Worrying about Iowa’s colleges & universities: The answer for them is growth, not cutbacks.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, April 27, 2024 – All my long life, I’ve idealized and loved college life, to the extent that I have called myself the “eternal sophomore.”

For several years, my retirement plan from the Des Moines Register, as I told my bosses and colleagues, was “to land at one of Iowa’s small colleges, be the old guy who drinks coffee with the kids in the morning at the student center, then keeps the scorebook at the ball games in the afternoon.”  Buena Vista University in Storm Lake let me do a form of that for a couple years, and I’ll be forever grateful.

Of course, I’ve spent a ton of time on campus at the University of Iowa this past year, gobsmacked by the basketball of Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes women’s team.

Speaking of the U of I, when their University Choir did a recent concert at my Plymouth Church in Des Moines, I was in the front row. 

One of the highlights of this spring semester for me was spending an evening talking journalism with the staff of Grinnell College’s excellent “Scarlet & Black” student newspaper.   (My fee was “a cup of coffee and at least one student singing ‘Sons of Old Grinnell’ for me” – and they met my terms.)

But lately, I’m worrying about our colleges and universities, specifically those in Iowa but, come to think of it, across the nation and beyond.

Saying goodbye to Iowa Wesleyan University last May.

Maybe it goes back to me feeling a year ago now that I just had to attend a “final concert” at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant. It was actually the final event in its “181 years of existence,” which had made it “the oldest, continuously-operating coed college west of the Mississippi.” (You can read that sad tale by clicking right here.)

Now, in Des Moines, the Board of Trustees and administration of Drake University have been considering cutbacks in several long-established academic programs because of declining enrollment and tight finances.  English professor Carol Spaulding-Kruse wrote a thoughtful essay about that in the Des Moines Register the other day, and you can read that right here. In it she talks about a “dreaded 2025 ‘demographic cliff,’ which by some accounts will be accompanied by a national decline in college age young people.” Gulp.

And one more reason why all of us in Iowa should be worried is that Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Republican Party are continuing an evil campaign that has clobbered what once was one of the best public education systems in America – from K-12 through the Regents universities. 

Part of that hit the fan this week when the Board of Regents were discussing the defunding and elimination of “diversity, equity and inclusion” offices and programs on their campuses.  Veteran Iowa journalist Ty Rushing made it plain what that’s all about in his “Iowa Starting Line” column published Friday. You can read Rushing’s view right here.

So, good reasons to worry about my beloved colleges and universities.

The historic Jubilee Hall at Fisk University in Nashville.

Now, let me remind you what college is supposed to be like.

On a trip to Tennessee in early September of 1996, while waiting to pick up a friend at the airport in Nashville, I dropped in on Fisk University to see its beautiful campus.  Fisk had been recognized for decades as one of the best of the historically African-American colleges and universities in the nation.

It so happened that I arrived just as an academic procession was moving across the campus toward the chapel.  I asked a passer-by and learned that the 131st “opening convocation” was being held to welcome the new freshman class of about 250 members.

I’m sure I got more inspiration from what I heard there than the freshmen did.

Fisk’s then-interim president Rutherford H. Adkins, a longtime physics professor at the school, turned his welcoming message to the new students into one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard about what a college education really ought to be.  Here we are, 28 years later, and I not only remember it but am still quoting it.

“We will stretch your minds to limits you’ve never dreamed,” Professor Adkins began.

“We will see that you learn the truths of the ages, and you will learn some ways to help solve the problems of the present and to see the opportunities and challenges of the future.

“You will learn to see the beauty in nature, and in the humanities, you will see the creation of art and music and literature.

“You will learn to speak up and to speak out, for your rights and for the rights of others not as able as you are.

“You will learn to express yourself gently or forcefully, calmly or with emotion, as the circumstances dictate.

“You will learn how to recognize your obligations and live up to them.

“Finally, you will learn to honor and to celebrate the African-American heritage.”

I don’t know about those freshmen, but Professor Adkins gave me goose bumps.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard the college experience defined any better than that.

President & Professor Rutherford H. Adkins in a Fisk University photo.

Incidentally, he seemed to speak without notes that afternoon.  A few days later, when I was back at the Des Moines Register and still thinking about his message, I called his office at Fisk U, and one of his staff members used a recording of the convocation to transcribe Adkins’ brief speech.

I also learned more about him.  Rutherford Hamlet “Lubby” Adkins had been a combat pilot with the famed “Tuskegee Airman” during World War II. Post-war he earned his undergraduate degree in physics from Virginia State University, his master’s at Howard University and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.  In his near 50 years of college teaching, which ended with his death at 71 years old in 1998, he had appointments at Georgia Tech, Morehouse College and the U.S. Naval Academy before he settled at Fisk.

Let me conclude this by telling you about an “Iowa Higher Education Initiative,” which was proposed by a group named “Iowans for a Better Future” that was active from 2000 and 2005.

Yes, I was involved.  We were a follow-up group advocating for ideas we’d advanced in 1999 and 2000 as Gov. Tom Vilsack’s “Strategic Planning Council.”  He had asked us to do a deep consideration of the state’s future, “come up with ideas for what Iowa should be like by the year 2010 and an action plan on how to get there.”

We did a whole lot of work in the area of economic development.

Back then, Iowa’s much-admired and effective economic development strategy had three “tracks” – the bio-sciences, advanced manufacturing and information technology. 

We proposed adding a fourth track – higher education – and treating it like a growth engine for the state. 

We said there should be aggressive student and faculty recruiting across the U.S. and around the world.  The Regents universities, private colleges and universities, and the community colleges should all work together on this.  We should pair incoming students, all during their college years, with Iowa businesses and industries for internships, scholarships, fellowships and eventual careers.  We saw it as a way to attract more young people to Iowa – we desperately needed them then as we still do now – and a way of convincing many of them to have their careers here.

As I recall, Regents universities and community colleges were strongly in favor of the higher education initiative.  But the private schools, members of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities?  Not so much. 

“They don’t call them ‘Independent’ for nothing,” Gary Steinke said back then.  At the time he was executive director of the Board of Regents. In 2007, he became president of the IAICU and served until a year ago.  But our Iowa Higher Education Initiative had died, and Iowans for a Better Future folded, too.

Hmmm.  It was a good idea back then.  Maybe it’d still be a good idea now.

But the bottom line here, in my view, is that cutbacks just don’t work in higher education. 

The answer for colleges and universities is to grow – in student enrollment, programs, faculty, staff, traditions and pride.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

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