Staff Columnist

University of Iowa secrecy won't build public support

The University of Iowa old capitol building is seen from the rooftop bar at the new Hilton Garden Inn in Iowa City on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The University of Iowa old capitol building is seen from the rooftop bar at the new Hilton Garden Inn in Iowa City on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Three months ago University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld told Regents members the university would review its centers and institutions and eliminate or cut programs not centered on student learning, research or economic development. Chalk it up to another pledge not honored.

On Tuesday — two days earlier than initially planned because of mounting public outcry — university officials announced the shuttering of seven centers and reduced funding for five others.

The closures and reductions are expected to free about $3.6 million, money UI says it needs in its general fund to offset declining state investment. The projected savings, however, is less than a quarter of the $16 million state lawmakers have cut from the UI budget since 2016.

While these are all losses for the region and state, three stand in contrast to Harreld’s pledge to protect economic development initiatives.

Center on Aging opened in 1990, provides education, research and services related to the aging process and improving the health of older Iowans.

Labor Center opened in 1951, provides training and educational programs to workers and organizations.

Office of Iowa Practice Opportunities opened in 2007, helps coordinate placement of dentists, especially in places where an existing dentist is aging out of practice.

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Because of an outpouring of public support for the Labor Center, many Iowans not already aware have recently learned about the organization’s 67-year mission “to increase knowledge and understanding in the area of labor and industrial relations.” Specifically, the Labor Center stood with working families, offering education and support to those who, especially in the past few years of state policy-making, have had fewer places to turn. The center works with industry and trade groups, helping workers understand and follow the law, and creating a bridge between employers and a skilled workforce.

The importance of this work has only grown as workforce needs adapt to new technologies and the population ages.

In 2016, the population in 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties was composed, 20 percent or more, of people age 65 or older. Over the next three decades, similar numbers will spread across three-quarters of the state, making the overall state percentage just below 20 percent.

It was these Iowans and their caregivers who benefited from the work of the Center on Aging. Through brain research, specialized patient care and workforce enhancement programs, the center kept older Iowans active, productive and, as possible, in their own communities and homes. It is a vital service that would see increased demand in the coming years.

As the population is aging, so are Iowa dentists. The state doubled its number of dentists age 55 or older between 1997 and 2013. As a result, about half are nearing retirement, further compounding an ongoing shortage in rural areas.

No institution, of course, can be expected to sustain programs while being systematically stripped of resources. Therefore, Iowans intent on pointing fingers should direct their fists at Des Moines and a system of tax credits and waivers that has ballooned, largely unchecked, to $12.1 billion annually.

University officials were placed in an untenable position by state leaders, to which they reacted poorly.

There has been no public calls for support from university officials in response to state-mandated tuition hikes or decreased public investment. And, when confronted with the need to defund or eliminate long-standing university programming with statewide reach, officials took up the task behind closed doors.

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What programming was placed on the negotiation table? How were final decisions made, and how much weight was given to Harreld’s pledge to the Regents? The public wasn’t offered a window into the process, much less asked for an opinion.

This is not sustainable action by a public university, especially one that now is lamenting lowered public investment and stakes its livelihood on public support.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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