Education

Alternative funding could keep some University of Iowa centers alive

But Labor Center's insistence on some UI money 'isn't going to happen'

Supporters of the University of Iowa Labor Center hold up signs during a Sept. 13 Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Since the UI announced plans in July to close seven centers in the face of state budget cuts, supporters of the Labor Center — which, among other things, helps workers and companies keep up with labor laws — have held summits and protests around Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Supporters of the University of Iowa Labor Center hold up signs during a Sept. 13 Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Since the UI announced plans in July to close seven centers in the face of state budget cuts, supporters of the Labor Center — which, among other things, helps workers and companies keep up with labor laws — have held summits and protests around Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Many of the University of Iowa centers that administrators said they plan to close in the coming months in the face of state budget deficiencies have found — or are close to finding — other funding enabling them to stay open at least longer than projected, UI President Bruce Harreld said.

“I find the discussion interesting,” he said when asked about the fate of the centers. “Because we furloughed them. Do we understand the difference between closing something and furloughing it?”

In light of back-to-back higher education funding cuts from the Iowa Legislature, the university announced July 10 plans to “close several centers and furlough more than 30 individuals whose position is not directly tied to student instruction.”

The seven centers it named on a “list of closures” include the Labor Center, the Confucius Institute, the Center on Aging and a center that formerly operated as the AIB College of Business in Des Moines.

The UI in September asked the Board of Regents to formally approve closure of several centers, which the board unanimously did.

But Harreld said that what his administration really did was furlough the centers — giving them time to find alternative funding sources.

“If they can find sources of funding, and we are more than willing to help them find sources of funding that are not general-education based, here we go,” he said. “They can stay open. And most of the centers, many of them, have done exactly that.”

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He wouldn’t confirm which have found money to stay open, saying he doesn’t want to get out ahead of them.

But administrators of the Confucius Institute said they believe they’ve found a way to continue operating on campus for at least five years without the $80,000 they were receiving from the UI.

The UI Confucius Institute is one of more than 100 teaching and research centers underwritten by the Chinese government that have opened on American campuses since 2005. Iowa’s opened in 2006 and has served about 2,200 students since 2007 through Chinese language and culture courses, research, community programs and outreach.

Nationally, some lawmakers have criticized the institutes for their close ties to China — including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who over the summer flagged Confucius Institutes as an attempt by the Chinese government to expand its political influence.

Some other campuses have announced their closure, including Texas A&M and the University of North Florida, which in August reported plans to shutter its Confucius Institute because, it said, the center’s goals weren’t aligned with the university’s.

Harreld told The Gazette that defunding the centers is not political.

“The key issue is we can no longer support them out of the general education fund,” he said.

In the most recent year, the UI Confucius Institute was funded with matching $80,000 contributions from its headquarters in China and from the UI, according to Xi Ma, the UI institute’s curriculum coordinator. Additionally, it received $100,000 from its headquarters that went directly into an endowment, and Ma said interest on that endowment is the source her center plans to tap to stay open for five more years.

The institute — which recently started offering Chinese language classes at West, City and Liberty high schools in Johnson County — was supposed to close in July 2019.

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The UI Labor Center also has been talking with administrators about a menu of options aimed at continuing its 67-year-old operation.

Housed in the UI College of Law, the center received $557,000 from the UI general fund in the last budget year.

The center’s cut led to statewide forums and sparked criticism in letters to administrators and protests before the Board of Regents.

Labor Center Director Jennifer Sherer said talks with the administration are ongoing, but the center stands firm that the UI must commit some financial support.

She said her staff has presented budgets to the university showing how the center could continue to operate with a 25 percent reduction in UI support. Plans include increasing Labor Center program fees and applying for more grants.

The center also is working toward convening an intercollegiate faculty committee to develop new course and certificate programs aimed a growing student interest while contributing to the bottom line.

“We’re serious and dare I say even enthusiastic about doing our part,” Sherer said in an email, noting the center is committed to a “joint fundraising appeal — as soon as we have some assurance of UI funding that allows us to confidently tell any potential donors that we will indeed remain open next year.”

Harreld, however, said such an assurance is not going to come.

“We’re willing to let them use our brand, give them office space, give them administrative support, (Human Resources), use our payroll system,” he said. “But so far all we seem to be focused on is, ‘Gee you’re just closing us and we don’t know how to raise money.’ Why don’t we change that?”

Harreld said he has offered to get more directly involved in fundraising.

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“I’ve said, ‘Why don’t you ask me to go on the road with you?’” he said. “But it’s, ‘No, the university has to fund it.’ That’s got to stop. That isn’t going to happen.”

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

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