Past and present University of Iowa presidents recount tragedies as transformative

'We are stronger and we are better'

Former University of Iowa President David Skorton (center) (2003-2006) looks at current President Bruce Harreld (right)
Former University of Iowa President David Skorton (center) (2003-2006) looks at current President Bruce Harreld (right) as they share the stage with other Former presidents Hunter Rawlings (left) (1988-1995), Mary Sue Coleman (second from left) (1995-2002), and Sally Mason (second from right) (2007-2015) during the University of Iowa Presidential Forum at Voxman Music Building Concert Hall in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Five past and present University of Iowa presidents convened in a half circle of armchairs Friday to talk about their time in Iowa City, how it shaped their lives — and the lessons they learned.

When asked to resurrect one memory that shaped their presidency and changed their trajectory, nearly all named events — some of them tragedies — that none would ever wish for.

“Nov. 1, 1991,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, 74, the UI president from 1998 to 1995.

He was in Columbus, Ohio, the day 28-year-old UI graduate student Gang Lu opened fire in Van Allen Hall and then Jessup Hall, killing five before turning the gun on himself. Officers believe Lu had intended to kill Rawlings, too.

“It was a day of horror,” said Rawlings, who remembered a phone call to his hotel from his assistant that day. “She said, ‘Hunter, I’m under my desk.’ And I will never forget that.”

He said the day remains in his thoughts not only because that kind of campus violence was unheard of at the time, but because of the way the community rose up.

“That’s the kind of trauma no one is prepared for, I don’t care how much practice you’ve had,” he said. “And frankly, we hadn’t had any practice. Because it was unheard of.”

Individual campus leaders demonstrated unparalleled bravery, integrity and empathy.

“I remember a minister welcomed Chinese students and said, ‘I know you’re all feeling nervous about what’s going to happen to you now, but I want you to know that you’ve got a safe place here, and we’re going to support you,’” Rawlings said. “I have never been prouder of a group of people under terrible stress than I was then.”


Sally Mason, 69, who served from 2007 to 2015, said people — Iowans — also typified her transformative moment, which played out in summer 2008 when historic flooding inundated the campus — affecting 20-plus buildings spanning 2.5 million square feet and costing upward of $743 million in damage and recovery costs.

“It was a rather interesting first year as president — to say the least,” she said, noting her intentions for long-range planning morphed into immediate strategies.

“We knew exactly what we needed to do.”: Mason said. “And I was so reassured in such a short period of time by the people here.”

The presidents convened before a crowd of dignitaries, campus faculty and staff and community members in the new Voxman Music Building, erected in 2016 after the former music school fell victim to the flood. The gathering was among UI homecoming events this week.

“Look at this building,” Mason said, sitting before a majestic Klais organ. “This is an incredible testimony to the spirit of Iowa, Iowans, the University of Iowa, really all things Iowa.”

The flood forced her to get acquainted with the community and its people in short order, Mason said, recalling a mantra she and her team recited “over and over.”

“We were constantly saying … we’ll be stronger and we’ll be better,” she said. “And we are stronger and we are better, and there’s a great future ahead for this university.”

Mary Sue Coleman, 76 — who spent 1995 to 2002 as UI president, identified a fire that nearly destroyed the campus’ Old Capitol as a defining moment in her tenure.


“That was just a heart-crushing and soul-crushing event,” she said. “This was the heart of the campus … For many hours we thought it was going to be destroyed.”

In that crews on campus salvaged it that day and resurrected it from crumbling infrastructure to “this gorgeous museum” speaks to the character of the campus and its people, she said.

Current UI President Bruce Harreld’s moment that shaped the way he thought about the presidency came early in his tenure — with the controversy that engulfed the way he was hired.

The Board of Regents chose Harreld, who had never been an academic administrator, despite wide campus opposition.

“When I joined the university, there were a lot of people out there who were not very pleased about that whole process — to say the least,” he said, thanking his fellow panelists for reaching out then and “patting me on the back and boosting me up.”

“But that caused an important dialogue on our campus, which is where are we at? What’s been happening over the last decade? Given this change in funding that’s been going on for the last decade, what are we doing about it?” he said.

“And I think those dialogues, at least for me, were very cathartic,” Harreld said. “Because I think we all came to the conclusion that we need to own the future rather than react to the past.”

Those conversations, he said, have set the university on its path toward innovation, reinvention and reinvesting in core principles.


“Universities can be trapped in their past,” he said. “Winners tend to become losers unless they continue to push and experiment.”

David Skorton, 69 — who served as UI president between 2003 and 2006, didn’t highlight any specific traumatic event while on campus. But he did echo his colleagues’ sentiment about the transformative nature of disturbance and the power of community.

In that Skorton started his storied UI career in the College of Medicine as a physician, he pointed out that many who enter the research university bubble do so through the UI Hospitals and Clinics.

“They come in fear and desperation and hope that things would get better,” he said. “And I think actually some of them send their kids to the university for the same reason. They want to see them step up to a different way of life.”

Although the UI, and many schools like it across the country, has endured substantive changes over the years, the presidents opined that their missions to improve student lives, serve the communities in which they live and shape the future for the nation and the world remains the same.

“In this country, having access to really good quality in higher education is one of the best things we can do for the next generation,” Coleman said.

As many acknowledged the landscape of higher education is changing, some stressed the importance of humility in the leadership that forges a way forward.

Skorton said campus presidents should have a “beginners mind” — poking fun at Coleman, who had recalled that during her presidency some 5-year-olds in a group said they were excited to meet “the president of the universe.”

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