Regent blasts University of Iowa president for sex assault remark, lack of communication

The Iowa Board of Regents met behind closed doors Friday afternoon to evaluate the performance of University of Iowa President Sally Mason, who has faced criticism over a remark she made about sexual assault.

Board President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland chastised Mason for her comment that ending sexual assault probably wasn't realistic "just given human nature." Mulholland said that comment was inappropriate, and board members were concerned that students continued to find it hurtful.

Mulholland said the board relies on university presidents to ensure student safety, and "that means zero tolerance regarding sexual assault."

Mason apologized again for the remark, which was published last week in the student newspaper. She announced plans to impose tougher disciplinary sanctions against perpetrators, increase funding for training and prevention initiatives and give more support to victims.

Students who were upset about the university's handling of sexual assault reports seized on Mason's comment, forming a group called "Not In My Nature" to demand an apology and push for changes. They argued the comment reflected an attitude among administrators in which assaults are seen as inevitable and sometimes the victims' fault.

Mulholland accused Mason, who has led the university since 2007, of failing to keep board members informed during the fast-moving events of the past week. She said regents had been frustrated in the past over what she called a pattern of poor communications.

"By failing to communicate with us directly, you gave us no other choice than to have this meeting today," Mulholland, superintendent of schools for Linn-Mar Community School District, told Mason during a meeting at the board's office in Urbandale. "Shouldn't something as public as the events of last week warrant a board discussion and consultation?"

Mason replied "absolutely" and apologized for not "being on top of this as we could have and should have been." But she added that she was instructed by the board's executive director, Bob Donley, not to call the regents individually to discuss the matter. Donley said he made that decision after it became clear the regents were planning Friday's meeting and Mason could explain the situation then.

Mason also said she had agreed to meet monthly with board leaders to improve communications and was frustrated that hasn't happened because of their busy schedules.

It was unclear what might come out of Friday's closed session.

Some regents have expressed misgivings about Mason's leadership in the past. She is the only university president not hired by its current leadership. But she appeared to be on a stronger footing last August, when the board increased her salary by 4 percent to $513,000 and praised her for meeting goals. Leaders of key student, faculty and staff groups have also praised her leadership.

The nine-member Board of Regents governs Iowa's three public universities. Its members are appointed to staggered six-year terms by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. The board must have one have student and no more than five members of the same political party.

Mason, 63, has been working as an at-will employee since 2012, after the board took the unusual step of not extending her contract, meaning she could be fired at any time. If she is removed as president, Mason would be entitled to a lower-paying faculty position in the biology department, where she holds tenure.