Higher education

Board of Regents new policies hit on prayer spaces, no-bid contracts

Board to discuss revisions next week

A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

As part of a major review and, in some cases, a rewrite of its policy manual, the Board of Regents has added language preventing any student group from permanently reserving space on campus.

The new policy apparently comes in response to concerns over new Muslim Student Association prayer rooms on the University of Iowa campus. The board in April said it planned to review its policies around space reservation after a national atheist group criticized the Muslim prayer rooms.

The Board of Regents at its meeting next week will discuss the policy addition, which comes as part of a comprehensive review and update of its policy manual. The review and rewrite, among other things, also establishes a new bid threshold for goods and services purchases, outlines information technology rules, and mandates professional service agreements — like the no-bid contract UI signed with a consultant to conduct polling services — get approval from the board.

Contracting and bidding

Currently, regent universities must use a competitive bidding process for “professional service agreements” of more than $25,000 unless the service is a “sole source purchase that is appropriately documented.” That allowed the University of Iowa in 2013 to hire The Strawn Company — owned and operated by former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn — to conduct social media consulting for $24,900 without seeking quotes from other vendors or getting board approval.

The university continued contracting with Strawn’s company in subsequent years for hundreds of thousands of dollars in work related to statewide polling, research, and social media monitoring — skirting the requirement to seek bids by asserting only his firm could provide the unique service.

Following an Associated Press report on the Strawn contracts, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter told Iowa Public Radio “the optics of this are not pretty or perfect.”

“I believe that in those situations, the university should do a bid process, so we’ll be talking about that,” Rastetter said on IPR’s “River to River” program. “We’ll be looking at that number of threshold that exists where they don’t have to go out to bids, and we’ll be reviewing this.”

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According to the board’s policy changes made public this week, all professional service agreements worth more than $50,000 will have go through a competitive bidding process unless they are sole-source purchases that are appropriately documented and approved by the board’s Chief Operating Officer Mark Braun.

“The $50,000 threshold is not based on a one-time cost, but rather on a cumulative cost for ongoing services under the terms of the project engagement or extension of the project engagement,” according to the policy language.

The policy revisions also will raise the cost threshold requiring purchases go out for bid from $25,000 to $50,000, which board officials said will align with the Department of Administrative Services.

Facilities reservation

Regarding the board’s proposed “facilities reservation” policy, each university will have to develop space-reservation policies for student organizations “on a first come basis with no permanent reservation provision.”

The University of Iowa earlier this year allowed its Student Muslim Association to use two rooms in the Iowa Memorial Union as prayer spaces, putting up temporary signage labeling one space for “brothers” and one space for “sisters.”

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation questioned the appropriateness of the prayer spaces, saying exclusive use of university space by specific religious groups “unconstitutionally” entangles the institution with religion.

UI President Bruce Harreld has said the university is on safe ground as long as the spaces are not exclusive — meaning anyone of any faith and any gender can use them. And Board of Regents associate counsel Aimee Claeys said the university was walking the fine line “cautiously and carefully.”

Still, the board is adding a policy to address the issue directly.

Information technology

The board also has created an entirely new section of its policy manual addressing information technology. That section, among other things, will regulate acceptable use, security, and accessibility.

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“Incidental personal use of information technology resources must adhere to all applicable regents policies,” according to the new policy language. “Uses may not involve violations of the law, interfere with the fulfillment of an employee’s regents responsibilities, or adversely impact or conflict with activities supporting the mission of the regents.”

The board is scheduled to discuss the new policy language Thursday in Ames.

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