financial management, the Regents this summer could not be bothered. They paid their CEO and COO twice what state law allows, salaries of $338,000 and $240,000 respectively. In a time of scarcity, they sought to loot the universities of 3.6 million dollars to pay bills at the board office, a 30 percent increase over last year’s ask.

The financial impact of all this laziness? Tuition hikes. As we know, the burden is being shifted to Iowa students and families, who are to pay $250 more per year.

If the Regents truly cared about public education, they would push back energetically against the governor and the legislature’s relentless drive, through tax breaks, to deplete the state of funding for public education. They would strive to create convincing arguments for why legislators should provide more robust support for state universities. But that would require work.

This lax ethic extends to Regent appointee Bruce Harreld, who professed bafflement at the American Association of University Professors sanction of the hiring process that netted him his job. If Harreld truly does hope to build a “world-class faculty,” as he often avows, he might have devoted a little time to studying the assessment of the professional association that maintains standards for higher ed governance.

As we take up the rewarding work of the school year before us, we may have to add one more task to our list: public pressure against those governing our public universities. It may be the only way to get them to do their jobs.

• Matthew Brown is an Associate Professor in the English Department and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa.

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