IOWA CITY, Iowa ― University of Iowa President Sally Mason received criticism but no disciplinary action Friday from the school’s governing board for her handling of a campus uproar over a comment she made about sexual assault.
The Iowa Board of Regents met behind closed doors to evaluate Mason’s performance Friday afternoon, after its No. 2 leader publicly chastised Mason for her comment that ending sexual assault probably wasn’t realistic “just given human nature.”
Regent President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland told Mason that comment was inappropriate and board members were concerned that students found it hurtful. Mulholland said the board relies on university presidents to ensure student safety and “that means zero tolerance regarding sexual assault.”
She also criticized Mason for failing to keep the board informed during a week of protests that followed the remark.
After meeting privately for an hour, the board adjourned without taking action. Board President Bruce Rastetter told The Associated Press that Mason will not be disciplined, but members expect her to improve communication and are anxious to hear details about her plan to crack down on sexual assault in coming months.
“We think the communication will improve and we look forward to continuing to work with Sally at the University of Iowa,” he said.
Mason apologized again for the remark, which was published last week in the student newspaper. She announced plans to impose tougher disciplinary sanctions against perpetrators, increase funding for training and prevention initiatives and increase support to victims.
Students who were upset about the university’s handling of sexual assault reports had seized on Mason’s comment, forming a group called “Not In My Nature” to demand an apology and push for changes. They argued the comment reflected an attitude among administrators in which assaults are seen as inevitable and sometimes the victims’ fault.
Mulholland accused Mason, who has led the university since 2007, of failing to keep board members informed during the fast-moving events of the past week. She said regents had been frustrated with her previously for poor communication.
“By failing to communicate with us directly, you gave us no other choice than to have this meeting today,” Mulholland, superintendent of schools for Linn-Mar Community School District, told Mason. “Shouldn’t something as public as the events of last week warrant a board discussion and consultation?”
Mason replied “absolutely” and apologized for not “being on top of this as we could have and should have been.” But she added that she was instructed by the board’s executive director, Bob Donley, not to call the regents individually to discuss the matter. Donley said it had become clear the regents were planning Friday’s meeting and Mason could explain the situation then.
Mason also said she had agreed to meet monthly with board leaders to improve communications and was frustrated that hasn’t happened because of their busy schedules.
The nine-member board governs Iowa’s three public universities. Members are appointed to staggered six-year terms by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. Mason is the only university president not hired under its current leadership, and some regents have expressed concerns about her in the past.
Mason, 63, has been working as an at-will employee since 2012, after the board took the unusual step of not extending her contract, meaning she could be fired at any time.
But last August the board did increase her salary by 4 percent to $513,000. Leaders of key student, faculty and staff groups have also praised her steady leadership as the campus rebuilds from a devastating 2008 flood.
During a campus forum Thursday, Mason shared her experience of being assaulted by a stranger on the University of Kentucky campus in 1970. Student activists and victims called for a number of policy and cultural changes, and some complained that university leaders had been insensitive toward victims.
Hannah Walsh, a University of Iowa student who is the board’s student member, said the forum was productive and would allow the campus to move forward. But she said the regents also had a responsibility to address sexual assault issues at the state’s other universities.