Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. It’s always great to share what’s going on at the University with our community service groups and to hear your thoughts and concerns.

I’d like to start today by talking about what it means to be an Iowan. Although I grew up in New Jersey, virtually my entire professional career has been in the Midwest—in Kansas, in Indiana, and now in Iowa. My mother was also born and raised in the Midwest—in Indiana, to be precise. So I’m going to be a bit presumptuous and say that I think I know something about the Midwestern character.

This summer, I will have been an Iowan for two years. I have met and talked with many Iowans from all walks of life—students, parents, business owners, legislators, farmers, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists. I have led Iowans, taught Iowans, dined with Iowans, brainstormed with Iowans, listened to Iowans, enjoyed the arts with Iowans, grieved with Iowans, and even filled some sandbags with Iowans. I’ve lived in the West or Midwest for nearly 40 years now, and so I do like to think I know what Midwesterners are like. And I think I’ve now got a pretty good bead on what Iowans are like. I’ve really come to know, enjoy, and understand the Iowa character.

This past year, the Iowa character has been put to the test like never before. The University of Iowa, the Iowa City community, and the state of Iowa are now encountering—without question—their greatest challenges of the new century so far. They are almost certainly encountering their greatest challenges of recent decades. And they are arguably encountering some of the greatest challenges in their entire history. We have seen possibly the worst natural disasters—tornadoes and floods—ever in our state. And we are all trying to manage our way through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The Iowa character is often quiet and unassuming—and I like that. I like that especially because underlying the lack of pretension are resolve, commitment, hard work, and a patient willingness to see each other through crisis. I believe the Iowa character has helped us in our recovery from last year’s flood and will help us emerge even stronger than before. And it will help us weather the economic storm we now face.

I believe the University is itself an Iowan institution in its basic character. One of our greatest institutional strengths is understanding the partnership we have with the people of our community and state in making life better for us all—what it means to be The University of Iowa.

This past year, we dramatically saw Iowans’ deep understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. As the floodwaters rose in our community, we pulled together to protect the homes and businesses that are precious to us, as well as the University that is so dear to so many. People from every conceivable background were on the front lines sandbagging and moving valuable items to safe ground—students, professors, staff members, administrators, construction workers, Amish farmers, bankers, business owners, and even detainees from our local jail. We formed a line of unity against the flood, and many even sacrificed time protecting their own homes in order to help others. Neighborliness is the behavior that demonstrates social trust, and we demonstrated how deeply that runs in Iowa last June—and we have since.

Today, as the flood of economic news threatens to overwhelm us, neighbors again are reaching out to each other, through charities, through helping those we know and love personally, and through sacrifice for others, including strangers. At the UI, we face possibly the most severe budget cuts ever. I have been heartened to see our people unite in solidarity for the good of all. As our Provost, our Vice Presidents, our Deans, and I have met with groups in the University community, our faculty and staff consistently tell us that they would rather accept personal reductions in their own compensation or work time than have others lose their jobs. We still don’t know exactly what our final decisions will have to be on managing an austere budget. But we do know that our University community has said, loud and clear, that they are willing to sacrifice for each other.

The compassion that characterizes Iowa’s neighborliness extends to our academics, too. The impulse to discover, to develop new knowledge, to create, and to teach comes from a desire to make life better for others and to share. A wonderful example can be found in the work of Dr. Michael Graham of our Carver College of Medicine, Director of Nuclear Medicine and President-Elect of the Society of Nuclear Medicine. The University of Iowa is a leader in medical imaging, and Dr. Graham is involved in a multi-institution research project that is developing ways to use PET scans to assess the effectiveness of cancer treatments. Even today, it can still take weeks to know whether or not cancer treatments are shrinking tumors or halting their growth. PET scans have the potential to show us a tumor’s internal activity quickly—within days rather than weeks. Dr. Graham wants people to know as quickly as possible if their treatment is working. That will not only lead to more emotional and physical comfort, but it will also allow doctors to change a treatment course much more nimbly if need be. Our professors and researchers in medicine are compelled by the highest form of neighborliness—the desire to save lives.

Neighborliness is at the core of the Iowan character, and Iowans know it. In fact, knowing who we are is another important part of the Iowa character. We are short on pretension, but we are confident in our core values. Midwesterners—and Iowans—are sometimes stereotyped, and in a way that might allow those from the coasts to underestimate us! But I think our character is more about knowing what we do best, and then focusing our energies with precision and dedication on those strengths. In Iowa, we grow food, we make high-quality products and offer high-quality services, and we create strong communities for stable family lives. We see this commitment to the core of our identity at the University in almost any discussion about where we are headed—whether it’s about strategic priorities, curricular development, or budgeting. We cannot—and we will not—retreat on excellence. But we need to focus on doing more of what we do best. We need to be as smart as we can in focusing our resources on those programs of strength, especially in these tight times.

The one thing, especially, that we always come back to when we consider our core identity is our unyielding commitment to providing an accessible, high-quality education—that is who we are and what we do. That is why one of the areas most fiercely protected in our budget decisions is student financial aid. We cannot forget that 80% of our students receive aid of some kind, and a good chunk of that is need-based aid. We know that families are hurting, especially now. We know that a good education has never been more important—for our young people, and for those who need more education in a tough economy. We know that we cannot retreat from the financial aid that has never been more important to those who want to come to The University of Iowa.

When we know who we are and what we do best, we know we will accomplish a job well-done. This, too, is at the heart of the Iowa character. Whether our tasks in life are modest or complex, all Iowans take pride in doing their best. As with the craftsmanship we see in a piece of Amana furniture, craft and hard work are the foundation of all that we do as Iowans.

Even as we recover from the worst natural disaster in the University’s history and face our current budget challenges, we continue to achieve great things at the UI in our areas of strength. Just in recent months, Marilynne Robinson of the Writers’ Workshop became a finalist for the National Book Award for her novel Home. The Tippie College of Business’s Accounting Department was designated among the best in the country by a Public Accounting Report survey—joining similar accolades from US News & World Report, Financial Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Accounting Research, and Academic Analytics. David Gompper, professor of composition in the UI School of Music and director of the UI Center for New Music, was one of four composers selected by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the organization's 2009 "Academy Award” for outstanding artistic achievement. Psychology graduate student Jessica Horst, now teaching at The University of Sussex, won the top national dissertation prize - the Council of Graduate Schools/University Microfilms International Distinguished Dissertation Award. Our students broke another amazing record with this year’s Dance Marathon, raising over a million dollars for the patients and families at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. I could go on and on. Every day, across our entire campus, faculty, staff, and students at the University are succeeding at a job well done, taking pride in achievement and excellence.

While we nurture the traditional strengths that have defined us as Iowans at home, another part of our character reaches out to the world. We don’t always make a lot of noise about our global vision, but we have lived it for a long time. It’s the vision that impelled Herbert Hoover to become one of our country’s greatest humanitarians, providing food relief to millions of starving Europeans. It’s the vision that impelled Norman Borlaug to develop disease-resistant high-yield wheat in order to save millions from starvation in Mexico, the Indian Sub-Continent, Southeast Asia, and Africa. It’s the vision that impelled Iowans to invite Nikita Kruschev to visit Roswell Garst’s Iowa farm fifty years ago this year in order to help the Soviet population grow more food and to open international dialogue between enemies. It’s the vision that impelled Governor Robert Ray to open Iowa’s doors and hearts to 13,000 oppressed Tai Dam Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.

The University of Iowa embraces that Iowa character of international perspective and outreach. As global Iowans, we welcomed an all-time high international student enrollment this past fall after years of post-9/11 decline—and we exceeded the average national increase at colleges and universities. We anticipate an even larger international enrollment in the coming year.

As global Iowans, our International Programs people are participating in the Iraq Education Initiative. The government of Iraq will send up to 40 Iraqi students to the UI to help rebuild that country’s educational tradition and infrastructure.

As global Iowans, we celebrate being designated only the third City of Literature in the world by UNESCO. Thanks to our international reputation in teaching and supporting the written word, and thanks to the efforts headed up by International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill, we join the Iowa City community in an honor bestowed upon only two other places in the world so far, Melbourne, Australia and Edinburgh, Scotland.

As global Iowans, we have supported the efforts of faculty members like Professor of Law Burns Weston, who came to the UI in the 1960s. Professor Weston was instrumental in the establishment of the UI Center for Human Rights, one of our International Programs’ most renowned initiatives. Today, in his retirement, Professor Weston has turned his attention to global warming and sustainability, serving as Director and Senior Researcher of the Climate Legacy Initiative, a joint project of the Environmental Law Center at The University of Vermont and the Center for Human Rights at the UI.

Professor Weston’s new work in sustainability leads me to my last point about the Iowa character. As I said, we Iowans don’t trumpet our achievements in areas like international outreach too loudly, but that could be said of many areas. Another dimension of the Iowa character is quiet innovation and leadership. And we are moving forward along these lines in the critical area of sustainability.

On the national and international scenes, “green energy” is receiving tremendous attention. In the meantime, Iowa has steadily built a biofuel and wind power infrastructure that is among the top in the nation. And at The University of Iowa, we are responding to Iowa’s—and the nation and world’s—growing need for sustainable research and education. Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on how a lot of colleges and universities are scaling back on their climate commitments and sustainability programs in response to the economic crisis. This is one area of innovation and progress from which the UI will not retreat. We are forging ahead with the sustainable university initiative that I announced last year. We will continue a strong commitment to energy efficiency throughout the campus. We will continue curricular innovations such as our new wind power program in the College of Engineering and the new undergraduate sustainability certificate debuting this fall. And we will move forward with five new faculty positions dedicated to interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability.

Sustainability is one of the central issues of our time, and Iowans know it. So does The University of Iowa. And so, along with our Iowa neighbors, we steadily continue our commitment to innovation at the leading edge of today’s most pressing concerns.

I have not said much about the current state of our flood recovery. Within the next few months, we will know even better where we are headed, especially with the reconstruction of our arts campus. As you probably have heard, we were delighted to learn that FEMA will provide a 90% match for replacement or renovation/mitigation of our significantly damaged arts buildings. As we embark on this major undertaking that will literally change the face of our campus, we will tap into our Iowa character to do it well and do it right. We will consider what our Iowa neighbors need in a world-class arts campus, as well as our students, faculty, and staff. And we will do all we can to maintain and enhance our international reputation in the arts. We will reflect who we are as a University of artistic tradition and innovation. We will certainly make sure the end result is a job well done. And we will provide the facilities needed for our University community to continue its reputation for innovation and leadership. As we build a University that is quintessentially Iowan, we will, as we always do, make sure the world notices us—not through claims we make about ourselves, but through our demonstrated pursuit of excellence.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today, and I am happy to entertain any questions you may have.