Regents ask for attention to free speech, efficiencies

Spring tuition won't go up, state Board of Regents president Michael Richards confirmed during the board's Nov. 18 virtual meeting. Last June, when the board approved flat rates for fall semester, it reserved the option of revisiting a spring tuition increase.

"Because of COVID-19, pausing our five-year tuition model for one academic year was the right thing to do," Richards said. "But in balancing the future needs of our institutions, we are planning to resume the five-year tuition plan beginning with fall 2021 semester."

In his remarks, Richards also gave an assignment to the university presidents for the board's February 2021 meeting: Provide a "full and thorough update" about how their institution is protecting free speech on campus and in the classroom. Noting that the board adopted a free speech policy in April 2019, Richards said members won't tolerate violations of it.

"Everyone has a right to express their own opinion. Disagreeing on issues and having a respectful debate about those issues should happen on our university campuses," he said. "What should not happen is preventing another person's or group's opinion from being expressed, or threatening those opinions with possible repercussions. This is not who we are, and it is not right."

Richards appointed three regents, David Barker, Nancy Boettger and Zack Leist, to an advisory committee. Their task, also by the February meeting, is to evaluate the board's policy as well as best practices in First Amendment protections at other colleges and universities, and recommend changes that would strengthen the board's efforts in the area of free speech.

"This is a conversation that should be transparent and public," he said.

Winter course registration

In her presentation to the board, President Wendy Wintersteen reported that changes to the fall and spring semester calendars presented an opportunity to offer a short online winter session featuring 55 courses. With registration still open, she said more than 2,400 students have enrolled so far.

"We'll be closely monitoring this to see if we might consider this winter session again in the future," she added.

Wintersteen also offered a short update on the university's current fiscal year budget. She estimated the pandemic's total financial impact to exceed $150 million, nearly half of which -- $70 million -- is in lost revenue for auxiliary units due to canceled performances, conferences, competitions and other events. The reduction to the general university operating budget remains at $41 million, and university leaders are working with state and federal partners to make the best use of options for reimbursable expenses.

ACT/SAT requirement waived another year

The board also extended its waiver of an ACT or SAT score as a required piece of the student admission process at the three regent universities through the 2021-22 admissions cycle. The waiver recognizes that many test dates are being canceled or postponed during the pandemic.

Additionally, the board temporarily expanded institutions' authority to provide exceptional performance payments to merit employees on a calendar year basis. Normally, the state administrative code only permits these awards on a fiscal year basis. The intent is greater flexibility for schools to recognize exceptional merit employee efforts, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Efficiency recommendations

Regents David Barker and Nancy Dunkel, who co-chaired another board advisory group tasked last April with identifying opportunities for the three regent universities to collaborate for greater efficiency, presented about two dozen recommendations to the board. They divided their recommendations into two lists: one for the board's executive director Mark Braun that generally covered digital delivery of academic programs and board office collaborations with other public partners, and one for university presidents that includes suggestions in the areas of joint contracts, resource opportunities and inter-institutional collaboration.

"Through the meetings we've had, it's been apparent -- and comforting -- to see the long list of collaborative efforts our schools already employ, from joint contracts to cross-institutional committees and ongoing coordination of various programs. It's very clear that this process is not new to our regent schools," Dunkel said.

Barker concurred but noted that "in these difficult time, it's not enough."

He cited revenue losses because of the pandemic, coming enrollment declines because of demographic changes and changes to how higher education is delivered. He said the list highlights ideas the group believes have potential for additional savings and efficiencies, and noted members studied many other ideas that ultimately didn't make the list.

Dunkel said once the list receives a second reading at the board's February meeting, each idea will be explored over 2.5 years. Initial assessments of every idea should be completed by December 2021 and, for those ideas the board moves forward, June 2022 is the goal for completion or near-completion.

Iowa State agenda items

In other business, the regents approved ISU requests to:

  • Award professional development assignments for next year (2021-22 academic year) for 29 ISU faculty, including four for the full academic year, 15 for fall 2021 and 10 for spring 2022. This year, 48 ISU faculty are approved to complete a professional development assignment; the change represents about a 40% decrease.
  • Revise the budget ($2.1 million) and scope of work for a project that now will replace the glass exterior wall system at the southeast corner of Parks Library. Original plans were to repair leaking window seals and frame components for $640,000, but replacement parts no longer are available.
  • Name the athletics department's new sports performance center for the Stark family of Woolstock: Richard, Joan and their children: Kristin, Natalie, Jennifer, Stephanie and Mary. The Starks made a multi-million-dollar commitment to the larger $90 million building and plaza project outside the north end of the football stadium that also improves the north end of the stadium itself.
  • Close the Iowa Community Vitality Center in the economics department, effective Dec. 31, due to the director's August retirement. Legislative funding for it ended in 2010.

The board also received several annual reports, with data submitted by the universities and prepared by board office staff: