Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa

Time to move beyond Iowa City's 'orgy of self-righteousness'

David Barker

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 15, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Iowa City is enjoying an orgy of self-righteousness over the troubled search for a president of the University of Iowa. Day after day the pages of local newspapers and Internet blogs proclaim ever greater levels of greed, arrogance and evil intent on the part of the Iowa state Board of Regents, Gov. Vilsack and a shadowy conspiracy of insurance companies. University faculty and staff have the answers, of course, and if only the state of Iowa would leave everything to them, the crisis would pass.

The inconvienent truth

The inconvenient truth ignored or forgotten in all of the fun is that the university depends on Iowa taxpayers, whose generosity has limits. Many Iowans view the university as rich, liberal and increasingly out of touch with the rest of the state. Johnson County ranked 73rd of 100 Iowa counties in per capita personal income in 1969, but currently ranks seventh. In 1960 Richard Nixon carried the state of Iowa and Johnson County. Republicans still occasionally carry Iowa, but in 2006 Johnson County won't vote for a Republican even if he opposes war and champions the arts.

Being richer and more liberal is not a bad thing, but it does create political vulnerabilities. Iowa taxpayers contributed $280 million to UI in 2006, nearly 6 percent of total state spending and 24 percent of total university income. State appropriations as a percentage of university income have declined significantly over the years, and could decline still further. Maintaining state support will require diplomacy and acceptance of a certain level of state control, exercised through the Board of Regents.

Trusting the regents

Given the level of state support, most Iowans would not think that regent involvement in the selection of a president is unreasonable. Given the perception of divergence between the university and the state, most Iowans might be reluctant to allow the faculty and staff of the university to select the president and ignore the preferences of the regents.

Iowa taxpayers protect their investment in the university through their elected representatives, who have selected the Board of Regents. How are they likely to respond to faculty and staff votes of no confidence in the regents and T-shirts proclaiming membership in the "radical minority"? It seems unlikely that they will respond by supporting tax increases to be spent in Iowa City. If regents are forced out, taxpayers might conclude that they have lost control of the university, and might respond by cracking down (higher teaching loads, weakened faculty tenure) or by cutting financial support.

Conspiracy theories

Probably the most entertaining aspect of the current controversy is the widely held belief that a cabal of health insurance executives in Des Moines is conspiring to plunder the university.

The story is that regents with connections to the health insurance company Wellmark, stung by former President David Skorton's attempt to raise insurance payments to University Hospitals, forced Skorton out and are attempting to hire a "friendly" president.

As columnists in the Des Moines Register are beginning to point out, Wellmark is a mutual company, owned by its policyholders. Its interests -- and the interests of most Iowans -- are served by lowering health care costs, not by raising them. The public policy questions raised by the contract between the university and Wellmark are complicated, and Iowa Citians should not assume that other Iowans will view them as they do. Reducing these complex issues to conspiracy theories and personal attacks on the governor and regents will only strengthen the view that the university is greedy and out of touch.

An even-handed approach

I am not advocating acceptance without question of whatever the regents suggest. The university community should promote its interests and argue for state support. A good negotiator asks for things, but asking for too much or taking the wrong tone can backfire.

Selecting leaders is hard. It should not be surprising that the process occasionally breaks down or that there are differences of opinion. University faculty and staff should remember, however, that getting carried away by the excitement of fiery rhetoric and political combat might have significant unintended consequences. The university currently is unprepared to give up state support and must mind how it is perceived around the state.

A new president will be selected, and if the faculty and staff keep their cool, the difficulties of the selection process will be forgotten. If not, the process will be remembered, causing lasting damage to the university.

Like them or not, the regents are representatives of the state of Iowa, which in Iowa City is the hand that feeds us.
David Barker, an Iowa City native, is a visiting scholar and former assistant professor in the UI Finance Department. He is also a partner in Barker Apartments, which owns apartments in Iowa City, Coralville and Davenport.