Staff Editorial

Iowa lawmakers want to micromanage underfunded universities

The Old Capitol on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

A bill that advanced past a subcommittee in the Iowa House would bar the state’s public universities from spending money from grants, donations and other nonstate sources without approval by state lawmakers. It’s the latest misguided effort by lawmakers to micromanage universities with dubious justifications.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think up scenarios where such a change would be disruptive and harmful. If the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics receives a grant to conduct pressing medical research, perhaps on a pandemic virus, why should it be required to embark on the cumbersome task of seeking legislative approval?

Will donors be more reluctant to give gifts to the universities, knowing their donation could become a political football at the Statehouse? Will Legislators approve a grant for agricultural studies at Iowa State but turn down a grant for cultural studies at the University of Iowa?

The troubling scenarios of injecting politicians into these decisions are countless.

This is the same Legislature that has underfunded Iowa’s universities for years, forcing them to seek external sources of dollars. Now, lawmakers are worried about how those dollars are being spent.

Beyond the state budget, lawmakers already have plenty of input into university governance. The Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s three universities, is appointed by the governor and its members are confirmed by the Iowa Senate. Legislators routinely call university presidents and other officials to testify before legislative committees.

So oversight is adequate, and lawmakers concerned with spending decisions have multiple channels for airing those concerns and getting answers.

Placing legislators in a position to give a thumbs up or down to myriad decisions on how the universities spend grants and other outside dollars would be a big mistake. Lawmakers should instead concentrate on how to make our universities better, starting with a more robust state investment.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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