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First in family with degree, now Iowa president


Sally Mason wasn’t brought up around higher education, but she plans to make herself right at home as the University of Iowa’s new president.

“I already feel that I am part of this University of Iowa community,” the 57-year-old Mason said after the state Board of Regents announced her selection on Thursday.

Mason, a biology professor and provost at Purdue University, has impressive credentials, including a Ph.D. in cellular, molecular and developmental biology from the University of Arizona. But, what may be most impressive about her rise through academia is that she was the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“Education has changed my life, it’s changed your lives, and it will change the lives of countless more in the future, and it will change the future of our state” she said.

Speaking at a news conference, she noted that her father came to America from Czechoslovakia as a child and didn’t finish the eighth grade. Her mother didn’t finish high school.

“And now, I’m president of one of the world’s great universities,” she said.

Her parents, she said, would have been proud of her achievement, and “they would also be pretty amazed.”

Having overcome personal odds, Mason was eager to set high goals for the University of Iowa.

“No matter how good we are, we can always do better, we can build higher,” she said.

Mason’s former colleagues praised her as a personable but forceful leader.

“The first thing you notice about her is her intelligence. You also notice that she’s very personable, and she thinks very well on her feet,” said Robert Weaver, the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas. Mason served as dean of the college beginning in 1995 before becoming the first woman provost at Purdue in 2001.

“If you relate well to people, that’s a big advantage for an administrator,” Weaver said.

Mason was called a “great facilitator” by Dennis Savaiano, the dean of consumer and family sciences at West Lafayette, Ind.-based Purdue.

“She’s been marvelous in bringing the university together around our strategic plan,” he said.

Mason added that she deserves much of the credit for the university’s accomplishments over the past few years, including hiring faculty, promoting a diverse student enrollment, growing research programs and increasing external funding.

“And she’s done that because she’s hired and mentored really fine people and given them the support and encouragement they’ve needed,” he said. “She’s superb at helping others accomplish goals for the university.”

What may be more important is how students at the University of Iowa will view her.

Alan Cosby, a 20-year-old chief-of-staff of the university’s student government, said he was impressed by Mason so far but will watch how she leads the university-owned hospital and whether she listens to students.

“I’m just making sure it’s going to be a president who’s really engaged in what students want, what students are interested in,” he said.

Mason spent 21 years at the University of Kansas, where she served as a full professor of molecular biosciences, acting chair of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, associate dean and then dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

She returned in 2001 to Purdue, where she serves as a professor of biology in addition to her duties as provost the school’s top academic post in charge of curriculum, fundraising and faculty recruitment and retention.

Before earning her Ph.D. in 1978, Mason received her master’s degree from Purdue University in 1974, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Kentucky two years earlier.

Mason has obtained research grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Wesley Research Foundation, according to the University of Iowa’s Web site.

She belongs to professional and academic organizations around the world, including serving as president of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, member of the Advisory Committee to the National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, president of the Pan American Society for Pigment Cell Research, and chair of the board of Inproteo, a start-up company collaboration between Eli Lilly and Co., Indiana University and Purdue University, the Web site said.

Jim Orr, a molecular biosciences professor who worked with Mason for nearly 20 years at the University of Kansas, said in merging some of the school’s departments, she helped promote research and streamlined administrative structure.

“She was a forceful leader,” he said. “She was willing to make tough decisions and stick by them.”

Associated Press writer Luke Meredith in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

On the Net:

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