The University of Iowa has been a crucial part of the story of Iowa throughout most of the state's history. It was founded in 1847, the year following Iowa's admission to the Union.
Today, this 166-year-old educational treasure is a huge enterprise with an annual operating budget of $2.8 billion, nearly 31,000 students, 1,700 faculty, 13,000 employees and roughly 120 buildings. By just about any accounting, it is huge. More important than these impressive numbers, however, are the university's contributions to the economic prosperity and quality of life of not only our state, but to society at large.
Sally Mason, who has been UI's president since 2007, paid a visit to The Messenger's editorial board earlier this month. She provided an update on the current condition of the university and shared her vision for its immediate future.
The good news is that UI is well-led and Mason has a game plan for this vital institution that is very much in sync with the needs of its students and the future of our state.
Mason is focused like a laser on strengthening the educational experience and the options for students so they can be successful not only during their time in Iowa City but for a lifetime. That emphasis begins when freshman arrive on campus.
"We spend a lot of time and effort on what I call student success initiatives," Mason said. "One of the key pillars in the strategic plan is student success."
She said making the freshman year so productive and enticing for students that they develop a strong personal motivation to complete their undergraduate program is a priority.
"That's a critical point in any college student's career," Mason said. "We know that if we get them past the sophomore year that generally they stay with us and they graduate."
Data provided by the university suggest that these initiatives are paying off. The freshman year to sophomore year retention rate is now 85.5 percent. That's up 3 percent since 2002.
Mason said one powerful indicator that the undergraduate education UI provides is in harmony with what employers need is the job placement record. She said in excess of 90 percent of UI graduates either find employment in a field of their choosing or enter graduate programs.
Additionally, Mason stressed that the university's learning options are evolving to take advantage of the technological options the 21st century affords. The partnership between UI and the state's community colleges is a good example.
"What we've tried to do - and Iowa Central is right in the mix - is develop a number of programs with every community college in the state of Iowa that allow students here in this community to get a University of Iowa degree thanks to the partnership with the community college," Mason said.
She said the nursing program is a dramatic illustration of the potential of this approach.
"You can get your RN degree at Iowa Central and you can get your University of Iowa BSN degree at Iowa Central too now, most of it done online," Mason said.
Online options that make it possible for some students to receive a UI education without spending significant time in Iowa City are a growing phenomenon.
"We are trying to make it as easy as possible for place-bound people to do the bachelor's degrees in place and not have to come to Iowa City and uproot a family," Mason said.
Making UI a fully state-or-the-art university is at the heart of Mason's vision for the complicated, diverse institution she leads.
With this impressive president at the helm, the University of Iowa is well-positioned to continue and enhance its ability to serve with distinction the needs of our state.