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Slow down, let new guard sort out U of I mess

David Yepsen

Des Moines Register

November 30, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

The selection of a new president for the University of Iowa is a mess. It should be postponed for a few months to enable Governor-elect Chet Culver and the new Legislature to get involved.

This should no longer be one of the last acts of Gov. Tom Vilsack's lame-duck administration. Forcing a solution risks a backfire and could give us a second-rate president who is not accepted by the university community or other Iowans.

So here's a solution that could give us a better university within six months:

First, as part of developing the next state budget, the new governor and Legislature should double - or substantially increase - the salary the state is offering. Then the regents should start a new search process to, presumably, get additional candidates to apply.

And while they're at it, our policymakers can raise the presidential pay at the two other state schools. It's obvious we've been too cheap. (Maybe we could make the pay of university presidents a percentage of what we pay our university football coaches. We do have our priorities here in Iowa, you know.)

Second, the governor and lawmakers can also debate other policy questions facing the state universities. First, there's the matter of repealing that dumb law the Republicans passed and Vilsack signed that restricts stem-cell research. Talent has left the U of I because of it. We can't attract other talent, and we look like hicks. (Is this Kansas? No, it's Iowa. To borrow a phrase.)

And we can debate other issues - such as how much students should pay in tuition and how much the taxpayers should finance.

Third, in return for their state appropriations, is it too much to ask the great minds in our academic communities to find some new ways they and their institutions can help the hard-pressed counties and regions of this state to grow again? Part of this controversy centers on the need for the U of I to do even more to improve Iowa's economy through its health sciences programs.

Fourth, by mid-March, the new governor will have an opportunity to make three appointments to the Board of Regents, which governs the universities and is at the center of this flap.

All this will enable Culver and the Legislature to chart and debate their directions for the schools. The fall election began a new era in Iowa. It's that new guard - not the old one - that should be making these decisions.

Politically, it'll do Vilsack a favor. This controversy mars the good feelings he wanted everyone to have as he leaves office. As it is, a few days before his big presidential announcement today, he had to break off and spend three hours in a closed-door meeting in Cedar Rapids, trying to cool the egos involved.

Right now, the most important thing in Tom Vilsack's life is amassing enough votes to win the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa, is a huge lode of those votes, and right now a lot of folks there are miffed at him.

Back to the U of I. This debate is actually about the mission of that university and its role in Iowa life. Too much of the discussion has been going on in secrecy. (Like that Cedar Rapids meeting.)

Debates in the Legislature would open up the discussion. After all, the U of I belongs to all the people of Iowa - not the regents, not the faculty, not the students. It's time to reclaim it for everyone.

So let's give our new policymakers a crack at this. The U of I has already been without a president for six months - a year if you include the time former president David Skorton spent as a lame duck. It's not going to hurt to have the job sit vacant for a little longer while our new leaders work through these questions.

This must be done right, not fast.

Nor should we focus on how this turmoil came about. It appears lots of strong-willed, well-meaning people have come to disagreements. But their fighting and this controversy have become like Iraq: Iowans aren't so interested in how we got into the mess as they are in how we get out of it.