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ISU finalist for president Pamela Whitten says school needs to improve

Oct 11, 2017

By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette


AMES — Iowa State University’s standing in the prestigious, invitation-only Association of American Universities is not secure, and it needs to be, according to the second of four finalists seeking to become the university’s 16th president.

Pamela Whitten, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Georgia in Athens, on Tuesday laid out goals she would tackle in assuring AAU security for Iowa State — along with other metrics of excellence.

During a public forum on the Ames campus, Whitten spoke of improving student retention and graduation rates; linking bachelor’s and master’s programs to shorten the time to an advanced degree; enhancing the research enterprise; boosting fundraising; and addressing swelling faculty-to-student ratios that have ballooned with Iowa State’s enrollment explosion.

“If you look at the metrics that are used to determine admission and retention in the AAU, Iowa State needs to do a little bit more to put itself in a place where it’s not vulnerable,” Whitten said.

Iowa — with both Iowa State and University of Iowa — is one of few states in the nation with two institutions in the AAU, a group of 62 “leading comprehensive research universities distinguished by the breadth and quality of their programs of research and graduate education.

The 60 AAU institutions in the United States, according to the association, award nearly half of all U.S. doctoral degrees and 55 percent of those in science and engineering. Both the University of Nebraska and Syracuse University recently were nudged off the prestigious list.

Whitten asserted Iowa State is less than secure, as 80-plus percent of its AAU member peers are doing better in the metrics — peer review, citations, awards and honors, for example.

“I would suggest that another important metric to achieve will be getting in a little safer zone related to those metrics to secure status within the AAU,” she said.

As a way of summarizing her aspirations for Iowa State, should she land the job, Whitten said she’d drive ISU from an “excellent public university to exceptional public university,” a phrase that might sound familiar for those who recall the search to replace former UI President Sally Mason in 2015.

Then-candidate Bruce Harreld, during his public forum in Iowa City, said he wanted to spur the university to go from “great to greater.” Harreld landed the job, although under a significant cloud of controversy over his non-traditional background as a former IBM businessman with no academic administrative experience.

Whitten, who has a depth of academic and administrative experience and is the first female finalist thus far in three regent university presidential searches, acknowledged successes Iowa State has had of late but urged the need for it to stretch on multiple metrics — including fundraising.

Taking questions from the audience, Whitten acknowledged the plus side of the abnormal enrollment spike Iowa State has experienced — growing its student body 44 percent in a decade. But she urged the need to “take a breath” and assess the impact, like lopsided faculty-to-student ratios.

“We need to look across campus and look at the variation in the faculty to student ratios and find where there are hot spots that really need to be addressed,” she said. “It sounds like that’s really a significant issue in engineering.”

With the Board of Regents in the process of drafting proposed tuition rates for the next academic year — and perhaps thereafter, as students and families have been pushing for more information earlier — Whitten addressed questions about Iowa State’s rates.

She acknowledged they’re “extremely low.” Iowa State’s resident undergraduate tuition sits at $7,456 this fall — the lowest among its peer group. With fees, Iowa State remains the least expensive.

Although Whitten stressed the importance of strong relationships with lawmakers in securing state appropriations, she referenced national higher education winds that do not seem to be changing.

“We have all seen a significant decline in state support and investment,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s going to change at this point. In fairness to our state legislators, the funds aren’t there — there are such competing needs for those resources.

“And so fiscal management of universities ... has had to shift.”

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