Speaking about Iowa

Old Capitol Building U of Iowa

 

There's a dustup of sorts over at the Atlantic Monthly's website. The central concern is about "who speaks for the University of Iowa"–a matter that in this writer's view represents one of the social weaknesses of our age, for though Athens put Socrates to death (see: long history of fighting for the Agora) Socrates' comeuppance was a consequence of warring ideas. In the University of Iowa's case the war is over money. Briefly, UI professor of journalism Stephen Bloom wrote an article for the Atlantic in which he candidly and subjectively covers the insularity of Iowa's citizens and the post-industrial struggle for survival of rural Americans in an age of growing poverty. Bloom's article "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life" suggests that Iowans are rather red necky, addicted to hunting, largely ignored, (Iowa is a "fly over" state) and that the University of Iowa, once a standout institution in the Big 10 is so starved for dollars that it has admitted astonishing numbers of students from China in an effort to garner scarce tuition dollars. If you follow the "dustup" link above you can read UI President Sally Mason's response to Bloom in which she argues convincingly that Bloom doesn't speak for the university. Let me go on record as saying that I like Sally Mason. I know her and think that she's doing a fine job as the leader of a great midwestern university. She has been at the helm of the UI during a terrible time. A massive flood destoryed several of the university's buildings in the summer of 2008 and then the ersatz depression put the institution in a serious financial hole. I wouldn't want Sally Mason's job for all the coo coo clocks in Bavaria.

President Mason has presided at the University of Iowa during a time of draconian budget cutting. The arts campus of the university is still largely a ghost town some four years after the flood. The Regents of the university are more conservative and culturally unambitious than their forebears who took pride in the university's well deserved reputation as the arts school of the Big 10. Under the current Regents, the UI is largely conceived of as a small fry version of Michigan–heavy on the hospitals and clinics but content to bask in an old reputation as a destination point for the arts. Sally Mason points out that Iowa City is a great place–that it's a world city of literature (as designated by the UN) but this stems from the remarkable accomplishments of the alumni of the "Writer's Workshop" and the provenance of the International Writing Program and the Nonfiction Writing Program–all of which are struggling for basic funding so they can admit graduate students. The humanities are in trouble at Iowa and that a distinguished journalism professor would write an essay declaiming the malaise of Iowans is hardly surprising. President Mason writes vigorously in defense of Iowans, demonstrating their character and stamina. She's right. During and after the flood in 2008 people from all walks of life gathered on the UI's campus to fill sandbags and save the library. But this demonstration of grit doesn't change the fact that Iowa's Regents and politicans are starving their university and that across the state poverty and despair are on the rise. Who speaks for the university? We all do. I'm an alum. I think the UI needs all the help it can get. But Stephen Bloom has some solid points. The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be…