Watch the video and peruse the information below to learn more about the successes, aspirations, challenges, and opportunities that we are embracing at the University of Iowa today.

President Sally Mason formed her first impressions of the University of Iowa on a brilliant early-summer day, walking among students and families in town for Orientation. Provost at Purdue University and a candidate for UI president, she was struck by the sheer beauty of the place—stately stone buildings alongside new structures of steel and glass, the slow roll of the Iowa River, the fact that a sprawling campus could feel so approachable.

In the days following her appointment as president, Mason’s appreciation only deepened as she got to know Iowa’s people.

“It really is a place that becomes home very quickly,” she says. “It’s a place where people feel exceedingly comfortable…It’s beautiful and it’s welcoming, and you see it every day.”

Mason’s steered the university through unprecedented crises—the 2008 flood, an historic economic downturn—and the day-to-day challenges that confront a $3 billion enterprise with some 31,000 students and a presence in every corner of its state.

She also has staked out ambitious priorities that include new student-success initiatives, $1 billion in construction projects, and a capital campaign that aims to raise $1.7 billion in private donations by 2016. Each of these depends on building community, finding consensus wherever possible, and often making tough decisions.

Putting students first

A product of public education, Mason is determined to give generations of students the chances she’s had.

“I’m very grateful to this country for providing those opportunities to people like myself, first-generation college students whose parents didn’t have that benefit and really didn’t know much about college,” she says, noting that today about 25 percent of UI students are first-generation students.

Shaping some of these students into leaders is one of her top priorities and proudest accomplishments. In 2008, she introduced the President’s Leadership Class, which every fall recruits 30 promising participants who reflect the demographics of the first-year undergraduate class.

“This year for the first time, the student body president (Nic Pottebaum) happens to be a student who had been in my leadership class,” Mason says. “Our recently selected Board of Regents member from the University of Iowa, Hannah Walsh, was also a member of the President’s Leadership Class last year.”

Listening and leading

Mason has tackled a host of tough issues, ranging from instituting a campus-wide smoking ban to arming the UI police.

“For me, a lot of this comes down to listening,” she says. “I’m a scientist by training. I want to be presented with facts. I want to be presented with evidence.” Compromise and consensus are often the goal, but when they’re elusive, she’s comfortable making the call.

Mason meets monthly with leaders from campus shared governance groups—Staff Council, Faculty Senate, UI Student Government, and the Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Students. She arranges visits to each or the university’s 11 colleges at least once a year, and schedules outreach events with community groups, alumni, and UI donors every month.

“These conversations are essential to the decisions made by any university president.” Mason says.

Weathering the flo​od

June 2008, and the dawn was just starting to break. For weeks, university officials had been watching river forecasts and preparing for the worst. From the president’s residence, looking across the river to Hancher, Mason could tell it had arrived.

“I could see that the water had gone into the auditorium,” she recalls. “I woke my husband up and said, ‘You need to see this, because I think we’re going to have a pretty rough day.’ And we did, to say the least.”

Four years later, the university community’s response to the flood which damaged 20 buildings and caused nearly $1 billion in damage—including the long, complex process of recovery—reminds Mason what first struck her about Iowa.

People rallied, and the university opened as scheduled for fall classes only six weeks after the waters receded. Plans for flood mitigation projects and replacement buildings began almost immediately. UI leaders forged close working partnerships with the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.

“I don’t think there was a single person on this campus who wasn’t tested during those times, sometimes tested over and over again,” she says. “The flood, for all the devastation it created, also created some tremendous opportunities.”

Work on new School of Music, School of Art and Art History, and Hancher facilities will begin in the next year, part of an unprecedented building effort that also includes a new Children’s Hospital and the first new UI residence hall since 1968. All will be built to LEED standards for sustainability, which Mason says reflects her commitment to enhancing campus infrastructure “in the safest and sanest possible way.”

Prioritizing student success

Mason emphasizes sustainability of another sort when it comes to enrollment. In fall 2012, the university welcomed 31,498 students—an all time record. But UI leaders are careful to balance rising enrollment with educational quality, reflecting the focus on student success underscored in the university’s strategic plan.

“What we wanted was to create a Big Ten university with a small university feel,” says Mason about original student-success goals. This means more first-year seminars for undergraduates, more living-learning communities that unite students with common interests, and a focus on personal attention.

These measures have impacted overall enrollment—admissions and transfer rates are part of the picture, but more students stay to complete their UI degrees.

“It’s working,” Mason says. “When I started here, our freshman retention rate was about 82 percent…As of today, we’re closer to 86 percent.”

Supporting veterans and Iowans

The university’s focus on military veterans offers one example of personalized support, from classes aimed at easing the transition to college, to tailored academic advising, to top-notch health care services. Mason says the university may have 700 vets enrolled by next fall.

She invited one veteran to share his experiences with alumni and friends at Kinnick Stadium Nov. 10, part of the Veterans’ Day program held during the Iowa-Purdue football game. She later presented him with one of the special Hawkeye helmets worn during the game.

“I wasn’t surprised that he got a standing ovation,” she says. “I was surprised to see the tears in his eyes at how touched he was by the welcome that he got.”

The UI draws students from all over the world, but Mason says she’s especially committed to serving Iowans. She successfully proposed an in-state undergraduate tuition freeze, and this year introduced a new initiative—the Golden Pledge—to provide more scholarships for Iowa residents.

For every $100,000 endowed scholarship gift from a private donor, Mason matches the payout from the endowment with unrestricted funds, doubling scholarship awards. The five-year program has generated $2 million in gift commitments over its first two months.

“I want to make sure that Iowa students know they are welcome here,” she says. “By the way, not only do you get a quality education, but it’s a bargain.”

Looking forward

Next spring the university and the UI Foundation will launch the public phase of a comprehensive capital campaign, raising private funds to support students, faculty, infrastructure, and other priorities.

“Since my husband, Ken, and I arrived—and we’ve both been actively engaged in fund-raising—the university and the foundation have raised nearly a billion dollars,” Mason says. “We’re well on our way to a very successful campaign, and I’m committed to finishing it.”

She hopes that observers will someday look back on this period as a time when the university embraced a chance to transform its campus and its culture.

“I’m exceedingly pleased by what I see across campus, the hard work that’s going on and how much people are enjoying their work,” she says. “I think it’s tremendous, and it speaks well for a great university.”