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University of Iowa delays plans for MBA in Dubuque, citing concerns

'More interaction is a good thing'

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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa is temporarily delaying plans to offer a master of business administration program in Dubuque following community outcry and questions around the UI’s intentions.

UI officials on Wednesday were scheduled to discuss the proposal during a meeting of the Board of Regents-run Iowa Coordinating Council for Post-High School Education.

But late Tuesday, after a story in The Gazette reported concerns among Dubuque-area colleges and universities that offer similar accredited MBA programs, UI Provost P. Barry Butler sent an email to council and regent representatives asking “to put a temporary hold on our Dubuque MBA plans until we have a chance to meet in person with Dubuque officials.”

The email included a statement that was disseminated early Wednesday to representatives with the council and the private colleges.

“Based on feedback from the Dubuque community, the University of Iowa has decided to further study the offering of an MBA program in Dubuque,” according to the statement. “We look forward to working with the City of Dubuque and all citizens of (northeast) Iowa to identify ways we can serve their educational needs and be responsive to the expectations they have of their state universities.”

Gary Steinke, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges, said the UI move to delay its plans for the Dubuque market comes as good news.

“But I don’t think this, by any means, is the end of it,” he said. “I think they believe that a need exists, and I think they now are going to do their due diligence to go up there and talk to the three presidents and talk to the community.”

Steinke said he doesn’t have any feel for whether UI might be willing to partner with the local colleges in offering programming or if it’s willing to revise or even permanently drop its plans.

UI officials did not immediately respond to interview requests from The Gazette.

“But further discussion and more interaction is a good thing,” he said.

UI officials in August notified the council of its plans to offer a part-time MBA program in Dubuque by summer 2016, adding to its other locations in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and Iowa City. The university said it was considering the Dubuque expansion based on requests from John Deere Dubuque Works employees who didn’t want to travel 70-plus miles to get a UI degree.

But Loras College, University of Dubuque, and Clarke University — all located in Dubuque — already offer accredited MBA programs, and presidents with those institutions promptly wrote a letter to the council expressing concern.

“While John Deere is at liberty to request the assistance of the University of Iowa for its purposes, it seems reasonable to question whether the university should expand its scope to the entire Dubuque-area market,” according to the presidents, who said UI didn’t consult them in its vision to expand.

Those presidents argued against the need for a fourth MBA program in Dubuque and said UI has an unfair advantage when competing with private institutions, in that it gets taxpayer money in state appropriations and the privates do not.

UI officials, meanwhile, argued their MBA program comes with international accreditation and recognition and differs in that it is longer, more expensive, and has higher entry barriers.

“It appears that there is an unmet demand in a particular market niche,” David Frasier, associate dean for the UI Henry B. Tippie College of Business wrote to the presidents in an Oct. 1 message. “I trust we will all have adequate opportunity to contribute to the educational and economic development of the Dubuque region and the State of Iowa.”

University of Dubuque President Jeffrey Bullock said he thinks the UI’s decision to delay is a good idea.

“But it strikes me as being a little late in the process,” he said.

Bullock said he still wonders about UI’s motives and questions the argument that John Deere wanted the UI program to expand north.

“I don’t know what this is about,” he said. “I would like to be clear about what the unmet need is … What is this really about? Frankly, I have never felt it was about an MBA program.”

Ken Golden, director of global public relations for Deere & Co., in an email to The Gazette said the corporation generally does not take specific positions on where universities and colleges should locate their programs. And, he said, Deere & Co. “did not do so in this case.”

“A group of employees who work at John Deere Dubuque Works personally reached out to the university to encourage expansion of the MBA program to the Dubuque area,” according to Golden. “Deere did not object to the employees communicating their willingness to personally support a new program in Dubuque.”

Golden, in his statement, stressed that Deere & Co. has strong relationships with the private universities already offering MBA programs in Dubuque and that any decision on whether UI should offer one too is “best made by the university based on the school’s own market assessment.”

Bullock said he’s like this discussion to catapult a larger conversation involving the Board of Regents, the public universities, the independent schools, and the community colleges about how to best leverage higher education for economic development and attracting new residents from outside the state.

“That is really the conversation that is waiting to be had in this state,” he said.

UI officials said they don’t perceive an MBA program in Dubuque as sustainable and likely would be offered for “one of two cycles to meet current demand.” But Bullock and Steinke said a UI-MBA program could hurt enrollment at the private schools — especially if it serves as a gateway for other UI offerings in the region.

“If it was just MBA programs, that would be one thing,” Steinke said. “But does this create a foothold in Northeast Iowa for them to start offering other things?”

Loras College President James E. Collins said Dubuque is saturated — even oversaturated — with higher education opportunities, including private colleges, a community college, a biblical college, and a seminary. He hopes further discussions with UI officials will shed light on the demand they perceive.

“I would hope to have a better understanding and rationale in what creates justification for a new program being started, particularly from a taxpayer perspective,” Collins said.

If demand from one private company — even just employees within a company — can justify the creation of a new program, Collins said, that could invite future “bad behavior.”

“This has potential for establishing a new precedent that I don’t think is in the state’s best interest,” he said. “I think this is a time for reflection and transparency and a larger conversation about what is best for the State of Iowa.”

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

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