Cyclone serenade

Marching band trombonists practice on central campus

Cyclone Marching Band trombonists serenaded central campus just east of Morrill Hall on a recent late afternoon. As part of COVID-19 precautions this fall, marching band members frequently practice their music in small groups, and band director Christian Carichner said he often divides the band among different rehearsal days to decrease the amount of contact hours for the entire group. Photo by Christopher Gannon.


Rising costs drive increases in employee health care contributions

Premiums, copayments and deductibles for employee health care plans are increasing Jan. 1 in what's likely the first phase of a multiyear effort to counteract rising costs. 

President Wendy Wintersteen, senior vice president for operations and finance Pam Cain and vice president for university human resources Kristi Darr announced the changes in an Oct. 7 message to faculty and staff. The increases in employee contributions to health care costs come after Wintersteen this summer directed the university benefits committee (UBC) to propose ways to balance the increasing expenses incurred by the university's self-funded health plan.

"The senior leadership team made these decisions carefully based in part on the UBC’s recommendations. We believe they are prudent steps to help support the long-term financial health of the university while maintaining our commitment to provide competitive employee benefits," Wintersteen, Cain and Darr said in the campus message.

What's changing

A summary of the changes shows monthly health plan premiums increasing by $20-25 for all coverage types on both the Wellmark PPO and Wellmark HMO options. The exception is the family double spouse plan, which is increasing by $60. 

Copayments for office visits will increase to $15 for the HMO and to $25 for the PPO, $5 more in both instances. Emergency room copayments will go up $25 to $125. Medical deductibles and out-of-pocket limits will increase by one-third across the board.

Under the Express Scripts prescription drug plan, retail pharmacy copayments are increasing by $5 or $10 for generics depending on the quantity purchased, and copayment limits for brand-name drugs will increase by 25%. A 90-day supply by mail order of a generic prescription still will be 100% covered, but mail order copayment limits for brand-name drugs will increase by 20%.

The changes mark the first increase to ISU Plan health care premiums since minor premium hikes for some plans in 2014. The university's rates have remained steady even as employee contributions have increased at other institutions and companies, in part because Iowa State's plans have performed well in holding down costs.

But in the past year, health care expenses have exceeded premium income by about $4 million, according to the Oct. 7 message. The 2021 increases are expected to make up about one-third of that shortfall, meaning additional incremental changes will be needed in coming years.

Even with the increased contributions from employees, Iowa State will cover more than 80% of the overall health care costs of most employees, Wintersteen, Cain and Darr noted.

Other changes

The Oct. 7 message also announced other changes to benefits beginning in 2021, including:

  • The deductible for restorative dental services such as filling a cavity will increase by $25, to $50 for the comprehensive plan and $25 for the basic plan.
  • The maximum benefit for the basic life insurance plan that pays twice an employee's annual salary will be capped at $250,000.
  • Employees who retire after June 30, 2021, will not receive the $4,000 retiree life insurance benefit.
  • For new entrants into the long-term disability plan, coverage will not include contributions to retirement funds or medical and dental plans. 

Open enrollment

Employees will have the opportunity to make changes to their benefits elections next month during the open enrollment period, Nov. 2-20.

Winter session could be here to stay

If all goes well with the upcoming special winter session, it could become a regular option for ISU students, senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert told the Professional and Scientific Council at its Oct. 1 meeting.

Wickert said some surveys have shown significant interest from students, who can take up to four credits during the largely online Dec. 14-Jan.21 session announced last month.

"It would be my hope that it is a successful pilot, and it would be something we could think about having on a more permanent basis," he said.

The decision to offer a winter session was driven by the unusually long two-month break this year between the fall semester's end Nov. 25 and the spring semester's start Jan. 25, dates adjusted due to coronavirus precautions. But the University of Iowa and numerous private colleges have long offered students the opportunity to take a class between semesters, and it's worth looking at in the future even after the pandemic passes, Wickert said.

The timing of the fall and spring semesters likely would need to shift somewhat to offer a winter session every year, he said. That potentially could be coordinated with the other state Board of Regents universities, as Wickert said the board is considering establishing common semester schedules among the institutions.

Iowa State’s winter session planning committee is reviewing the more than 50 courses that colleges suggested -- classes previously taught in the summer at least partially online -- and will release in the coming days a list of what will be offered, Wickert said. Registration for the winter session is Oct. 26-Nov. 14.

Budget update

Barry McCroskey, the council's vice president for university planning and budget, said a recent meeting of senior budget leaders was more positive than he expected, as tuition revenue is higher than estimated and interest was strong in the retirement incentive program open for applications through March 1.

The cost of the Aug. 10 derecho brought some unexpected expenses, however. The severe wind storm caused about $800,000 in damages on campus and $700,000 at ISU research farms, McCroskey said. Combined cleanup costs on campus and at farm facilities were more than $300,000, he said.

Benefits update

Possible changes to the health insurance plan were among the budget-balancing measures announced this summer, and those adjustments were announced in an Oct. 7 campus message from President Wendy Wintersteen, senior vice president for operations and finance Pam Cain and vice president for university human resources (UHR) Kristi Darr.

P&S Council president Sara Parris, who sits on the university benefits committee that provided senior leaders recommendations on benefits, said the committee members had a clear consensus on what changes to propose. Employees have time to consider the changes before the benefits open enrollment period. UHR benefits director Ed Holland told the council open enrollment will being in November.

Holland also highlighted four new programs or benefits UHR had a hand in delivering:

  • A new distance learning support and child care program for the elementary-school children of students, faculty and staff will open in Ross Hall Oct. 12. It will launch with a capacity of about 40, but Holland said space is already identified to allow the program to handle as many as 100 children, if needed.
  • A new voluntary retirement savings plan is available as of Oct. 1.
  • In an expansion of time off policy, employees can use up to 80 hours of sick time off Sept. 1-Dec. 31 to help their children manage required remote learning.
  • The ISU Plan prescription medicine insurance policy now covers vaccines administered at pharmacies, which means employees and their family members on the plan can receive their flu shots at retail locations.

Student affairs leaders

The division of student affairs welcomed two new leaders this summer. Senior vice president for student affairs Toyia Younger, started on the first day of the fall semester, Aug. 17. Associate vice president for student affairs and dean of student Sharron Evans began working virtually in May and on campus in July.

Both Younger and Evans spoke to the council to introduce themselves, give an overview of their work and discuss what students are facing during the pandemic. Younger said despite the reduced enrollment and campus density, significantly more students are seeking assistance from student wellness and counseling this fall. 

While perhaps not ideal, developing a new leadership team during a time of crisis hastens bonding and cooperation, Younger said.

"I can't say enough about how our team has jelled so quickly," she said.  

New learning community stretches the limits of 'connections'

Suzanne Härle in a virtual event with her learning community

Learning community coordinator Suzanne Härle (pictured) and admissions assistant director Jorge Calderon, from their campus offices, joined a virtual social event, dubbed "snack and chat," run by peer mentor and ISU senior Tracy Le earlier this week. Eight weeks into fall semester, the learning community students are asking for more live time with each other, Härle said.
"Food is something we all do, we all love, and it works wherever you are and whatever time it is, so this seemed like an obvious topic," she said. Participants introduced themselves, shared what they were eating and talked about other foods they love. At her turn, Härle praised the Greek lunch options at The Hub, a chance to plug a campus dining location for students who haven't set foot on campus yet. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

One of Iowa State's seven new student learning communities this fall occurs 100% online. Understandable, perhaps, in a global pandemic. But by necessity the International Adventure learning community (IALC) relies on websites and smartphone apps because it's connecting 58 students in 20 countries on four continents who were unable to get to Ames for their first semester of college. While most learning community members share a major, this group is enrolled across all six undergraduate colleges.

Last April, admissions executive director Katharine Johnson Suski and assistant director for international recruitment Jorge Calderon spotted a challenge for the international students their team had worked hard to recruit. Service reductions at U.S. embassies were delaying students' visa applications when they couldn't schedule the required interview. Others faced travel restrictions. Suski approached learning communities director Jen Leptien with her idea for a one-semester team whose members could begin their transition to Iowa State from home, and by the end of May enough details were hammered out to announce the new learning community. Then, the work really began.

Happy 25th

New learning communities in 2020-21

  • Advertising and Public Relations
  • AMD (apparel merchandising and design) Transitions
  • Criminal Justice League
  • Data Science
  • Environmental Engineering
  • International Adventure
  • Science of Language

Suzanne Härle (HAR-lee), director of international student success in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who regularly travels with the international admissions team, came on board as learning community coordinator.

"Because of her previous professional experiences, Suzanne knows this population and makes great connections with people," Leptien said. "Plus, she understands our learning community philosophy so well."

Härle tailored University Studies 123X, Introduction to Iowa State University, for her diverse group. Teaching asynchronously in Canvas because students live in at least a half dozen time zones, Härle said she focused on connecting students to campus support services and making academic plans. For example, each undergraduate college is providing two live introductory sessions on its programs and curriculum, including experiential learning and research opportunities. Because students have an assignment attached to their college session -- and for students who might change their majors this fall -- all the sessions are recorded.

Virtual opportunities

Härle said one silver lining to the pandemic forcing so many student events to a virtual format -- orientation, ClubFest, career fairs, for example -- is that that IALC students can experience some of them, albeit at an odd hour of the night or day.

Coming up is a unit on Iowa State traditions and a project with another first-year learning community, linguistics academic adviser Taylor Anne Barriuso's Science of Language. Members of the two learning communities will complete 30-minute video interviews with each other to learn more about an individual who grew up in a place unlike their home and to share their Iowa State experiences.

"Taylor Anne's students come at this from linguistics and world cultures perspectives, so it's a good fit for them," Härle said. "And before they ever arrive, our international adventure students get to ask students in Ames for their Iowa State recommendations."

Peer mentors provide the glue

As with all of the other 94 learning communities in Iowa State's lauded program, which celebrates its 25th year this fall, IALC relies on peer mentors to help first-year students connect to each other and the university. Each of three mentors on this team interacts with 19-20 students this fall. Starting with email introductions before classes began, the mentors later collected cellphone numbers and created groups in the WeChat and WhatsApp platforms so students can text each other and share photos, videos and helpful websites. Via one-on-one video chat, peer mentors check in with each of their students about once a month.

"Thousands of miles separate them, but I can see the connections developing. They offer study tips to each other, they share interest in the same hobby," Härle said. "We put things in place for them, but for most of them, they really run with it."

Finding links

Härle likened the task of giving this unusual learning community a framework to "building the plane while we're waiting for takeoff." To create smaller teams, learning community members were assigned to one of four tracks by their majors:

  • Engineering (22 students)
  • Computer science (13)
  • Pre-business (7)
  • General: majors in the colleges of Design, Human Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences and Liberal Arts and Sciences excluding computer science (16)

In June, Härle worked with senior associate registrar Shawna Saad and college associate deans to identify a limited set of appropriate core courses for each track, with options to accommodate the students' math and English placement results. Before the fall campus instruction plan was set, many of those core courses didn't exist online yet. Härle said college leaders and Susan Wohlsdorf-Arendt, online learning faculty fellow in the provost's office, stepped up again to move sections online. Santos Núñez, multicultural/international student retention coordinator for the College of Engineering, confirmed course lists for students in that track, Härle did the same for students in the other three tracks and Saad registered the 58 students for fall semester.

"I'm the lucky one who gets to show off this really cool learning community, but so many people bought in to the idea and collaborated to make this happen on a tight timeline," Härle said. "It took thousands of emails this summer, among administrators, staff and our students, to piece this all together."

She anticipates some of the learning community members will be on campus for spring semester. For others, next fall is an achievable goal.

Conversation editor is available for office hours

Iowa State faculty with questions about writing for The Conversation or who want to brainstorm an idea for a future article now can sign up for "office hours" with environment and energy editor Jennifer Weeks.

Starting Oct. 9, Weeks will hold office hours from 1 to 2 p.m. every Friday. Faculty can access this Google calendar to check availability and schedule a 20-minute appointment. While Weeks generally works with scholars on stories about the environment and energy issues, her office hours are open to all faculty. The goal is to help scholars identify potential stories within their area of research and connect them with the appropriate editor.

What is it?

Through essays written by academics, The Conversation strives to provide insight on a range of timely topics.

The Conversation is providing this service to some of its partner institutions as part of a pilot project to build relationships with faculty and scholars to facilitate more articles. Iowa State joined The Conversation in mid-2018. Over that time, The Conversation has published more than 50 articles from more than 40 ISU faculty, resulting in 1.5 million reads around the globe.

Articles published on The Conversation's website are distributed through the Associated Press for media outlets to republish. The Conversation also provides its content to Yahoo News, MSN and Apple News. Any news outlet using the content must publish the original article or contact the author for approval to edit.

Its 2020 Author Impact Report highlights some of the benefits scholars reported from writing for The Conversation:

  • 41% of authors received a request for a radio interview, 37% for a print interview
  • 39% said their article resulted in other academic collaboration opportunities
  • 27% saw an increase in citations of their scholarly articles
  • 17% used articles or metrics in grants or funding proposals

Design initiative expands college's discussion

Jordan Brooks wanted a unified way for faculty, staff and students in the College of Design to talk about being involved in diversity, equity and inclusion.

He saw what other directors of multicultural student success were doing and the programs colleges were committed to. The College of Human Sciences' #SquadCare Pop Up Shop, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' LEAD IT Collective and the College of Engineering's LEAD program provided examples of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

"I am the newest to my position, and I work around women of color who have been doing awesome work in their colleges for a long time," said Brooks, Design's director of equity, inclusion and multicultural student success. "I just have to match their greatness, and everyone does it uniquely for how their college is situated."

When Brooks began in March 2019, he took time to listen and learn before creating the #InclusiveByDesign initiative to build on work already being done in the college. 

Three-pronged approach

#InclusiveByDesign is supported through three main efforts.

The Friday before classes begin for fall and spring semester, all faculty and staff take part in development around diversity, equity and inclusion. Brooks follows up with departmental workshops throughout the year on areas of need.

"It is really the training phase of the program," he said.

Open discussions are designed to create dialogue between faculty, staff and students.

"The goal is to get our community engaged and used to checking in on these conversations," Brooks said. "We want to remove positionality so that our dean can be talking to a first-year student and they can come together, but still can go back and use their position to help effect change."

Drop-ins are lessons through immersive activities that spark conversation on a topic. This year, Brooks has several large wooden boxes with questions painted on them that can be placed around the college or campus. The questions are supplied by the BUILD (Building Up In Leadership by Design) learning community, open to historically marginalized students and led by Brooks and graduate student Marwa Elkashif. The questions change with the topic, but people can sit on the boxes -- while physically distanced -- and have a discussion. The most recent questions focused on stress management and how a person's identity impacts it.

Making strides

One of the goals identified during a spring workshop was to diversify the curriculum in the college to make room for other points of view. College leaders responded by backing a three-day workshop allowing faculty to research new courses and get help adjusting their syllabi. Two open discussions were conducted over Zoom and another is set for Nov. 5.

"I think they are really productive," Brooks said. "Conversations happen in that space, and we are able to do different programs to address a need."

There are three more drop-ins planned for fall semester on Oct. 15, Nov. 3 and Nov. 19. Brooks wanted to have an open discussion and a drop-in during the week of the general election to address issues from all sides.

"There is always energy and discussion of 'What do we do now?, What do we continue to do?'" Brooks said. "To engage our faculty, staff and students in those types of conversations is something we should invite."

Brooks also is working on online lessons to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusiveness into the design field, for example, how to conduct culturally sensitive inquiry as a planner or landscape architect.

Conscientious designers

Brooks works to combine messages with design concepts that allow them to be more easily understood and accepted by his audience. The biggest goal is to have actions match words.

"Design has the ability to be oppressive or liberate people," he said. "When you think of all of our majors, we can create things that can hinder people or welcome all people. I see folks in this college that have been committed to this for some time getting reenergized and motivated to continue to push."

Pollard confirms no season tickets for basketball games

Competition schedules aren't finalized yet, but Cyclone athletics director Jamie Pollard told fans this week that his department won't sell season tickets for men's or women's basketball and likely not for wrestling and gymnastics. Pollard said his staff is reviewing options that could allow up to a 10% capacity (about 1,425 fans) for basketball games at Hilton Coliseum this winter. The priority would be on admitting fans who maintained their Cyclone Club donations during the COVID-19 pandemic, he wrote in an Oct. 5 open letter.

Fall sports

The volleyball and soccer squads have competed at home this fall in front of families and friends of each team's student-athletes and coaches. Given the limited bleacher seating at the soccer complex, Pollard said that plan will hold for the team's final two home matches this season (Oct. 16 and 30).

Beginning with the Baylor volleyball matches on Oct. 23-24, Pollard said fans will be allowed to attend if they follow COVID-19 mitigation requirements. Admission is free and all seating is general admission. The entire first and second levels of Hilton will be open so fans can practice physical distancing and choose their seats. The lowest seating area, known as arena circle, will stay recessed to restrict access to the competition floor and create more space for teams to physical distance. All fans must wear face coverings from the time they leave their vehicles. If they are open, concessions stands will have a small menu. Fans may bring food and nonalcoholic beverages into Hilton in a clear bag.

Pollard said the volleyball fan plan also could be an option this winter at home gymnastics and wrestling matches. He expects to share more information about the winter sports seasons next month.

Nice job, football fans

Lastly, Pollard thanked fans for creating an energized home-field advantage for the Cyclones' football win over Oklahoma Oct. 3 and for following the mitigation game plan. The same rules are in place for Saturday's home game with Texas Tech (2:30 p.m.), and Pollard noted the forecasted 70-degree temperatures may tempt fans to remove their face coverings.

"All fans must continue to commit to no tailgating, social distancing and, most importantly, properly wearing face coverings even though it may be warm," he wrote.

"As fans we must have the necessary discipline, focus and commitment to continue making personal sacrifices and put the good of the team first. That is the same message Coach Campbell told the team in the locker room."

Students must activate Okta login requirement this month

Employees have been using multifactor authentication (MFA) to log in to web-based campus applications since March 2019. The deadline for students to activate their MFA preferences for the Okta login process is Oct. 31.

"We're asking faculty and staff to remind students to set up their MFA preferences before the deadline," said Mike Lohrbach, director of enterprise services and customer success for information technology services (ITS). "Early completion can help minimize the volume of Solution Center requests."

MFA provides a one-time authentication code during the login process to verify the user's identity. It helps defend against cyberattacks that can compromise university systems and individual accounts. 

Beginning in November, students will be prompted to enable MFA before they can access university applications, including Canvas and their ISU email accounts connected to Gmail. Step-by-step setup help is available on the ITS website.