EP Award Promo

Newsmaker Q&A: Mark Nook

President, University of Northern Iowa


Mark Nook has led the University of Northern Iowa as its 11th president for the past two years. I caught up with Nook recently while he was in Des Moines to visit with state lawmakers and Greater Des Moines business leaders. Here are some highlights from my conversation with him at the Iowa Statehouse. Funding an upgrade for an aging technology center on campus, finding the sweet spot for tuition pricing and guarding faculty tenure are some of the things on the UNI president’s mind. 

What topics are of particular interest this year at the Capitol? 

Of course, we’re always bringing a budget down and we’re talking with people about our budget request. The state appropriation includes both what we call general fund dollars – that is, the dollars that help us offset tuition to make higher education affordable for students from Iowa. [The other funding is infrastructure requests]. We need to upgrade our Industrial Technology Center, which is where we train construction managers and people in graphic design, technology, electrical engineering, technology, all the stuff that’s around future [workforce]. 

Then we have some economic development entities that we also have out there that are important to us and that are funded through the casino revenue dollars. We’ve got a rather large [portfolio of state programs funded by gambling revenues] that really reaches out and touches every single employer, community and economic development authority, all 99 counties. [Fiscal 2018 outlays and appropriations statewide from state gambling revenues totaled $322 million.] So it’s really important to the state that we continue to be able to do that sort of program, aside from the things that we normally bring down. 

Of course, we’re watching the tenure bill and, and as of the last I heard, it was on the docket at the moment. [The bill, Senate File 27, was reintroduced by Sen. Brad Zaun of Urbandale and would allow faculty members to be terminated on grounds that include, but are not limited to, “just cause, program discontinuance, and financial exigency.”] But it would make it impossible for us to hire faculty, in particular into the state of Iowa and especially at UNI. It is a very important benefit in higher education, and so it is an economic issue for us. If we don’t have tenure, and we want to continue to attract high-quality professors, salaries will have to go up a great deal because a benefit isn’t there that is available in other states and other universities and in private institutions. So it really would be crippling to higher ed. 

How has enrollment been this spring semester? 

Over about the last eight years now, we’ve been heading down a little bit. We picked back up around 2010 and 2011. We had a peak before that in 2001, and kind of came down and back up. Our enrollment pretty much follows the unemployment rate. So as unemployment goes down, so does our enrollment. Students are able to find jobs; there are fewer part-time workers that are looking to improve their jobs skills now that have full-time employment. So it impacts our enrollment. 

Right now, our spring enrollment is looking pretty good relative to last year. … I think we can get this turned around. It’s clear we’ve got to do a better job with our marketing and our communication; we have to make sure our price point is right. [2018-19 in-state undergraduate tuition with required fees totals $8,938]. That means getting our tuition and fees set in the right place, making sure room and board contracts are in a place that’s competitive as well. So those are some things we’re working on.

Fortunately, we’ve got really great student success markers — the percentage of students who come back for their second year is really high, the percentage that graduate in six years is running 14 percentage points higher than similar institutions. We’re a great institution and doing all the right things; we’ve got to talk about it better, and we’ve got to get our price point right. 

What was the rationale for not asking for a tuition increase this year? 

We need to realize that all three of the institutions are different. … We need some separation; [Iowa State and the University of Iowa] need to actually raise theirs a little bit to be more in line with what’s going on with other research universities. And so that’s the real rationale behind this. We also are out of alignment compared to similar institutions in other states. So it’s just a matter of getting our price point at the right place. … And most importantly, from my perspective, it’s being able to provide the people in Iowa with a really great value for their education dollar with a fantastic education here at the University of Northern Iowa and leave with less debt.

How will updating the Industrial Technology Center benefit Iowa businesses? 

[The Industrial Technology Center] was built in 1974, to teach shop teachers to be shop teachers in the ’70s. … Although we’ve made some changes to make that work, we really need to update that building. [The building was dedicated in 1976 and the largest addition, a 5,000-square-foot metal castings lab, was completed in 1990.] Many of the other people that are trained there are going out into high-tech jobs and industries that are really the professionals, the managers of people in those midlevel skilled trades. And so it’s really important we’re producing professionals that are vital to the future of the manufacturing and industrial complex that is in the state of Iowa.

What’s the amount being requested? 

We’re asking for $38 million. It’s a $42 million project; we will raise $4 million privately for the project and then ask the state for $38 million. It is in the governor’s budget spread over a four-year period. So we’ll see how it goes. 

What’s next for an overall fundraising campaign for UNI? 

We’re in the very early phases of starting a campaign that will raise some money for this building. As part of it, we’ve got some other things that we want to do — a big portion of that will be scholarships and support for students, and some support for some faculty in particular that will be engaging students in the work that they’re doing. 

When do you expect that will be launched? 

It will be a couple of years yet. We’re really in the very early stages of identifying what our needs are, and what’s possible, and those sorts of things. But you know, we’ve got a sesquicentennial coming up in 2026 — 150 years old. The campanile will be 100 years old and the UNI-Dome will be 50 years old, which blows me away because I graduated from high school the year that it was opened. So we’ve got some things around which to get people excited about the university.


Facebook Notice for EU! You need to login to view and post FB Comments!

americanequity web 040123 300x250