Education

University of Iowa will support Labor Center four more years

Reversal comes in light of center plan to become self-sufficient

Tracy Leone with Teamster Local 238 in Cedar Rapids talks to a group supporting the University of Iowa Labor Center after they attended a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tracy Leone with Teamster Local 238 in Cedar Rapids talks to a group supporting the University of Iowa Labor Center after they attended a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Amid statewide pushback including resolutions, public forums, letters to the editor, and protests, the University of Iowa is reconsidering a budget-cutting measure to close its long-standing Labor Center — after the enterprise pitched a plan to become self-sufficient in four years.

The university reported the about-face Tuesday, noting that next week it will formally request Board of Regents permission to reconsider the closure, which it originally announced in July in response to ongoing Legislative cuts.

UI President Bruce Harreld, last summer, said the state’s generational disinvestment in higher education was forcing his administration to close seven campus centers that didn’t serve the university’s academic mission or student success.

He planned to furlough many of the affected centers’ budgets — meaning the Labor Center was slated to close this coming summer. Additionally, Harreld announced budget reductions for other campus units — like the Iowa Supports Education and Resources for Veterans and Enlisted, or I-SERVE, program. Administrators on Tuesday did not announce any other changes to its original cuts or closures.

The plan to save the UI Labor Center still nixes UI general education support — even while continuing to provide limited College of Law funding through the end of the 2023 budget year.

Kevin Washburn, dean of the UI College of Law that houses the center, signed a memorandum of understanding with Labor Center Director Jennifer Sherer “to eliminate general education funding for the Labor Center while providing limited financial support for four years to give the center time to generate new or additional revenue.”

Since its inception in 1951, the university has financially supported the Labor Center — providing $557,000 in general-education support in the most recent budget year. According to the memorandum of understanding, that contribution will drop to $225,000 in the 2020 budget year, representing a 60 percent cut; $150,000 in the 2021 budget year, a 73-percent cut; $100,000 in 2022; and $50,000 in 2023, before dropping to $0 in 2024 and every year after.

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The UI College of Law will fund the center primarily using unspent revenue from the Institute of Public Affairs, which the university closed in May following the director’s retirement and in light of shrinking resources.

That money does not come from tuition revenue and state appropriations, and Harreld urged it all “should be directed at the university’s core academic mission.”

“I would like to thank Dean Washburn and Director Sherer for working collaboratively to find a solution that preserves an important resource for the state while also protecting tuition dollars for teaching, research, and student success,” Harreld said in a statement.

Harreld has pushed for creative solutions to keep the center open while also insisting his institution cannot keep supporting campus centers that provide a state service if lawmakers don’t do better in supporting the universities.

The state since the start of the 2017 budget year has cut Iowa’s public universities by nearly $35 million. In addition to closing and cutting the centers, which it expects eventually will save $3.5 million, the university has responded to cuts by temporarily halting new construction across campus, freezing faculty pay, nixing some scholarship programs and raising tuition.

Neither the university nor the memo provide specifics of how the Labor Center will become self-sufficient over the next four years, but officials note the delay would give it time to establish “revenue-generating programming, acquire grants, or raise philanthropic support.”

The memo, additionally, didn’t spell out how the Labor Center would make up for its budget shortfall over these next four years.

“Regardless how it does so, the Labor Center shall bear sole responsibility for any differential between the budgeted operating costs and the maximum funding from the College of Law,” according to the memo.

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Under the deal, the Labor Center will maintain its current staff of five but undergo more frequent budget reviews “to ensure its operating plan is sustainable,” according to the university.

“Labor Center management shall demonstrate with official records the amount of funding that is secured for the coming year, the current available reserves, and the amount of budgeted revenue that is speculative,” according to the memo.

Although the university agreed to defer furloughs of Labor Center employees, per the document, should secured funding not exceed payroll costs “the College of Law shall maintain or issue furlough notices to one or more staff members.”

In a statement, Dean Washburn said he believes in the Labor Center and the community it supports.

“Providing supplemental funding until new sources of revenue can be secured is a positive outcome for the college and the center,” Washburn said. “This agreement would not have been possible without the support of our local legislative delegation and Iowa’s labor community.”

Center director Sherer also in a statement praised the chance to move the enterprise forward.

“Students, faculty, workers, and community leaders have all reminded us of how critical the center’s education and research are for our university and our state,” Sherer said. “I am grateful that we worked together to find a way for this work to continue.”

During a campus event in December, Sherer laid out her group’s efforts to find savings and new revenue streams — including increasing programming fees starting in the next budget year.

She reported a willingness to take a cut in UI support starting July 1; efforts to secure additional grant funding; and commitment to launch a joint fundraising appeal “as soon as we have some assurance of UI funding that allows us to confidential tell any potential donors that we will indeed remain open next year,” Sherer said at the time.

Although the memo requires the Labor Center to develop private funding support as part of its financial portfolio going forward, the agreement notes the center’s fundraising plan “shall not target current College of Law donors.”

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“The College of Law is willing to assist the Labor Center with its fundraising efforts with respect to alumni who specifically seek to support the Labor Center and who are not already part of the College of Law’s development efforts,” according to the memo.

Sherer in December also proposed convening an intercollegiate faculty committee to develop new Labor Center course and certificate program proposals “to contribute to growing areas of student interest while also contributing to the Labor Center’s budget.”

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

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