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Iowa's public universities saw 80,000-some students return to campus Tuesday for a spring semester promising to be more expensive for some, more technologically accessible for others, and packed with political activity for all.
With just under two weeks until Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, the campuses were abuzz Tuesday not just with the excitement of a new semester but with the hype that accompanies a presidential campaign. Republican front-runner Donald Trump was at Iowa State University on Tuesday evening, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton will visit University of Iowa on Thursday.
When the nation's presidential hopefuls shift their focus to other states after Feb. 1, Iowa students will have local politics to keep them busy — including a Legislative Session paramount for the universities' financial futures.
Of course, there will be education and research-centered highlights too. And some fun.
Below we list just a handful of the happenings expected to impact Iowa's campuses this spring.
After state funding fell far short of the Board of Regents allocations request in the last Legislative Session, regents approved a 3 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduate students at UI, ISU, and University of Northern Iowa.
Iowa State and UNI students will see that increase — equal to about $100 on the semester — this spring. UI students won't see the bump until fall 2016, after the student body president asked the board to delay it, citing financial concerns among her peers.
The tuition increase ends the longest tuition freeze for the public universities in state history. Regents hadn't increased resident undergraduate rates since 2012.
But the board asked for a 4.3 percent increase in state appropriations in the 2015 Legislative Session — equal to $21.7 million, and the General Assembly instead passed a 1.26 percent increase, equal to about $6.5 million.
The board in September sent its funding request to lawmakers in advance of the 2016 Legislative Session. This time, regents asked for more than $20 million in additional funding — $8.2 for ISU, $7.7 million for UNI, and $4.5 million for UI.
Gov. Terry Branstad last week debuted his budget proposal, pitching only $8 million more for the regent institutions — to be split among the three. Board President Bruce Rastetter responded with a statement thanking the governor for his commitment to accessible and affordable higher education and vowing to work toward securing 'the level of funding that will ensure the highest quality education for our students.'
Still, during the board's fall tuition discussion, Rastetter said it could revisit rates again if state appropriations fall short in 2016. Lawmakers, worried about higher education funding, said weak state support also could mean program cuts across the campuses.
New UI president
With not even one full semester under his belt, new UI President Bruce Harreld launched the spring semester Tuesday with a message outlining plans to continue a 'communication and collaborative planning' process.
'Spring is the opportune time to anticipate new growth,' Harreld said in the message. 'With that in mind, I am looking forward to the continued development of our shared direction and how, together, we will build momentum.'
As part of a 'listening process' he said started after Thanksgiving break, Harreld announced details for his first town hall meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. Feb. 23 in the Pomerantz Center. Some UI graduate students have demanded Harreld hold a public forum and take questions — including from those with concerns over his hire.
Many projects to replace UI buildings destroyed in the 2008 floods are scheduled to wrap after students complete the 2016 spring semester.
The new Visual Arts Building is on track for completion by the beginning of summer. And Hancher Auditorium also remains slated to be done by summer's start, according to UI Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz.
'At that point, the Hancher staff and leadership will test systems and conduct soft-opening practice runs that will assure that facility is ready for the public as the fall semester 2016 arrives,' Lehnertz said.
Other construction students will encounter on campus this semester includes the Voxman Music Building, which is scheduled to open in the fall, according to Lehnertz. The university's massive $360 million Stead Family Children's Hospital is on track to begin treating patients at the end of 2016, and a new residence hall on the east side of campus is scheduled for a 2017 fall semester opening.
One of the fast-approaching spring semester events is the Iowa caucuses. Each university campus will host caucus sites, and all university students need to do to participate is register with a party.
Students can register the night of the caucuses — as long as they have evidence of their residence, like a utility bill, according to UI political science professor Cary Covington.
Republican caucus sites in Johnson County include several on the UI campus, like Petersen Residence Hall and the Iowa Memorial Union. Democratic sites include the UI Art Building and Macbride Hall.
A major upgrade to the UI campus wireless network that has been in the works for two years has come to fruition in time for the spring semester. The upgrade — which involved installation of about 8,500 wireless access points on campus, up from 3,200 — will provide improved Wi-Fi coverage.
'The overhaul expanded coverage in high-density areas and extended coverage to almost every place people study, work, or congregate,' according to a news release.
UI students also could see a change to the name of the Iowa Student Information Systems website they use for everything from course registration to financial information. To avoid confusion with the international terror group known as ISIS, the university is creating a new student portal that will incorporate its old ISIS and Iowa Courses Online sites.
Nicole Dahya, communications manager for UI Information Technology Services, said the university plans to transition to the new site this spring.
'We are working on vetting a new name and URL with campus stakeholders,' Dahya said.
The Board of Regents recently hired Florida-based MGT of America, Inc., to conduct a 'higher education needs assessment' for the Des Moines area. The assessment relates to the announcement one year ago that AIB College of Business in Des Moines planned to gift its 20-acre campus to the University of Iowa.
The Board of Regents a short time later announced the campus would become a 'Regents Resource Center' that could offer programming from all three of its universities. But the future of the property remains unclear, and the board charged MGT to assess the demand for various degree and certificate programs in Des Moines and evaluate whether the AIB site is the best place to offer them.
MGT is expected to update the board on its progress in February, and detail its final findings at the board's April meeting.