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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s public universities for years have requested legislative funding increases, promising to commit the extra tens of millions they sought to student financial aid, mental health and, more recently, to hybrid learning in an age of COVID-19.
But the asks have fallen flat.
Lawmakers last year not only rejected the Board of Regents’ request they restore the collective $8 million slashed from the universities midyear, in response to the pandemic, but they denied any increase at all for the regent universities — which had requested a combined $18 million bump in higher ed-specific funds.
The Iowa Legislature the year before granted the board a higher education increase of $12 million, which was below the regents’ $18 million ask. But that came only after big cuts for the 2018 budget year, when appropriations were reduced more than $30 million below fiscal 2017 levels.
In fall 2020 and 2021, the regents reported state funding levels for higher education remained well below 2009 levels, and state appropriations for the 2021 budget year were $63 million below what was appropriated 20 years earlier, for fiscal 2001.
In making its latest appropriations request for the next budget year, the board noted the pandemic’s massive impact on its universities, which experienced significant losses in enrollment and thus tuition revenue.
“The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on regent institutional operations is unprecedented and has impacted them in virtually all areas,” according to a November regents report. “Students left campus, many faculty and staff transitioned to working remotely, residence hall and dining services were significantly reduced, and sports seasons were canceled or severely impacted.”
For the upcoming budget year of fiscal 2023, the regents have requested a $22.1 million increase — including $15 million in higher education-specific funds; another $4.6 million for special purpose units, like the UI-based State Hygienic Lab; and $1.8 million for economic development.
In sum, the board wants the state to increase its total higher education appropriations from $486 million this year to $501 million next. Including all state appropriations for the universities — including money for economic development, special units like the state lab and special schools — regents are asking lawmakers to increase funding from $616.6 million to $638.6 million.
‘Not going to make any commitments’
But lawmakers — who this year formed an interim “regents universities study committee” to review all aspects of the campus’ operations — have, like years past, made no promises.
“I'm not going to make any commitments on the budget,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in response to a question about regent funding.
Lawmakers, he said, need to review trends — including enrollment differences. Enrollment has been slowly falling across all three universities since a peak of 80,064 total in fall 2016.
This fall’s combined enrollment across the Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Fall campuses is 69,848 — the lowest since 2007’s 69,178. In Cedar Falls, the University of Northern Iowa’s 9,231 total is down 34 percent from a peak of 14,070 in 2001 and marks its lowest total since 1968.
“Part of that needs to weigh into our decision-making, and making sure that the level of efficiency is coming from that side as well, for what we're getting for our investment,” Grassley said. “But I'm not going to make any commitments today on the budget.”
In the Senate, fellow Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, of Ankeny, echoed Grassley’s concerns over efficiency — noting his chamber last year was up for increasing the universities’ appropriations.
“The House didn’t want to do that last year,” he said, acknowledging the pulley effect appropriation levels have on student tuition rates. “We don't want tuition to go up, and so we want to make sure that they're funded at an appropriate level. We also want to make sure they're efficient with the dollars that we do give them.”
The Board of Regents has created a tuition model directly linking the state’s response to its funding requests with the level of rate hikes the universities will pass on to students.
“That's something that's on everybody's mind, especially someone with kids,” he said. “I represent an area that has a lot of young families. You want to be very competitive with tuition, and right now we are competitive with tuition … we're near the bottom. But certainly you want to make our higher education affordable, whether it's community colleges or the regents.”
Republican lawmakers during the last legislative session took issue with the public universities on several fronts. including their handling of free speech issues and their use of tenure. Those topics have come up again in the new study committee’s first meetings with each of the three Iowa university presidents.
In defending tenure, which Republican lawmakers have threatened to eliminate, Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen told committee members the academic appointment is imperative in recruiting and retaining top faculty.
“We are in a marketplace to hire the very best talent to bring to Iowa, in terms of our faculty,” she said. “And tenure is the standard. And if we would not have tenure, we simply would not get the very best faculty.”
She referenced ISU associate professor Nigel Reuel, who recently was promoted. “He has something like 15 patents already, he has three startup businesses, and he's extraordinary in the classroom,” Wintersteen said. “He wouldn't be at Iowa State University, in my opinion, if he couldn't come here and compete and do the hard work to be tenured.”
University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson reiterated that point, and noted she recently attended an event at the UI Carver College of Medicine honoring some of the most productive and prestigious faculty.
“And the dean leaned over and said, ‘If we ever got rid of tenure, these people would all be gone tomorrow,’” Wilson said. “And so I think we just have to acknowledge that the academy in the national arena has tenure as part of what we do.”
Given that lawmakers last session again pitched a measure to end tenure — which some believe makes it hard to fire problematic professors — Rep. Dave Williams, D-Cedar Falls, during the recent regent committee discussion asked if even that suggestion has caused recruiting and retention harm.
“I would say that it certainly is something that candidates that are applying for positions at our universities are aware of,” Wintersteen said. “They read about it in national publications … and that raises questions by them during the process.”
In answering the lawmakers’ questions about tenure, and how it’s used on the campuses — they presidents reported a collective decline in the last decade, from 2,722 total tenured faculty in 2011-12 to 2,482 in 2020-21. That decline comes even as faculty and employee totals have increased over the same period.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he hopes the exchange of information the committee facilitated will ease Republican concerns and put an end to the tenure-cutting talk.
“I hope people got the answers they needed,” he said. “I don't think we're going to pass a bill that takes away tenure. I don't think that's going to happen. We can keep talking about it. But when we talk about it, it makes some of our most successful faculty that bring resources to Iowa — it makes them think they should leave Iowa. So I hope we can tamp that down.”
As far as funding goes, Bolkcom said he sees reasons for optimism among his colleagues.
“The campuses are cautiously optimistic that they are going to get back on track with some new state funding,” he said. “I hope that their cautious optimism results in Republicans getting back on track with higher education funding to our public universities.”
In the House, Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said she has the same hope.
“It is upside down for me to imagine that we would zero out our regent institutions who are bringing in research dollars and providing excellent education and making it so that people can build careers here in the state of Iowa,” she said. “We’re just going to cut them out because we don’t like what we interpret to be their politics and then expect to fix the workforce crisis? How? How is this forward thinking? How is this lack of investment in any way, shape, or form going to fix our workforce crisis? It’s not. It’s making it worse.”
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