Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mason's Masterplan

Today's excellent IowaWatch story by Lu Shen is more than just a good look at the struggles of international, particularly Chinese, students at the University of Iowa.

While it's very illustrative of cultural barriers and ill-informed nativism, It's revelatory in ways it doesn't try to be.  It's the clearest outline yet of the University's long range Masterplan, launched almost simultaneously with Sally Mason's arrival, to change the shape and nature of the student body.

As a state university, catering to the needs of in-state students will always be a big part of UI's role. But as a relatively small, and population stagnant, state, those in-state students are not enough bodies and dollars to keep Iowa as a national class or world class institution. We need to impost some students, and with them some revenue in the form of higher out of state tuition.

The traditional source of those out of state students has the metropolis to the east, Chicago, and more accurately the suburbs of Chicago. Iowa was long an academic bargain, with out of state tuition competitive with Illinois in-state tuition.

Something happened along the way. We got a reputation as a fun place to be, which is good. Some people got carried away, which is not. But the reputation for "fun" of a very specific young person variety grew, and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get tagged as "party school," and people who are looking for that will come here.

The civic establishment started wrestling with this about a decade ago. Some of them fixated on the bar admission age but after several hundred students packed a 2004 council meeting, they backed off a bit, raising the age from 18 only to 19 and not to 21.

The University stayed very hands-off on this one. It was an era of leadership transition. Mary Sue Coleman left on no notice, so they hired UI lifer David Skorton figuring he'd stick around...  and a couple years later, with President now on the resume, he left too.

Enter Sally Mason in the fall of 2007, just as self-appointed morals guardian Rick Dobyns, fresh off a city council defeat, was pushing the first 21 Bar vote. Everyone expected it would pass. No one expected students would get out to vote in a local election...

So Mason got a very fast civics education. And the bar owners who ran the winning anti-21 campaign, not getting that they'd dodged a bullet, continued on as they were, and Iowa started to show up on Top 10 Party School lists. My sense is that this immersion experience turned what had been a vague notion, as noted by the 2007 date that international recruiting stepped up, into a grand Masterplan.

It's never addressed openly as such. That's entirely against Mason's nature. She seems like the type of person who never wants to talk to anyone except a high-level administrator or five-figure donor. The first instinct is always to stonewall or no-comment.

But the Masterplan is clear.

Since Party School had become self-fulfilling, the UI higher ups decided that to change the reputation, they needed to change the students. Not persuade the students to change, though there were certainly efforts at that. No, the idea was to change the people who come here in the first place.

The idea: Change the "party" reputation into a "tough" reputation, so that big brother Bluto gets arrested, he goes back to Aurora or Schaumburg, and warns little brother Flounder not to go to Iowa City.

The plan began with downtown crackdowns in 2008 and 2009. Things really got moving after the 2009 city election when council turnover created a majority in favor of an admission age of 21. It was one of the first things the new council passed, they knew they'd have to defend it in an election, and they threw the whole weight of the university and the civic establishment into keeping it.

Sure, the parties moved elsewhere, away from the downtown core and into houses, but the Scene started to fizzle, and the scene was the draw for the Blutos and Flounders. The bar owner who knew how to win (in 2007) or almost win (in `10) got driven out of business and out of town. Just before the fall 2013 semester started, we finally hit Number One on a party school list, but that survey was a lagging indicator, probably never true and certainly not true any more.

The repeat attempt at repealing 21 in 2013 was half-assed and half-hearted. By that time, in year 5 or 6 of the Masterplan, a majority of the undergrads had never known The Scene as it had once been, and 21 successfully got framed as a feminist issue.

So where do the international students fit in? They're the ones who replace Bluto and Flounder. They're still paying the hefty out of state tuition, they're not drawn here by the social life, and they're spending their own money or their government's. And, it seems from the article, either insular or isolated and either way invisible, unlike Delta House. (It also explains the demolition of the admittedly slumlike but cheap old Hawkeye Court and its replacement with new Hawkeye Court that will charge market-rate rents. More international married students, bringing in revenue but never setting foot in Brothers or the Field House.)

I absolutely love living in a place that's both a small town and a globally diverse community. Don't get me wrong. And the Masterplan is working well - if that's what you're looking for. In a couple years the party school rankers will catch up to the reality of the new order and UI will drift down and out of the rankings. The academic underachievers of the Illinois suburbs will take their parties elsewhere (my bet is on Madison).

My problem here is in the WAY all this has come about in the Mason era: the lack of openness, the interference in local politics, the seemingly contemptuous attitude toward their own students. Maybe I'm just a product of a bygone era, when "Animal House" was a COOL thing and not a cultural pathology. (Oh, the horrible influence that movie had on my life...)

But I'm still hung up on that apparently quaint notion that 18 year olds are adults and should have full adult rights. And anymore I seem to be the only one.

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