Saturday, September 20, 2014
Kinnick Press Box, 2nd Floor, Outdoor Club Lounge


It is my great pleasure to join you tonight to share this special celebration with you. I offer the School of Urban and Regional Planning my heartiest congratulations on reaching this important milestone, a half-century of excellence in education, research, and social impact. And to those of you who are alumni of the school, I welcome you back to Iowa City and thank you for all the remarkable work you have done on behalf of your communities as graduates of the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Fifty years ago, when the school was founded, was a heady time for the urban and regional planning profession. The great Jane Jacobs’ defining classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had come out just a few years before in 1961. In despair over cities and planners moving toward greater division and isolation of people and uses, Jacobs called for a return to the human dimension of our urban homes, to an understanding of a city as a kind of complex organism. In her groundbreaking 1961 book, Jane Jacobs said, “Cities are problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences.”

As a biologist myself, I find Jacobs’ simile quite interesting. As a university president, I find it quite enlightening. Having pursued my entire education as well as faculty and administrative career in large public universities, I have grown to understand, appreciate, and sometimes be flustered by the vast array of disciplines that make up the university. As an institutional leader, my job is to both support the individual integrity of those disciplines and their various organizational units, and bring those myriad schools of thought into what Jacobs calls an “organized complexity.” The starting point of the unity of the university is finding common ground among our disciplines, and Jacobs helps us see that in the image of both the biological organism and the city as examples of organized complexity.

I also find Jacobs’ quotation appealing and relevant to our institution since the life sciences are so strong here. Urban and regional planning is not merely like the life sciences in a fundamentally conceptual way, but it is also is part of a broad spectrum of professional programs that are essential to the strength and identity of the University of Iowa. I know that often when we speak of Iowa’s professional programs, our colleges of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, public health, law, and so forth trip off our tongues most easily because of their size. But the urban and regional planning professionals that we educate and train here at Iowa are just as crucial to the future of our communities and society at large as our health care professionals, lawyers, and engineers. And though we might not train as many planners as we do doctors, the small size of the school gives those who study here a unique professional character, having benefited from close interaction with our responsive and attentive faculty members.

Over the years, President Emeritus Sandy Boyd has described the special vision of the University of Iowa very well. He has often said, “At our core are the arts, humanities, and sciences, surrounded by well-integrated professional programs. The value of the basic disciplines lies in their continuing exploration of content and context. The professions depend on this exploration for their vigor, and the basic disciplines more fully serve society through their application by the professions. They are linked, and they are interlinked.”

The interlinking of the School of Urban and Regional Planning with the rest of the university provides much of the strength of both the school itself and the university as a whole. You, and we, understand the power of interdisciplinary synergy in both its intellectual and practical applications. From a professional perspective, we see that in the school’s numerous joint degree programs with law, public health, social work, and civil and environmental engineering.

And, as Sandy Boyd suggested, we see that your understanding of the important context of the arts and humanities is strong and vibrant. That was on display just today in your Midwest Creative College Town conference, which included speakers from the UI’s theater arts department and Hancher Auditorium, and from such community organizations as the Englert Theatre, Summer of the Arts, and FilmScene.

So the School of Urban and Regional Planning’s roots reach out to many areas of the university: the arts, engineering, law, public health, and so forth. While that interdisciplinary reach has characterized much of the school’s history, it also embodies its present and future. We see that in the current emphasis on sustainability that is so central to your curriculum and profession, to our university, and to our society.

Two of my major priorities as president of the University of Iowa have been sustainability and public engagement. And one of our greatest successes in both of those arenas has been the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities. In an incredibly short time, the IISC has grown from a visionary project of the School of Urban and Regional Planning to a university-wide endeavor that is playing a major role in defining our institutional commitment to sustainability and community engagement. I have proudly touted the merits and successes of the Initiative in many of my talks across campus as well as around the state and country.

Like so much of the school’s curriculum, the IISC promotes a broad agenda, focusing on sustainability and community improvement in myriad areas, ranging from the economic to the environmental to the socio-cultural. And it presents remarkable opportunities for our students, who are able to engage directly with communities in their improvement, and to learn collaboratively at the side of professionals in the field.

I cannot express my gratitude enough to the School of Urban and Regional Planning, through Director Chuck Connerly’s leadership, in establishing the Initiative and its excellence so quickly and well. Within just a couple of years, we have been able to broaden participation in the program to much of the university, and we have expanded the opportunities it presents to many more students. And the impact the UI has made on communities across the state has been incredible, from Anamosa to Burlington to Columbus Junction to Dubuque and far beyond.

Although the home of the program is now in the Office of the Provost, the school remains central to its life and success. IISC’s administration and leadership continue to be centrally linked to the school, and Urban and Regional Planning students continue to participate in the program as part of their Field Problems course. The Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities is exactly the kind of thing the University of Iowa should be doing right now, and I am very pleased and proud that we are doing it so well, so broadly, and so successfully.

In the past fifty years, cities and regions have changed dramatically, as have universities and schools of urban and regional planning. Our school has always at least kept up with the times and often has been a leader in the profession. For five decades, you have provided our students with excellence in education, your profession with superb research and scholarship, and our state’s communities, and communities across the nation and beyond, with both practical improvements and forward vision. I am very proud of the School of Urban and Regional Planning’s success in the past and present, and I have every confidence in its prosperity and impact in the future. Today, the school and the university at large remain important partners in educating our students and making life better for all. I know that partnership will continue to strengthen as we move into a future world of increased organized complexity.

Congratulations again on your fiftieth anniversary, thank you for inviting me to speak with you tonight, and best wishes for another fifty years of success, and many more beyond that.