DES MOINES --- In answering questions from lawmakers Monday, the three appointees to new six-year terms on Iowa’s Board of Regents vowed to better promote the good work occurring across the public universities and dig in as strong advocates for improved funding from the state.
“We really need folks who will stand up for those universities and say, ‘Listen, we need more money, or our standards are going to be lower,’” Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, told the three regent candidates. “The rankings are already lower for all three universities. So I would really appreciate folks that are strong voices for our universities.”
All three voiced support for that directive and the sentiment behind it.
“I’ve spent my lifetime doing that, being an advocate for more funding for higher education,” said Jim Lindenmayer, who has been serving on the board in an interim capacity since last summer, when former regent Subhash Sahai resigned.
Having spent 12 years as president of Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Lindemayer said he understands well what higher education can do for individuals and the state as a whole.
“We’ve been underfunded, particularly the universities have for a while,” he said. “We are starting to see the effects of that now, not only in the performance and retention of professors but also student debt.”
Joining Lindenmayer in the Senate Education Committee meeting Monday were regent incumbent Milt Dakovich of Waterloo, who Gov. Kim Reynolds suggested serve a second term on the board, and Iowa City businessman David Barker, an Iowa Republican Party official and the only new face among the trio of appointees.
“I plan to be as accessible as I can possibly be to legislators and to make the case for the university as best I can,” Barker said, in response to the call for advocacy.
The appointments must receive confirmation from two-thirds of Senate to become official May 1.
Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, also called on the three appointees to do a better job promoting the good work on the university campuses.
“I think we have to toot our own horn to make sure that the public knows all this wonderful stuff is going on,” she said. “I hope you will continue to be a voice, and maybe a louder voice, for all the wonderful things that are going on right here in our state.”
But when Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, voiced his internal struggle with inequities in Iowa’s higher education funding — noting public universities get more per student than community colleges — Barker and Lindemayer talked more about community colleges than the universities.
“In our business, we hire a lot of graduates of the community colleges and actually very few graduates of the regent institutions — so I understand the importance of the community colleges,” Barker said. “They all have different products with different cost structures, and it’s great I think that we are able to offer those options to people who want to make different financial decisions and take on less debt. So I’m a big fan of the community colleges.”
Referencing his history at Indian Hills, Lindenmayer said, “It’s not fair for each student that’s attending those different institutions of higher education.”
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“When I was in the community college system, it never did seem fair to me that there was a student sitting in Ottumwa with $2,500 behind him where in Iowa City they had $10,000 behind them,” Lindenmayer said. “But they are different institutions. They are different operations. None of us in higher education have ever had enough money.”
He added, “I think it’s something that the Legislature as a whole is aware of, and they need to be because it’s something that needs to be managed.”
Dakovich agreed public universities and community colleges have different missions and cost structures.
“They are both very strong and very good,” he said. “But I’m here to lobby for the regents.”
It was Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who noted the research aspect of the public universities as part of the reason they receive more state support — which still has been eroding in recent years, with tens of millions cut in just the last few legislative sessions.
“I would suggest that the comparison that has been suggested is a little bit misleading,” Quirmbach said. “If you take the total appropriation and you divide by the number of students, implicitly what you’re doing is assuming that all those dollars are going to educate those students. And that’s simply not true — especially at Iowa and Iowa State.”
Both those universities are members of the Association of American Universities, comprised of 62 distinguished research schools mostly in the United States.
“At Iowa and Iowa State, what you’re also buying is a research capacity,” Quirmbach said, reporting the thousands of jobs and millions in funding generated by research. “Let’s make sure we are comparing apples to apples.”
Other questions lawmakers posed included academic freedom — in the form of tenure — and free speech, with a mention of legislation being considered that would spell out university obligations and restrictions to public spaces and student groups.
The regent appointees didn’t take a hard stance on the issue of free speech or the proposed legislation — noting the clash between speech freedoms and protection from discrimination is fraught with tension.
“It’s something we need to manage very carefully over time,” Barker said. “Because both of those rights are very important and we don’t want to trample on either of them.”
Lindenmayer said the question hinges on how speech manifests on the campus communities.
“The key is not limiting free speech, but it’s managing the behavior that comes along with that,” he said. “That’s the challenge for administrators and people who run campus.”