Sally Mason retiring from 'fishbowl' life
University of Iowa President Sally Mason, who announced her retirement Thursday, has built a legacy of both accomplishments and controversy that state leaders say will influence the search for her replacement.
Mason is credited with robust fundraising — helping bring in $1.4 billion since record flooding damaged the university in 2008 — a part of the job that will be increasingly important for the next UI president.
"Sally has been a phenomenal fundraiser throughout her tenure," said Ruth Harkin, a member of the Iowa Board of Regents. "That would certainly be one of the things this board would be looking for."
But Mason also faced contentious times, such as criticisms of how her administration handled instances of sexual misconduct involving both UI staff and students.
Mason, who turns 65 in May, will continue as president until Aug. 1. She listed some of her top accomplishments as steering the university on a course of "affordable, accessible and academically excellent" education.
"We're in a great position going forward," Mason said. "So with some new resources as the university grows, I think it could be a lot of fun for someone coming in, and that's how I would pitch it as the university looks for the next president."
UI enrolls 31,387 students and, including its hospital, employs 22,483 people. Revenue from all of its operations — including gifts, grants and fees to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics — totals more than $3.5 billion, the equivalent of a Fortune 1000 company.
The long-term goals and general operation of the university are important to the entire state, so having the right person take Mason's place is crucial, said Debi Durham, director of Iowa Economic Development Authority.
"We want to see someone who really understands the connections of what the university does for economic development," Durham said. "It's not just about training a future workforce and educating students but really looking at how we can be more strategic with research and how to deliver that."
The regents will meet next week to discuss Mason's retirement. The last search for a new UI president was marred after the regents rejected all four finalists in November 2006, forcing the selection process to start over. Legislators and open-government advocates criticized the first search's secrecy — which led to more public access in the second search process.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville and a member of the Senate Education Committee, was among the first Thursday to call for the search to be open to the public and include a committee made up of a broad demographic and "not just with people who represent special interests."
Harkin noted she is aware that similar searches in other states are often done in relatively private ways. But Harkin said she was unable to comment about how the search for Mason's replacement will go until after the board and state officials meet.
Bob Downer, another regent, said the search to replace Mason should be launched quickly because interim appointees between presidents generally lead to "down times" for a university and its focus on long-term goals.
"It's better to get the selection made as soon as possible," Downer said.
Jeff Kaufmann, a former state representative who is now the Republican Party of Iowa Chairman, has been one of Mason's critics. Most of his concerns centered on what he believes are deficiencies in transparency at the university. A transparent search that involves UI students, faculty and the general public can help remove the university's secrecy stigma, he said.
"If everybody has a part in the decision, then you already have some unity because everybody has some skin in the game," Kaufmann said. "When you're making a decision like this, the more transparent you are, the more the public can also share the responsibility of that selection."
Good times and bad
One of the rocky times in Mason's tenure came in 2012 when then-Regents President Craig Lang accused the university of failing to fully implement a policy to improve response to sexual misconduct. Gov. Terry Branstad five days later chimed in with his own public scorn, noting "the lack of transparency that we have seen by the University of Iowa in a number of instances."
Some lawmakers and people close to Mason defended her legacy Thursday and criticized those who were sometimes adversaries to the college's 20th president. The Mason era should serve as a learning experience about the need for cooperation between the Iowa Board of Regents and state universities, they said.
Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said she was disappointed, but not surprised about the announcement, saying Mason had been under pressure from the Board of Regents that made it difficult for her to do her day-to-day job.
"Her decision to retire shows she was ready to be done with that," Mascher said.
Mason, who is the school's second female president, has been working at-will, or without a contract from the regents, for more than two years.
Regents have downplayed the significance of Mason working without a contract. Mason, who makes $525,828 a year, has tenure, and such contracts are generally intended to protect presidents who do not, they have said.
"I think it was probably her decision to retire, but obviously there is a lot of pressure and criticism from the Iowa Board of Regents that I think was completely unjustified," Dvorksy said. "I'm saddened she is retiring. I think she did a good job at the university, particularly considering all the challenges she faced."
Durham believes the criticisms Mason faced were largely the product of a highly visible position that follows any person who occupies the job.
"I think most people who put themselves in as an applicant of a college president know that this comes with the territory," Durham said. "We live in fishbowls, and that's just part of it."
Bruce Rastetter, the current Board of Regents president who has also been critical of Mason in the past, did not respond to requests for an interview Thursday but issued a statement through the UI calling her a tremendous advocate and national leader.
UI President Sally Mason considers her biggest disappointments and successes during her time at Iowa. David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen