Higher education

University of Iowa president urges change in mindset

Bruce Harreld is keynote speaker at Metro Economic Alliance meeting

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld speaks at the Economic Alliance annual meeting at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. Harreld spoke about the opportunities for collaboration between higher education institutions and the business community. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld speaks at the Economic Alliance annual meeting at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. Harreld spoke about the opportunities for collaboration between higher education institutions and the business community. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Everyone — lawmakers, business executives, community members and university leaders — must re-evaluate their role in re-igniting the region’s growth and economy, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld told a crowd of more than 1,000 Thursday in downtown Cedar Rapids.

While stressing his institution’s value and the importance of investing in it on a state and local level, Harreld said the university also needs to “quit looking inward at our naval and quit worrying about what everybody is doing to us and start taking control of our own destiny.”

Harreld, during the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s annual meeting, urged a shift from expense-cutting mode, where “every time we cut, woe is us, and we are moving backwards.”

“I’m not sure we need much more money,” he said. “We just need to use it more wisely. And we actually need to change our mindset. That, in fact, these are our assets, and we should understand how to leverage them and use them for the long run.”

Harreld since assuming the UI presidency in fall 2015 has served as tri-chair of Iowa’s Creative Corridor Regional Vision Strategy and said he took that role — partly — in pursuit of strength through collaboration for the university, community and state.

“It’s quite doable ... it’s graspable for us,” he said.

But, Harreld added, “We have had a lot of conversations that haven’t really gone anywhere yet, or at least not far enough, between Linn County and Johnson County.

“We ought to take a serious look at how to harmonize policies, how to stop the fighting for companies and jobs and resources, and develop a common long-term plan,” he said. “It’s very important that we all recognize that it’s doable. But I think, quite frankly, on the path we’re on, it’s unlikely that we’ll get there.”

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Harreld talked about the pressing need for his own university to find ways to monetize its research and discoveries through entrepreneurship and patents, for example.

“It’s not about the technology, it’s now about taking the technology and turning it into a real, live, tangible problem-solver that’s useful and has a business model,” Harreld said. “We really need to scale that up much more quickly.”

He said the university also continues to review its efficiency practices — while discussing other possible changes, including the notion of sharing revenue from its athletics and health care enterprises.

“We ought to look at everything,” Harreld told The Gazette after giving his keynote address. “On the other hand, we could use a little help.”

Iowans, he said, need to think where they want their state to stand nationally and internationally and the role higher education plays in that standing. He pointed to the workers universities produce through training and education. He highlighted the thousands of people universities employ. And he flagged the “big impact” the institutions have on procurement for Iowa.

“They think it’s something where we can squeeze them,” Harreld said. “And I think it’s going to have long-term consequences that aren’t healthy — for all of us.”

Referencing a move the Legislature took this week to cut $18 million from its public universities in the current budget year — as part of a larger de-appropriations bill to slash $117.8 million from the entire state budget — Harreld said the reductions will hurt.

UI must absorb $8 million of the cuts, essentially taking away new revenue expected from a tuition increase. Among other things, Harreld told The Gazette, the cuts will force the university to reconfigure its student financial aid structure.

“We’ll have to do more than that. Stay tuned,” he said.

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Despite the reductions, the university is holding true to its vow to increase faculty salaries in pursuit of remaining competitive and keeping professors and researchers from leaving.

“We’re going to have to take some things down while taking certain things up,” he said. “Salaries are one of them.”

In response to some lawmaker comments that state support for higher education likely won’t surge any time soon, Harreld said it would actually be helpful to know more about what the future in state funding will look like for his institution.

“If Iowa would make a statement, ‘No, we want you to be smaller, here’s the long-term plan, we’re going to take you down every year by a certain amount,’ that would be exceedingly helpful,” Harreld said. “Because then I would ask, ‘OK, give us more control over the key things that determine our future.’ Right now, we’ve got the same degree of control and less revenue.”

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter last week said he’d like the universities to continue with an enrollment strategy centered on “managed growth.” But Harreld repeatedly has said he’s not looking to get bigger, and he told The Gazette on Thursday, “We’re at capacity.”

He said more students require more residence halls and more faculty and more campus security.

“Where’s the money coming from? It’s not growing on trees,” he said. “When (Rastetter) says something like managed growth, each of the institutions are in a different place, and we each need to manage that growth differently. For us, it means we are where we are.

“And, if anything, we’re going to manage it down and focus on quality,” Harreld said.

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

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