Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2007 | Features

A Good Start

By Tina Owen
Sally Mason The University of Iowa's 20th president, Sally Mason, approaches life with a positive, glass-half-full philosophy.

With an emphatically positive outlook and an emphasis on collaboration, new president Sally Mason prepares to lead the University of Iowa to greater heights.

One week into the job, University of Iowa President Sally Mason conducted business from a Jessup Hall office that lacked much warmth, charm, or personality. Unlike its occupier.

As of early August, just a few of biologist Mason's collection of frog ornaments had hopped onto the wooden shelves waiting to display books, photographs, and the diverse mementoes of a university president's life. Only one black crocheted doily, handcrafted by Mason during rare hours of relaxation, sat beneath the glass vase of golden yellow roses sent as a welcome-to-campus gift by the alumni association.

Her office might have been a work in progress, but, after a mere handful of days, Mason had already made a distinct impression on the UI. A good impression. She'd kept her promise to meet, talk, and listen to people around the university. Significantly, she'd started with students.

Back on June 21, as members of the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, voted publicly on her appointment, Mason waited in a nearby room at the Iowa Memorial Union. With her were four representatives from the UI Student Government, whom she'd requested to meet and had also invited to the evening's celebratory dinner at the president's house on Church Street.

After Iowa Governor Chet Culver mistook the students for her family, the UI's incoming president smoothly turned the mix-up into an inside joke that set the tone for her budding relationship with these young leaders. As UI Student Government President Barrett Anderson, an economics and political senior from West Des Moines explains, "Ever since then, she's called us her children."

In the 24 whirlwind hours following her official introduction at the UI, Mason allocated three of them to students. "That's remarkable and exciting," says Anderson. "She could have spent that time sequestered with deans, but instead she talked to us."

Students, with their uncanny ability to spot an all-talk, no-action administrator from a mile away, were impressed by the fact that the new president didn't just hear out their concerns about tuition fees, diversity, and safety on campus—she also volunteered to deliver the keynote address at a campus conference this fall.

It's not surprising that Mason should feel such a close link to students. After all, for 21 years, she taught biology to thousands of university undergrads. Other reasons also drive her passion for education. A first-generation college student, she calls it an "exceedingly personal" cause.

Growing up in New Jersey, Mason knew that education was a rare privilege. Her father, a Czech immigrant, World War II veteran, and a big, burly trucker, only finished eighth grade. Her mom, an Indiana native who passed on a love of state fairs to her daughter, barely finished high school before going to work in a New York City department store and then as a homemaker.

A charming family ritual helped lay the foundation for Mason's future academic success. Every day, Mason's father would sit her on his lap and read her the newspaper "funnies." One time, he skipped a panel, and his observant daughter pointed out, "Daddy, you missed one." Astonished, he realized that she'd managed to connect the words he read aloud to the ones written on the paper.

From then on, they developed a new routine: every Friday, on payday, Mason's father took her to the local corner store and gave her a dollar to buy ten comics. Thrilled, she'd scoop up a week's supply of reading material—everything from the adventures of Archie and Veronica to the exploits of superheroes.

Reading became her primary hobby—and a lifelong joy. Mason still remembers her excitement when her mother first took her to their local library. By sixth grade, she'd devoured almost every book in the children's section, so she graduated to the adult library. The family television would sit blank and quiet in the corner while Mason worked her way through book after book. "I was such a nerdy kid," she laughs. "Summer vacation always felt too long; I couldn't wait to get back to school—and new books."

Although her parents were supportive, Mason's college education proved a financial strain for the family. To help meet the costs of her undergraduate years at the University of Kentucky, Mason worked full-time for three years as a secretary for a local construction company, scheduling her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so she could work the rest of the week and Saturdays. In her senior year, her academic advisor arranged for her to work full-time as a lab assistant instead. Looking back, she jokes that her hectic work schedule brought her GPA down—to an A-minus.

She never doubted that her struggles would be worthwhile, though. "College opened up a whole world of opportunities," she says, expressing her fundamental belief in the power of education.

Both of Mason's parents died before they saw their daughter reach the pinnacle of her career, climbing from professor to president with stops along the way at the University of Kansas and Purdue University as department head, associate dean, dean, and provost. She takes comfort in knowing they would have been proud of her success—in their understated, pragmatic way.

She fondly recalls hearing her father talk about her in a phone call to his sister, Blanche. At this time, a few years before her father's death, Mason was a full professor and an associate dean. "She's doing well," said her father. "She's still in college, but at least it doesn't cost us anything anymore."

Unlike many administrators, Mason had no burning desire to be in charge. She loved teaching students, relishing their "sense of immortality, their positive energy flow" and enjoying the rewards that come from "helping shape young minds and channel enthusiasm in positive ways."

Her husband, Ken Mason, a respected instructor himself (twice a week at Purdue, he taught three daily sessions of an introductory biology course to about 1,500 undergrads), says she's the best teacher he's ever seen.

At the University of Kansas, Mason received several awards for outstanding undergraduate advising and teaching. If her students appreciated her finer qualities, so did her faculty peers. In fact, her administration career grew directly out of her colleagues' trust and respect. When her dean at Kansas asked her to become acting chair of the physiology and cell biology department, Mason said she'd only do it if every single faculty member—in a department famed for its fractiousness—agreed on her appointment. In a rare display of unity, they did.

Through this experience, Mason realized she had unsuspected skills as an administrator and that she could make a real difference to her institution. In an interview with the UI's FYI faculty and staff online newspaper this August, she stressed that a university administrator needs a strong foundation of academic experience.

Mason also brings other much-needed qualities to the University of Iowa. Former colleagues point to her emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, which Mason will use to help restore a sense of community to the UI campus following the long and sometimes acrimonious search for the successor to President David Skorton. Many faculty, staff, and students heaved a collective sigh of relief when Mason was hired this past summer—not simply because the search process was finally over, but because she seems such a good match for the UI.

A collaborative style doesn't make her a pushover, though. At Purdue, when a group of some 150 disgruntled African American students marched on the administration building, it was Mason who went out to meet them. She calmly listened to their concerns about issues including the suspension of a black fraternity, and then she invited them to nominate representatives to discuss their grievances at greater length with her and other administrators. Although not all their concerns could be resolved, the students were impressed that such a senior administrator had taken them seriously and listened to their ideas.

She'll be listening just as attentively to the UI people she meets. She wants to gain a thorough understanding of the university and its constituents, to achieve support—and consensus. With the benefit of some 40 years' experience in higher education, she's not rushing into any hasty decisions. Her top priority is to find a replacement for Provost Michael Hogan, 67MA, 74PhD, who left the university in August to become president of the University of Connecticut.

The prospect of newcomers filling the university's two most senior administrative posts doesn't faze Mason. While it's tempting for a new president to jump into setting agendas or priorities, she's strongly resisting. "If there were any pressing issues or needs, it would be different," she says, "but we have time. We have a good strategic plan in place; we can think about what the future holds."

Whenever she meets new people on her travels or in her office, President Mason shakes their hands with a grip that is warm but firm—also an apt description of the university's new leader. Whether she attends a two-day Board of Regents meeting, represents the university at the State Fair, tours Iowa on outreach visits that take her from Dubuque to Sioux City, or meets with the students she finds so inspirational, Mason approaches each experience with genuine enthusiasm and energy.

When asked what alumni would be surprised to know about her, Mason pauses. She seems taken aback at the suggestion that she possesses any particularly remarkable qualities. "No surprises about me," she says eventually, "I'm a pretty normal person."

But she can make at least one remarkable claim. She's managed to pursue her passion, to follow her calling—something she always advised her students to do.

"If you don't get up in the morning and look forward to going to work, maybe it's time for a change," says the University of Iowa's 20th president. "But that also depends on your outlook, whether you're a glass-half-full or half-empty kind of person. I'm hopelessly glass-half-full."