Iowa’s public universities are changing. That is the inevitable outcome of persistent budget cuts handed down by the state government in recent years.
The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have weathered more than $40 million in state budget cuts in the past year and a half, including $11 million in midyear cuts in April, just three months away from the end of the fiscal year.
This board and thousands of other Iowans have criticized politicians’ shortsightedness in slashing public programs, and we will continue to do so. Nevertheless, this is our political reality, and we all have a responsibility to minimize the damage those cuts will have.
The latest round of cuts at UI are expected to save $3.5 million by closing seven campus centers and trimming resources at others. The closures include:
• The Center on Aging in the Carver College of Medicine, which is dedicated to improving the health and well-being of older people.
• The Confucius Institute in the Office of International Programs, which offers outreach programs, including Chinese language classes for Iowa high school students.
• The Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research in the College of Education, which provides resources on educating people with disabilities.
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• The UI Labor Center in the College of Law, which educates workers and supports labor unions.
• The Office of Iowa Practice Opportunities in the College of Dentistry, which hosts a database of opportunities for dentists hoping to practice in Iowa.
• The UI Mobile Museum, an interdepartmental partnership, which brings museum exhibits to places around the state.
• Iowa Center for Higher Education, which offers UI programs from its campus in Des Moines.
Perhaps the only recourse left for our public institutions of higher learning is to narrow their focus, to redouble on educating undergraduate students and shutter some auxiliary functions. However, that shift has consequences reaching far beyond our public university campuses in Iowa City, Cedar Falls and Ames. Such a dramatic change should not be undertaken without careful consideration from stakeholders and the public.
Board of Regents President Mike Richards explained the cuts in a statement released earlier this month. He said, “The decision to close centers at the University of Iowa is a result of a comprehensive review by UI administrators, and receiving recommendations from the vice presidents and deans.”
There’s no doubt college administrators have a valuable role to play in securing the universities’ financial health, but they do not own our public institutions. No review can reasonably be considered comprehensive without giving members of the public the opportunity to offer guidance.
We worry Iowa’s higher education system is suffering under a shortage of adequate long-term planning.
The universities’ lack of vision is exemplified by UI’s short-lived experiment with the Iowa Center for Higher Education. The former AIB College of Business gifted itself to the university in 2015 with hopes it would become a central Iowa branch of the UI.
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However, UI already had operated the John and Mary Pappajohn Education Center in Des Moines since 2008. Substantial enrollment at the former AIB under UI control never materialized, leading university administrators to conclude this month they couldn’t justify the costs. Even if this year’s drastic budget cuts couldn’t have been anticipated back in 2015, it’s hard to imagine what purpose could be served by two UI campuses in Des Moines, just 40 miles from ISU.
Sure, the university changed presidents since then and several spots on the Board of Regents have turned over. That only underscores the necessity to have publicly vetted plans in place for maintaining the universities. In tough budget times, public servants should be acting intentionally, with clear objectives in mind.
We also see a failure to consider the statewide effects of budget decisions, both by legislators and university administrators, as evidenced by the impending closures of the Center on Aging and the Office of Iowa Practice Opportunities.
Iowa faces unique challenges, as a rural state with one of the highest portions of residents over the age of 65. Iowa’s hundreds of small communities can’t provide basic services if they can’t attract and retain an educated workforce. To grow, or perhaps even to survive, towns need doctors, nurses and dentists.
If cash-strapped public universities can no longer afford to help fill those vital roles, there must be a plan in place for some other entity to take on those responsibilities. Unfortunately, we see none.
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