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Instead of debating bills to strip tenure from public universities or make campus employees report their political affiliation, Iowa lawmakers could be forging partnerships and laying infrastructure to make their state the 'envy of the Midwest,' according to former University of Iowa President and Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman.
In advance of her keynote address kick-starting The Gazette's first 'Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week' starting Monday, Coleman expressed concern about a spate of bills 'attacking higher education' in Iowa.
'This legislative atmosphere is not what I remember from growing up in Iowa and attending Grinnell College,' said Coleman, who served as UI president from 1995 to 2002; president of the University of Michigan from 2002 to 2014; and president of the Association of American Universities from 2016 until last year.
Coleman's family moved to Iowa in 1955 because of its reputation for excellent public education — with her dad teaching for a quarter century at the University of Northern Iowa and her mom teaching in the public schools. Coleman praised the foundation that her educational roots provided for a lifelong career in academia.
But several bills aired this legislative session run counter to that tradition, she said.
Among numerous pieces of higher education-related legislation, lawmakers this term have proposed bills stripping public campuses of their ability to offer faculty tenure; restricting public universities' capacity to spend nonstate money — like federal grants and private gifts — without state approval; and requiring the campuses to poll and report employees' political affiliation.
'To observe legislative proposals to abolish tenure and demand information about faculty political affiliation is in my view an anathema to excellence,' Coleman said. 'Frankly, it breaks my heart.
'Should the Legislature persist in attacking the very core of excellence in its public universities, I fear that the very best faculty and researchers will no longer be willing to establish and develop their careers in the state.'
Instead, Coleman suggested, lawmakers should capitalize on the world-renowned institutions they have and bolster Iowa's economy and workforce by offering to match 'big research equipment funding.'
'What if Iowa became the place that researchers wanted to be because they had access to shared facilities that no other state had?' she asked. 'What about new research buildings that attracted researchers who wanted to collaborate? What about new faculty or established professorships that attracted outstanding people from across the U.S. or across the world?'
Iowa could welcome and enhance innovation by offering more supports and protections for university technology transfer and patent applications, Coleman said. It could offer competitive research fellowships for the world's best graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. It could invest in deferred maintenance on its universities, putting Iowa in position to 'take a great competitive leap ahead of other states.'
'Any of these actions would help to give Iowa a leg up in the intense competition for talent in a world where great ideas are 'the coin of the realm.'' she said.
Colleges and universities nationally and regionally need all the help they can get these days, given budget cuts and setbacks from the pandemic, which exacerbated enrollment losses the campuses already were experiencing or bracing for — given demographic shifts and international student barriers.
'We must not forget the steep decline in international student applications to U.S. universities that has also occurred in the past few years,' Coleman said. 'The combination of COVID-19 and immigration restrictions has made U.S. higher education institutions less attractive than they were a few years ago.
'This is a serious issue, as many colleges and universities have become dependent on international students, particularly at the graduate level.'
Enrollment across Iowa's public, private and community colleges in the fall fell 4.7 percent from the fall before — well above the national 2.5 percent drop in postsecondary enrollment.
Community colleges took the biggest hit of 5.8 percent; Iowa's public universities collectively lost 4.4 percent of their total enrollment and 5.3 percent of their undergraduate enrollment; and nonprofit private campuses saw enrollment slip 3 percent.
Then thousands more students left the campuses — along with tuition revenue from them — before the start of the current spring semester.
'It is very discouraging that participation in higher education has dropped quite dramatically in this past year,' Coleman said. 'I, as well as most university presidents, hope that a return to normal will reverse the decrease in enrollments.'
She predicts that return to a more normal collegiate experience will come in the fall, with many institutions across Iowa announcing more in-person experiences for next semester.
'From student surveys, it is clear that undergraduates and some graduate students strongly prefer being on a campus and participating in all the activities that in-person learning on vibrant campuses provide,' Coleman said. 'This is especially true in disciplines like laboratory sciences, art, theater, music, engineering, and design.'
The national vaccine push combined with consumer demand has university presidents promising in-person instruction, dining hall experiences, expanded residence hall freedoms and other aspects of college life that have many students, faculty and staff nearly giddy.
'There are segments of the population for which online learning offers real opportunity, and I expect that those offerings will continue and perhaps expand,' Coleman said, but added, 'The return to a more normal higher education experience is appealing to both faculty and students.'
Of course, she said, to make that happen, some campus pandemic changes will persist. Cleaning protocols will remain stiff; plexiglass barriers could stay up; and many campuses could continue offering virus testing — or even require it.
'I am quite sure that most institutions will be encouraging all on campus to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,' Coleman said, noting U.S. supply projections indicate 'almost universal availability by this summer is a realistic goal.'
'Clearly a one-size-fits-all is not appropriate since states and localities will differ in vaccination rates, infection rates, hospitalizations, deaths, etc.,' she said, adding, 'I hope that all will be vigilant as we carefully emerge from the pandemic.'
Coleman kicks off The Gazette's virtual Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week, focused on higher education, at noon Monday. It is free to attend but participants must register at iowaideas.com.
The Gazette's annual Iowa Ideas symposium, presented by ITC Midwest, also is free and virtual and requires advance registration. It will be Oct. 14 and 15.
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Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week schedule
• Noon Monday: The Future of Higher Education: A Conversation with Mary Sue Coleman, president emerita of the Association of American Universities
• 11 a.m. Tuesday: View from the Top: How does Iowa's education system evolve?
• Noon Tuesday: The value proposition and affordability of higher education
• Noon Wednesday: Why can't higher education be a la carte?
• 11 a.m. Thursday: The Student Experience
• Noon Thursday: Bringing the college experience online