The state Board of Regents has a transparency problem, which it pledged to correct. Action taken today and Thursday will determine if that pledge was serious.
Members of the regents will meet in Iowa City to decide, among other things, the fate of 10 various centers at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. On the proverbial chopping block, according to the agenda, are five centers from each institution.
• Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products
• Center for Carbon Capturing Crops
• Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies
• Midwest Forensics Resource Center
• Nutrition and Wellness Research Center
University of Iowa:
• Center on Aging
• Confucius Institute
• Institute for Public Affairs
• Iowa Center for Assistive Technology and Research
• Labor Center
In the case of every closure at ISU, initiatives either had become inactive or absorbed into another program. Cost savings came from one staff retirement, already complete.
Closures recommended by UI officials aren’t nearly as clear-cut.
Regent documents show UI listed the same rationale for each center closure: “The University is closing some centers, institutes, and programs that receive General Education Funds and whose activities do not directly support University of Iowa student education.”
This was not, however, how UI President Bruce Harreld described the review process to regents in April. At that time, he said centers would be considered for closure if they weren’t closely tied to student education, economic development or research.
The university’s hand was forced, Harreld said, by state budget cuts. As evidence of the financial woes, Harreld also announced a moratorium on construction projects — a pause that ended five months later when UI requested bids to build a $10 million Finkbine Golf Clubhouse. Yet, a week after the bid-letting, attorneys representing the university in a refusal to pay a contractor millions for work on a new hospital and auditorium filed court documents claiming “financial hardship.”
An earlier UI estimate showed closing seven centers and budget cuts to others provided less than $4 million in savings, which would roll back into the general fund.
UI has been shorted roughly $16 million by the state since 2016.
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Yet, curtains were closed and doors locked when university officials embarked on a quest to review more than 150 initiatives in an effort to trim the budget.
In a process reminiscent of the regents’ shady selection process for the current UI president, a public institution felt no need to involve the public.
Thankfully, regents learned from past mistakes, subsequently launching more open and transparent searches for leadership at ISU and the University of Northern Iowa. Those lessons now must be extended.
Regents should not sign off on any closures at UI, pending public review and vetting of current recommendations.
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