Iowa's public universities take $8 million hit from Iowa Legislature

The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on We
The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Compounding the unprecedented financial woes Iowa’s public universities are facing in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers adjourning their 2020 session over the weekend cut $8 million from the Board of Regents.

That means the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa not only won’t get an $18 million boost they requested last fall for the 2021 budget year starting July 1, but the board will have $8 million less going forward than the $620.3 million in appropriations it got this year.

“We wish we could have maintained level funding, and we will continue to work with the governor and Legislature to restore the funding next year,” regents spokesman Josh Lehman said. “No decision has been made on the allocation of cuts, but they will be announced publicly, likely at the July Board of Regents meeting.”

The state cut exacerbates massive hits the three universities are absorbing because of COVID-19, which triggered their midsemester move to online-only instruction; canceled events including athletics and graduation; curtailed research; and forced new safety- and security-related spending in response to the health crisis. The universities also had to give refunds for canceled study abroad experiences and negated residence hall housing and dining contracts.

Presidents across the campuses warned of coming budget cuts that could manifest in missed raises, pay decreases, furloughs, reassignment and layoffs.

Terminating contracts

ISU months ago asked every unit to cut 5 percent from its coming-year budget — and probably for 2022, too.

Leaders in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences over the weekend aired grievances with the UI’s handling of its budget cuts, starting with a decision not to renew 15 instructional-track faculty, who are easier to terminate than tenured faculty.

“On a day that the entire university community was asked to cease ‘business as usual’ and contemplate solutions to institutional racism, administrators at the University of Iowa had other things on their minds,” according to an open letter from UI English professors Stephen Voyce and Loren Glass. “They were busy terminating the contracts of 15 instructional track faculty, among them a 15-year veteran woman of color beloved by students and colleagues alike.”


The professors assert the firings happened without taking steps like collaborating with the Faculty Senate.

“Had they done so, they would have encountered several alternative solutions,” according to the letter. “One department, for instance, unanimously agreed that had they been given the chance, they would have taken pay cuts to save their colleagues’ jobs.”

The professors demanded more administrative sacrifices.

“If these cuts are truly necessary, then a modest reduction in the highest salaried employees at the university — for example, high ranking administrators, elite coaching staff, surgeons, and business school faculty — could have saved the jobs of several highly decorated teachers,” according to the letter.

UI officials did not immediately provide a response to the letter.

‘Deeply disappointing’

Earlier this spring, the universities projected losing at least a combined $193 million from coronavirus-related losses and expenses — not including UI Health Care, which is projecting a hit of about $120 million by the end of June.

All three universities are warning of enrollment drops, too, impacting tuition revenue.

Regents this month deviated from a five-year plan to raise tuition rates over several years, acknowledging the new student economic and health hardships by freezing rates for fall at the three campuses.

Regents noted they would reassess tuition for the spring semester once they learned what lawmakers would do with appropriations.

Upon finding that out over the weekend, board spokesman Lehman said the board will decide on spring rates this fall.

Although leaders at the universities didn’t comment Monday on the state’s $8 million cut, student leaders did, calling it “particularly harmful against the backdrop of 30 years of generational disinvestment.”


“The Iowa Legislature’s decision to cut $8 million in important funding for higher education at a time when students and their families are struggling with once-in-a-generation economic crisis is shortsighted and deeply disappointing,” according to a statement from student leaders at the UI, ISU and UNI.

“At a time when courageous activists have exposed deep racial inequities in our society, it must be noted that these cuts will fall hardest on students of color,” according to the statement. “When state funding goes down, students pay higher tuition, and rising tuition is yet another barrier for students of color — who are consistently forced to take on more student debt than their white peers.”

value to Iowa

After absorbing legislative cuts in 2017 and 2018 amounting to more than $30 million, the universities had achieved measured progress in restoring some state funding in recent years — though fiscal 2020 appropriations were $56 million below fiscal 2001.

For 2021, the board had requested an $18 million boost. Gov. Kim Reynolds in January proposed a 3 percent bump, which would have amounted to $6.7 million more for the UI, $5.3 million more for ISU and $3 million more for UNI.

But that was before COVID-19 hammered the country and hamstrung the state’s economy.

Regent and university leaders have argued the importance of having a thriving higher education enterprise — which includes UI Health Care, on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, and the campuses’ esteemed research engines, in pursuit of treatment methods and vaccines.

To make its case for more legislative support, the regents recently commissioned a study looking at the economic boon its institutions provide the state, finding that in the 2017-18 year the universities had an $11.8 billion impact on Iowa.

Legislators said when they adjourned Sunday that they had adopted a state budget that in most cases is “status quo.”

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