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Do Iowans not want better-educated citizens?

May 12, 2010
Robert D. Koob
Des Moines Register
May 29, 2006

Robert Koob

The University of Northern Iowa works continuously to enhance student learning and to encourage its employees to work collaboratively and constructively to provide the most effective and productive environment in support of that learning.

Through its many graduates and direct services to citizens, the university improves the lives of all Iowans, particularly by contributing to the economic success of the state.

UNI has seen this effort rewarded by being recognized as one of America's most productive public comprehensive universities.

Happily, UNI's commitment seems completely congruous with the understanding that more people need more education today than ever before. A well-educated person has a better chance of living a successful life both economically and socially. A well-educated and well-trained workforce is required for Iowa and the nation to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Most organizations that recognized the confluence of a great and increasing marketplace need, coupled with a highly productive means of responding to that need, would increase their investment to ensure even greater success. Exactly the opposite is happening here in Iowa.

Counting the upcoming fiscal year, UNI has now seen six years of insufficient general-fund appropriations to meet salaries negotiated by the state. That's right: State government negotiates the wages to be paid to its represented employees, then refuses to appropriate the funds necessary to cover those wages. As a result, the university is left to find other sources to pay the bill created by the state's negotiation.

One funding source that has been increased is tuition. The problem with increased tuition is that it reduces the availability of educational services to those who need them the most: Iowa's least-affluent citizens.

Another means to "pay the bill" is to reduce the number of employees to whom the salary is owed, directly reducing educational services to those students who are now paying more to receive them.

We have heard the message that asks a reduced number of employees to "do more with less," but frankly, this message rings hollow when your organization is already one of the most productive in the nation.

In the past, fewer dollars flowing to the state's treasury (a political choice, by the way, not the consequence of a failing economy) has been used as an excuse for this underfunding.

This year, however, Iowa saw strong growth in collections, but UNI will receive about half as much new funding to meet state-imposed obligations as it did last year.

Perhaps Iowans do not want more and better-educated citizens. That is the conclusion one would reach based on the actions of their elected representatives.

Certainly, that is their right. In reaching that conclusion, however, Iowans should recognize the consequences. Taking the path followed for the first six years of this new century will assure that Iowa is less competitive in the nation and world economy, and all the talk of economic development will be just that, talk.

Robert Koob led the University of Northern Iowa for 11 years before retiring as president in May, 2006.