By Angela Holmes
The votes are in, and University of Iowa President Sally Mason has been chosen as 2014’s most influential person in the Corridor.
The list of the top 25 includes a diverse range of business and community leaders such as Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, State Sen. Liz Mathis, Iowa Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz and Hawkeye Hotels President Ravi Patel.
But Ms. Mason left little doubt about her influence on the Corridor, with a 28 percent difference in votes between her and second-place finalist (and last year’s most influential winner), Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett.
In charge of more than 27,000 employees and 30,000 students, Ms. Mason can be considered as a mayor of a small city of sorts.
“Maybe it’s more like Ron Corbett’s job than you think,” she said of her job as UI president. “I like to think of myself as the ultimate partner and the ultimate collaborator. Since I’ve been here, we’ve tried very hard to work with lots of partners – across the Corridor in particular, but all across the state.”
The UI Health Alliance is a prime example of how the university is actively pursuing collaborations with organizations throughout Iowa. The Alliance includes Mercy in Cedar Rapids and affiliated health care providers in cities around the state, including Davenport, Sioux City and Council Bluffs, and provides them with access to the specialized knowledge and services provided at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.
“The connections now are stronger than they’ve ever been, just because of the ways in which our health services alliances have been built over the last 18 to 24 months,” Ms. Mason said.
Ms. Mason added that the UI’s mission as an educational institution is perhaps one of the most important collaborations it maintains with the state.
“If you think about the University of Iowa and what it does for the state of Iowa, we’re really in the business of growing the human infrastructure that populates towns all across the state,” she said. “Imagine a town surviving and thriving without the doctors and the lawyers and the nurses and the pharmacists and the teachers and the business professionals that we are able to provide on a regular basis.”
Although the UI is focusing on recruiting more students from Iowa in light of the Board of Regents’ new performance-based funding formula, which will base 60 percent of state funding allocations on the enrollment of in-state students, Ms. Mason continues to stress the importance of attracting students from all over the country and world.
“Forty percent of students from outside of Iowa stay and take jobs here,” she said. “We know more would stay if there were more opportunities for them.”
By adding more in-state students, the UI will inevitably become larger – not only in enrollments, but in the number of employees. That bodes well for the region’s economy, Ms. Mason noted.
“As we become larger, we will become even more significant as an economic driver here in the Corridor and for the entire state,” she said. “We bring more students here, which means we bring more staff and we bring more faculty, and that just continues to boost the economy. I’m enjoying watching some of the early results of our efforts to recruit students for next year – numbers are increasing on many fronts.”
Since arriving in August 2007 as UI’s 20th president, Ms. Mason has seen her share of controversies involving faculty, and even the way she handles the media. But she stands by her leadership and decision-making.
“If you do things for good reasons with good rationale, and you understand those things and your integrity’s intact at the end of the day, I think that’s what can allow you to continue to function,” Ms. Mason said. “Making decisions, especially making hard decisions, is never easy.”
Just nine months after she arrived, she faced perhaps her biggest professional challenge as the flood of 2008 ripped its way through campus, seriously damaging 22 buildings.
“You don’t plan for natural disasters. You just deal with it, and I think the ways in which you deal with those things really test your character – they test who you are as a person,” Ms. Mason said. “I think it’s a testimony to the integrity and spirit of so many people that I’ve been surrounded by, that we have stuck together and we’ve ridden this out. We’re now seeing the fruits of our labors come to bear, and they are glorious.”
Several major replacement projects, including Hancher Auditorium, the School of Music building and Art Building East, are on schedule to be completed by 2016.
“We’re finally in a good position now to be thinking seriously about growth with the flood recovery projects well under way,” Ms. Mason said. “For me, it’s exciting to think about what this institution might look like a few years from now, in terms of size and also in terms of the mix of students that we have here as well.”
At 64, Ms. Mason has no plans for retirement, but knows she wants to end her career at the UI.
“That has been my thinking ever since I arrived here,” she said. “As long as I’m feeling healthy and feel I can make a contribution to higher education, I’m going to continue to do that for as long as possible.”