Education

Study finds 'big ideas' for University of Iowa's future lacking

Report bemoaning 'status quo' led to widespread angst among faculty

Professor Tom Rice speaks with a student after the Iowa Legislature research class he teaches in the Blank Honors Center on the University of Iowa campus on Tuesday, February 22, 2007. Professor Rice is also the Department Chair of the Political Science Department at the UI.
Professor Tom Rice speaks with a student after the Iowa Legislature research class he teaches in the Blank Honors Center on the University of Iowa campus on Tuesday, February 22, 2007. Professor Rice is also the Department Chair of the Political Science Department at the UI.
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By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

IOWA CITY — After nearly two years of meetings, public forums and deliberations involving hundreds of people on campus, a new website and outreach to national leaders, a University of Iowa committee charged with studying reorganization and recommending changes to the institution has concluded without producing any.

“This was probably not the best time to ask the UI community to think long-term,” according to a newly-released report compiled by the university’s “2020 Phase II Committee.”

That group emanated from an original task force charged in January 2017 with studying “reasonable organizational changes” and suggesting possibilities for restructuring academic units.

That original task force — which included four collegiate deans — produced a report in September 2017 that, among other things, suggested “the status quo is unacceptable” and that units need “to be optimized to promote faculty productivity and student success.”

“A common concern heard during the campus discussion was whether our current collegiate and administrative units optimized our future research and teaching potential,” according to that first report. “Especially where colleges were over-large and disparate in the assortment of academic units, several disadvantages were noted.”

That report caused widespread apprehension among faculty in the UI’s largest college — the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — that administrators were posturing to break up the storied enterprise, which dates to 1900 and includes the acclaimed Writers’ Workshop.

The administration responded to the worries by creating a second, larger committee charged — again — with assessing the structure and engaging the campus on ways to “optimize our academic organization.”

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Following campuswide meetings and forums through January that connected with more than 200 people through a number of different engagement tools, the committee produced a final report this month — several months later than originally planned.

The report showed the charge had evolved from a focus on academic organization and potential reconfiguration to a “wide-ranging discussion about how we can be a better university.”

“We decided to focus on big ideas that may take a decade or more to implement and possibly longer to reap benefits,” according to the report.

The group wanted, according to its report, “to give the university community a rare opportunity to imagine collectively what our institution might be in 10 or 20 years and how we might get there.”

But that task proved difficult, according to the committee, which highlighted barriers and reasons the campus community isn’t pondering grand-scale endeavors.

For starters, the committee reported, the first phase of the exercise “caused significant angst in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences,” bleeding over into the second phase and hampering its effectiveness.

“In many of our early meetings with (the college) faculty and staff, the conversation focused on these fears, not on big ideas for the university’s future,” the report said. “Unfortunately, much of the rest of campus paid little attention to our committee because they, too, saw our work as primarily concerning” the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The group also cited systemic obstacles to coming up with big ideas, noting the university seldom encourages or rewards broad-scope proposals — but rather fosters environments where faculty are focused within their home units or departments.

“Given this, it should probably not be a surprise that we did not hear many big ideas, especially well-developed ideas,” according to the report. “It takes time to develop big ideas and our committee had a short time frame.”

The second committee’s final report noted some participants did recommend large-scale proposals — in a general sense — including one harking back to the original charge.

“Some people recommended forming various new colleges, while others advocated for dividing or combining existing colleges,” the report said. “Changing our collegiate structure is a big idea that needs extensive study by a wide range of stakeholders before decisions are made.”

Others threw out the idea of building on Iowa’s existing strength as a writing institution — but “this idea is not new,” the committee reported.

“There have long been calls to invest further in writing to give us even greater distinction,” the report said. “What we did not hear were well-developed ideas to make this happen.”

The committee did generate suggestions for fostering big ideas in the future, urging administrators to implement a process for soliciting, vetting and selecting innovative opportunities “that have the potential to make us shine.”

“Otherwise, we run the risk of choosing suboptimal ideas or worse yet, not ideas,” according to the report.

A big-idea process should factor in the university’s new budget model, which allocates money through the colleges and deans. Some on campus, during the committee’s listening tour, expressed concern the new budgeting practices “may have unintended negative consequences on interdisciplinary teaching and research.”

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“If this is true, it is a problem that needs to be addressed now, not a decade out,” said the report, while adding that a few years are needed to iron out new budgeting details. “We feel it is best to wait until then to develop a process for choosing big ideas.”

Regardless of how the ideas are picked and pursued, the university must have the resources to support them. The committee suggested either shifting money from existing programs to new initiatives or creating a “big idea” endowment.

“We do not know whether such a fund would attract significant donors, but it seems plausible that some donors would welcome supporting important future big ideas in research, teaching, and outreach,” the committee reported.

Tom Rice, director of UI Des Moines programs and member of the second-phase committee, said substantial changes across the campus — including administrative turnover, the new budget model and deep cuts in state support — made the project especially challenging. Per the report he helped compile, “We got a strong sense during our listening tour that people are focused on near-term changes and challenges.”

Still, Rice said, he believes the process was worthwhile — even fun.

“Institutionwide big ideas are pretty rare actually, and we discovered this,” Rice said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do this.”

He talked about the evolution of the committee’s charge, noting the second-phase group would have run into even more pushback if reorganization was the driving force. And Rice said he didn’t know if the university intended at the outset for a second phase of the review.

“But it made some sense after the first phase,” he said. “With ideas as big as in Phase I, we probably needed to broaden the discussion.”

UI Provost Sue Curry, who took over leading the committees’ charge from former Provost Barry Butler, said this final report reflects the committee’s “considerable investment of time and effort to have an inclusive process for thinking about our organization.” But she also noted the challenges.

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“One of their conclusions is that, as a campus, we aspire to continuous innovation and improvement,” she said. “But large-scale aspirational changes are difficult in a time of back-to-back state funding reductions and significant leadership changes.”

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

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