As the Iowa Legislature seeks to finish its session, it is now essential for all of us to take an objective look at the proposed closing of the Malcolm Price Laboratory School, Iowa’s R&D School.
We need to ask a simple question about the rationale for the closing: where is the evidence? Because if you don’t ask that now, I have two other good ideas for you: let’s close the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, send away the patients, and distribute the training medical professionals to hospitals throughout the state. And, let’s close the Research and Demonstration Farms at Iowa State, sell the animals and property, and assign students and professors to study at farmsteads across the state. If you think those are bad ideas, they represent the same decision that has been made for the University of Northern Iowa – cutting its own R&D facility and sending students and faculty away from campus.
We now know there is no good curricular reason to close the school. When upper administrators made this decision (and we now know, from the release of e-mails requested by news organizations through the Freedom of Information Act, that they did this without consulting all stakeholders), the one administrator to object was the one person who clearly understood the MPLS/R&D School’s value: UNI College of Education Dean Dwight Watson. Yet, they ignored his alternative plan to keep the school open. When UNI said it needed to cut $4-5 million from its budget, administrators decided it was more important for UNI to continue to lose that much with their NCAA Division I sports programs, and instead cut an institution that was at the core of the university.
The university has tried to spread the myth that the MLPS/R&D School model is outdated, yet the school’s recent national awards belie that notion. In place of the MPLS/R&D School, UNI’s top administrators offered a vague alternative. The now-public e-mail messages reveal the lack of planning: In an e-mail dated February 19, 2012, President Allen wrote “Given that the Senate Democrats wanted a paper on the new vision for and R&D school to take the place of the lab school, I quickly came up with the material in the attachments.” He added “In short, we need this rewritten, made a bit more cutting edge, exciting and I need to get back to the Senators before we make an announcement.” This isn’t a case of trading up. It’s a case of trading a proven successful model for an idea that ill-formed and hastily planned.
We also now know there is no good fiscal reason to close the school. The MPLS/R&D School, as reconfigured by the Legislature in 2009, was on its way to becoming completely independent of UNI with its new stream of state per-pupil dollars. Cutting the school was premature, and an insult to the good work of the Legislature just a few years earlier. Moreover, the administration’s claims that closing the school will save money is again vague. “How much money?” is a reasonable question to ask, but UNI has no plan, nor hard data. In fact, to redistribute the Level I and Level II training of UNI’s education students to the Waterloo and Cedar Falls School Districts will require increased payments from UNI to those schools. What is the net savings? My guess is that a few years from now we will be embarrassed to find out that there are no savings. Meanwhile, an outstanding R&D School will have been destroyed, and UNI’s once-vaunted education program—without a campus-based R&D School—will lack the very thing that set it apart from so many other education programs.
The UNI administration and Board of Regents have tried to suppress any discussion of this (again evidenced by the cache of now-public email messages), and rushed through the decision to suppress alternative opinions. They’ve also paid good money to hire a PR firm that specializes in crisis management for the nuclear power industry to convince us that these decisions are perfectly fine—no crisis here.
I’m not an opponent of change—universities are living institutions that teach and develop to the benefit of society. Universities are also places that make decisions that are collaborative and based on sound research. That’s the UNI that I love. So, it’s time for the Iowa Legislature and all Iowa citizens to step back, look for the evidence, and give these monumental decisions the research, time, and discussion they deserve.
Also see this post in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, April 29, 2012.Disclosure: I have a child who attends Price Lab School. I have another child who attends Cedar Falls Schools. Both are good schools.