CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - State Board of Regents President Craig Lang on Thursday defended the group's controversial decision to close the University of Northern Iowa's Price Lab School and responded to challenges of its power to do so.
"I still believe our general counsel is correct that we do have the authority," Lang said after speaking at the Iowa City Noon Rotary meeting Thursday.
Educators, parents and residents wanting to keep UNI's 350-student preK-12 Price Lab School open filed a lawsuit Tuesday arguing that the Legislature would have to change the Iowa Code to shutter the school.
About 2,000 pages of university documents and emails released this week under an open-records request show UNI administrators were unclear about the closure process before and after UNI President Ben Allen recommended closing the school in February.
The Iowa Board of Regents voted 8-0 on Feb. 27 to approve Allen's recommendation.
UNI "felt it needed to move on" and, considering budget challenges facing the university, closing the school was "the only solution left," Lang said Thursday following the rotary lunch.
The regents also approved Allen's recommendation to eliminate 58 academic programs at UNI, and Lang said Thursday that university leadership couldn't justify funding programs that had as few as five graduates a year.
But, Lang told the rotary crowd, "Our strategy is to help UNI to become the premier teaching college in the world."
"Don't doubt that for a minute," he said.
Lang said the Board or Regents is working daily with the Legislature to secure a boost in funding for Iowa's three regent universities beginning July 1. Gov. Terry Branstad, he said, has recommended giving the universities $23 million more than last year's appropriation, and the Senate has recommended a $34 million funding increase.
The Republican-controlled House, however, has proposed reducing regent funding for the 2012 budget year by $31 million – $54 million below the governor's budget proposal. Should the House proposal prevail, Lang said, tuition at all three schools will increase, and more programs will be cut.
"We would love to have the Senate number, but we are asking the House to move to the governor's recommendation," Lang said. "If it's lower, we have to start making cuts that really affect the learning of students."
In an effort to promote the importance of Iowa's regent universities and encourage solid financing, Lang said the regents have organized a student-led "road show" that will tour the state starting next week.
"Universities for a Better Iowa" will kick off its nine-city tour at 5 p.m. Monday at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. The group will include student representatives from all three regent universities who will talk about how the institutions benefit the state and their communities and how they have improved their lives.
"The goal," Lang said, "is for the people of Iowa to start rethinking how important the investment in public universities really is."
With more state funding, the universities' programming will increase, driving up student interest and enrollment.
"We believe in the value of our public universities, but we're not satisfied," Lang said. "We want to make them greater. And you make them greater by making them more affordable."