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University president wants to listen, learn


Sally Mason just wants to listen.

It sounds like a simple task for a woman just installed as the University of Iowa’s newest president. But Mason believes hearing from the university community is as critical as anything else she can do to find success in Iowa City.

“I want to learn what’s happening here, what has happened here, and what people’s dreams are for here,” Mason said during a recent interview with the Associated Press in her campus office.

Sitting next to vases of bright yellow roses gifts from new friends at Iowa and old ones at Purdue University, where she served as a provost for six years Mason preached the virtues of due diligence.

She will take her time laying out specific plans for Iowa. There is no rush, she says, and in any case she wants to use her first months in office to talk with the school’s many stakeholders. Discussing a broad agenda without a better grasp on the university’s culture would be a mistake, she said.

“A lot of this … is having conversations and listening to people and sorting through some of the messages that I’ll receive before I sit down and try to plot out a very specific agenda,” Mason said.

The 57-year-old is taking over more than a year after the man she replaced David Skorton left.

In July 2006, Skorton left Iowa to become the president at Cornell University. His departure set off a tortuous and contentious search for a new president that initially ended in failure.

Regents scrapped their first search then, amid uproar from the campus community, started over. The process eventually led them to Mason.

University officials were actually interested in Mason from the beginning of the embattled search. During the first part of the search, Mason said, Purdue was looking for its own new president.

Mason said she got a call from Iowa officials sounding her out about the job, but she was “exceedingly reluctant.”

“I was certainly thinking more about what might happen at Purdue than what might happen at Iowa,” she said.

When the Purdue job was filled, Iowa officials called again. This time, they explained all the things that had gone awry with their presidential search. They wanted to know if Mason might still be interested in the job.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really a second chance,'” she said.

In coming to Iowa, Mason got a significant salary bump compared to her predecessor. She has a base salary of about $450,000, a figure that Regents have said was necessary to remain competitive and attract a top candidate.

“What Iowa did was to make a statement and say ‘We’re as good as any other Big 10 university,'” Mason said.

She said she was drawn to Iowa in part because of the state’s strong support for education.

“Iowans care about education,” she said. “They care about higher education, but they care about education at all levels, and that’s important to somebody who works in education.”

Mason brings impressive academic credentials to her new post. They include a Ph.D. in cellular, molecular and developmental biology from the University of Arizona, a master’s degree from Purdue University in 1974, and a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Kentucky in 1972. Mason was the first person in her family to attend college.

In recent years she has served as a top administrator at Purdue and the University of Kansas.

“For me, education has been a vocation, but it’s also been a passion my entire life,” said

Mason starts her new job with plenty of issues on the horizon. Among them, she said, is how the university should progress forward with economic development and interdisciplinary research efforts.

“What you have to be careful to do is balance this in a way such that the faculty who are prepared and ready and willing and want to do this can be facilitated,” she said. “… But no faculty member should ever feel pressured to have to do it. It just won’t work that way.”

Another issue one that’s grabbed headlines in recent weeks is the corporate naming of university entities.

“Naming issues are always touchy, whether we are talking about corporate naming, sometimes even when you are talking about naming after individuals,” she said.

The issue came to the fore at Iowa recently, when members of the faculty rejected a $15 million gift from Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield because they did not want to rename the school’s College of Public Health after the insurance company.

“I think this (issue) got out in front of itself,” Mason said. “The regents didn’t have a chance to discuss it and ultimately, it’s a regent’s decision.”

On lighter topics, Mason, a self-professed college sports fan, said she is expecting big things from Iowa’s football team.

“I’m used to going to bowl games, I expect to go to bowl games,” she said. “I’m hoping that Iowa will eventually take me to Rose Bowl.”

Mason typically attends games with her husband, Kenneth, who will join the university staff as a part-time biology professor. He will also help Mason with fundraising efforts.

Cheering for the Hawkeyes, instead of Purdue, is just one of the adjustments that Mason will have to make. The schools share the same athletic conference and the same colors, black and gold.

That means one thing Mason won’t have to worry about changing is her clothes.

“The shade of yellow is a little bit different, so I am working on that,” she joked.

Associated Press Writer David Pitt contributed to this report.

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– Associatd Press

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