Higher education

Rastetter urges continued 'managed growth' at universities

Board of Regents president also weighs in on pending legislation

(File Photo) Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter speaks to the University of Iowa Staff Council at Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
(File Photo) Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter speaks to the University of Iowa Staff Council at Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In recent months, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld has articulated plans to “dial down” growth and has said increasing size is not in itself a successful strategy. Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter on Friday countered by urging “managed growth” for the state’s universities.

“You want a university that doesn’t sit on status quo,” he said, noting new UI residence halls recently built or under construction will make space for more students. “I think managed growth at the University of Iowa is healthy.”

During a Friday taping of Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press program, Rastetter said the board in recent years has viewed it as important for UI to grow — particularly through the enrollment of more Iowans.

“Enrollment management is really important, but I don’t view it as dialing down enrollment, and I would hope (Harreld) does not as well,” Rastetter said.

Harreld’s predecessor Sally Mason — shortly before she retired — ramped up recruitment efforts and laid out plans for significant growth in response to a Board of Regents proposal to allocate state appropriations using a series of metrics, including resident undergraduate enrollment.

Those efforts have proved successful, with UI welcoming record-breaking freshmen classes for two consecutive years — 5,241 in 2015 and 5,643 last fall. But in September Harreld said he doesn’t plan to pursue the push to grow, asserting hopes of maintaining an enrollment “sweet spot.”

Specifically, he said, a freshman class of between 5,400 and 5,700 is a “good class size for us year in and year out,” and he said the total census around 33,330 is “right in a very sweet spot for us.”

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UI enrollment officials last week announced plans to move its application deadline up from May 1 to March 1. Anyone who applies after the new earlier deadline will be wait-listed, because the university right now is on track to top 6,000 freshmen for the first time in school history.

That, according to UI Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Brent Gage, “is really not where we want to be.”

Rastetter on Friday said moving up the UI acceptance deadline gives officials more space to plan, but he stressed such planning should focus on enrollment of students from outside Iowa.

“Enrollment management of non-resident and international students becomes even more critical,” he said.

Budget challenges

Iowa State University has seen even larger enrollment growth in the past decade, with its total student body swelling 44 percent in that time. Rastetter said he’s directed ISU President Steven Leath to create an enrollment management plan, but acknowledged the popularity of its engineering and agriculture programs, particularly among Iowans.

“One of the things we’ve seen at Iowa State is increasing international tuition — in a fairly dramatic way, $1,500 — actually led to an increase in students who thought that meant greater value if they paid more,” Rastetter said. “It did result in significant revenue increases, which helped offset some of the challenges on state budget cuts.”

Lawmakers this session are moving forward with a proposed $18 million cut in state appropriations to the Board of Regents for the current budget year. If approved, those cuts — which are part of nearly $118 million in cuts to cover a budget shortfall — will take $8 million back from UI and ISU and $2 million back from UNI at the halfway point in the current budget year.

Rastetter acknowledged the reductions could hurt and prompt the universities to hold off on filling vacant positions or completing deferred maintenance. He expressed hope lawmakers will approve a request for a 2 percent appropriations increase in the next budget year.

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That support is crucial in holding down tuition rates, which have gone up now for two years, Rastetter said.

“Tuition increases should not be more than the average Iowa income goes up in a year,” he said. “Because any increase beyond the average Iowa income will dramatically affect those parents and their families’ ability to access the public universities.”

And at the end of the day, he said, “These are public universities.”

“They are not private universities that can charge whatever they want,” he said. “That’s why state appropriations are so important.”

His take on legislation

During Friday’s taping Rastetter addressed several pieces of proposed legislation that could affect the regent universities if approved, including a bill to freeze tuition at current levels, reversing approved increases for the next school year.

“The reality is everyone — just on some of those bills — needs to take a deep breath,” he said. “Some of those legislators hear from me ... that’s not a brilliant bill, and it might even be a stupid bill. But, you know what, they have the right to do that. And we don’t have the right to control that.”

Another piece of proposed legislation would eliminate tenure on the regent campuses and make it impossible for community colleges to create such structures. Rastetter said legislation is not “an appropriate way to deal with it,” and that lawmakers shouldn’t get into “micromanaging things that the board and the university presidents are responsible for.”

He acknowledged that the number of tenured professors at Iowa’s public universities has been on the decline in recent years, with a recent regents report showing tenured professors now make up about 45 percent of all faculty on the three campuses, compared with 47 percent two years ago.

“I would expect over time ... that relationship would continue to evolve, and how professors are tenured, reviewed, will continue to be a collaborative discussion amongst the presidents, the faculty and the board,” he said.

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