Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Civic Skinny

President Ruud leaves UNI after faculty carping. But the system is rigged against the university.




Bill Ruud is not leaving the University of Northern Iowa for some idyllic small college in some idyllic small town.

Marietta College, now with about 1,200 students, is an ordinary small college in an ordinary small town. The college fights for money and students, has laid off nearly 40 people in the past couple of years, and has seen enrollment drop markedly. The town, now with about 14,000 citizens, has lost population steadily for the past 40 years. Income is well below the average for the state and the nation, and the poverty rate is well above.

The college’s most recent president left after four years amid carping about his style. The faculty reportedly was preparing a no-confidence vote in him when he decided to step down.

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So why would Bill Ruud leave UNI for that — for a place with money woes, with enrollment woes, and with an unhappy faculty carping about style? If he wanted those problems, he could have stayed at UNI.

Or could he?

“I think, underscore think, that folks who worked closely with him didn’t like his ‘style,’ ” says an academic who knows the place inside out. Some faculty “said he was a difficult person to work with,” says another guy — a sort of Kremlinologist of Regent doings. Clearly, that message got to the Board of Regents, which apparently told him he needed to change his ways before they would renew his contract.

He got the message. The Marietta job opened up in January, and applications had to be in by March 22. The hiring of Ruud was announced last week. That’s lightning speed for a college, but Ruud — a sitting president at a school 10 times the size of Marietta — must look like a dream come true for the Ohio school. And, in fact, he might be. Marietta is probably more manageable than UNI.

For the Legislature, the Regents — and I was one for more than six years — the two bigger state universities and the economy have combined to slowly strangle UNI, a wonderful university that provides Iowa towns with teachers and Iowa insurance and finance firms with accountants. And Iowa church choirs with beautiful voices.

In-state tuition is far less than the cost of education at the three state universities, and traditionally money from state appropriations and from out-of-state students offsets the subsidy. Thirty-five years ago, that wasn’t much of a problem. State appropriations accounted for almost 80 percent of the operating budgets at the schools, so there was always money to underwrite the education of the Iowans.

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Way out West in West Des Moines. Channel 8 last week ran on its web site a photo series of a “sneak peek inside new West Des Moines hotel.” A careful reader sent it to Cityview, urging that we “book the WDM mountain-view rooms now.”

But now, barely a third of the budgets comes from the state, with most of the rest coming from tuition. Iowa and Iowa State, with their large out-of-state enrollments, can use the nonresident money to help out, and they have ample foundation support to chip in. But UNI, with nearly 90 percent of its undergraduates coming from Iowa and with just a tiny foundation to supplement funds, doesn’t have that money. (Also, it has to spend $4 million or so to subsidize its athletics program while the athletic directors at Iowa and Iowa State — flooded with TV money — have to hunt to find ways to spend their sports money.)

If you’re losing money on every sale, you’re not going to make it up on volume.

UNI has to fill the gap either by cutting costs — short-changing the students — or by getting more aid. Costs have already been cut to the bone. So the answer is more aid. To its credit, the Legislature has been inching up help for UNI, relative to the increases at the other schools. But the increases are too slow and too small.

And the formula is still inequitable, if you think the purpose of state aid is to underwrite the undergraduate education of Iowans. The University of Iowa gets about $230 million from the state for its general operating fund; Iowa State gets about $180 million, UNI about $95 million. So the state gives the U of I about $20,000 for each resident undergraduate — and it was higher until the university put on a Regents-demanded push to enroll more Iowans.

(The University of Iowa has hugely increased the amount of financial aid it offers Iowans — something UNI can’t afford to do. Iowa hired additional recruiters and increased its advertising — all of which had a direct impact on UNI as well as the state’s many private colleges. Neither the Regents nor the legislators seem to have thought through their mandate.)

Iowa State gets about $9,800 for each undergraduate from the state (again, ISU has sharply increased the number of its in-state undergraduates, again hurting UNI), and UNI gets about $11,500.

If you take the total number of in-state undergraduates at the three schools — 38,112 at last count— and divide that into the $507 million in general operating funds appropriated by the state, you get a per-student subsidy of $13,302. By this measure, the University of Iowa is getting an extra $6,845 for each student — a total of about $78 million. Of that, about $64 million should go to Iowa State, about $14 million to UNI.

If the money were redistributed that way — and if Iowa and Iowa State looked under the cushions in the athletic department to come up with $4 million to give for UNI sports — UNI could turn around, and the already-wealthy Iowa State could become world class in the sciences. This could be done over three years, and if businessman Bruce Harreld is as savvy as Bruce Rastetter thinks he is, the University of Iowa would never feel it.

If nothing is done, enrollment at UNI — 10,169 undergraduates this year, compared to 11,407 five years ago — will continue to erode. Faculty will depart. Finances will deteriorate. A fine school will slip into mediocrity. And the state of Iowa will have a huge problem.

It just won’t be Bill Ruud’s. CV

— Michael Gartner



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