University of Northern Iowa President

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 2, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Mark Nook, president of the University of Northern Iowa, discusses issues of importance to the university, faculty and students.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register and Linh Ta, Des Moines reporter for Axios.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


Kay Henderson It has the smallest student body of Iowa's three public universities, but it plays a big role in educating Iowa's educators. We'll talk with University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook on this edition of Iowa Press.

Announcer Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities, and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at

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Announcer For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, December 2nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

Kay Henderson Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press leads an institution that began in 1876 as the Iowa State Normal School. It was renamed the Iowa State Teachers College in the early 1900s and in 1967 and thereafter, it's been known as the University of Northern Iowa. Mark Nook has been UNI’s president since February of 2017. He's been on the program before.

Kay Henderson Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Mark Nook Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back.

Kay Henderson Also joining this conversation are Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines and Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register.

Stephen Gruber-Miller Universities around the country have been struggling with declining enrollment in recent years, including UNI. You know, what kind of trouble does it create for the university if the student population continues to decline?

Mark Nook Yeah. You know, one of the first pressures that I think everybody understands is that puts some financial pressure on the institution to maintain the programs because the tuition dollars aren't there in the same way. I think we've been able to manage that in a really good way. We haven't had to cut back on programs. We've been able to manage the resources, that is the personnel on campus as well as our facilities in a way to be able to manage with that. But if these trends continue, it’ll become more and more difficult for every institution. This really is a nationwide problem that started in about 2010 as a result of the really low unemployment rate. More and more students coming out of high schools are choosing to go into the labor force instead of going on to institutions of certain types.

Mark Nook

Mark Nook And ours is one of those. And so until that turns around, we'll continue to feel some of that pressure.

Linh Ta You know, the University of Northern Iowa has long been known as a teachers college. And now, you know, it's a mid-sized institution and that has mostly Iowa residents as its students. You know, taking a look at kind of the enrollment declines and the impacts that we've talked about that it's having on the campus, do you think there's going to have to be any rebranding or major shifts at the university to kind of acclimate to this new environment?

Mark Nook You know, one of the things that we've done to really look at this is starting in 2017, we've been using the time for 2017 until our 150th anniversary in 2026 to really lay a foundation for a long term future for the university and the heart and soul of that is something we call academic positioning. And I think it really will help us address many of these some of the enrollment challenges.

Mark Nook And that's to ask the question, what are the academic programs that the state of Iowa needs the University of Northern Iowa to be delivering to meet the workforce needs of the state, not just today, but 50 years from now. And how do we make sure we're ready to do that? The other question we're asking is what are the academic programs that students coming out of high schools are really looking for and excited to find and to be a part of, and then lay those two over the top of each other and go after those programs that lay in that intersecting set.

Mark Nook And it's one of the reasons that we've approached the Regents to get approval for a nursing program. We're looking at several other areas in this academic positioning as to what are the programs the state needs or the program students weren't really want to get into? And then how do we grow those and do they make sense on our campus and what can we do then?

Mark Nook So I think that'll help us grow our enrollment because we'll have the programs students want and the state needs as well. But we also have to be looking at how we do reach out and how we market our institution. And so it was just about three years ago now we went through a rebranding of the institution and put together a whole new brand architecture and marketing study.

Mark Nook And and so we're marketing our institution in a different way. We've rebranded it and are talking about ourselves in a different way. We're also reaching out not just within the state of Iowa, but in neighboring states, especially those close to Cedar Falls, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, where the population of students coming out of high schools is fairly large as well.

Mark Nook So we're doing several things to try to help bring that in. But we are facing this sort of national challenge of students deciding not to go to college at the same rates they used to and that's impacting all of us. So we've got a headwind. We've got to do everything we can to to lean into that headwind and make a difference.

Kay Henderson Let's help viewers understand the current makeup of the student body. How many of them are Iowa residents?

Mark Nook Yeah, our student body is 90% Iowa residents. Most of the rest of them of our nonresidents students come from either Minnesota, Wisconsin or Illinois. And we have a relatively small number of students that come from overseas, international students. That student group, the international student group in particular was impacted by COVID in a very large way. It cut our international enrollment about in half.

Mark Nook And so that was a pretty big impact for us. But it's starting to come back. We're seeing signs that that's going to grow back as people adjust to living with COVID more than anything else and things become a little bit easier to move around the world. Of our students, you know, when they graduate, 85% of them take their first job here in the state of Iowa.

Mark Nook And even those that are coming to us from out of state, once they graduate from UNI, 50% of them take their first job here in the state of Iowa and stay in the state of Iowa. So where you really are helping with this problem that Iowa faces of, you know, how do we have enough people to take the jobs that are here?

Mark Nook And we're going to have to have people coming in from out of state to do that. So UNI is a place that really does have a positive impact on on solving that problem for the state of Iowa.

Kay Henderson A state board appointed by the governor sets the tuition rates for each of the three public universities. What's the current tuition rate?

Mark Nook We're just a little under $9000 with tuition and fees.

Kay Henderson So they've also set in advance the next tuition increase, which would be --

Mark Nook They haven't set it yet for next year, for the next fall, they'll do that. But generally they have set the tuition after the legislature sets our state funding for the next year.

Kay Henderson So you've asked for a level of state funding. If that's not appropriated, will students face a higher tuition?

Mark Nook I think they will have to. That, of course, is a decision that is up to the board of Regents. But our request really is to help us keep our tuition as close to zero as possible so that we can differentiate our tuition a little bit from that of Iowa and Iowa State. Ours has been traditionally been pretty close to theirs.

Mark Nook That's different than in most other states where the regional comprehensives are typically about $2500 or $3500 less expensive than base tuition. So we've been working with the Regents to start to build some separation there. One of the things that I like about doing that I think it's important to do that is it gives the residents of the state of Iowa in particular some options on where they send, where they go to school and what it's going to cost them to get an education.

Mark Nook And so I think it is important to offer, you know, rates that the community colleges have, regional, comprehensive, a little bit different and then the research institutions at a little different rate as well. And we've been working, as I said, over the last five years to try to get that differentiation built up.

Stephen Gruber-Miller So one of the stories that's been in the news this year is the Biden student debt relief plan and that's currently on hold and pending a Supreme Court challenge. What kind of uncertainty does that create for UNI students? How are you communicating to them about it?

Mark Nook Yeah, you know, most of that debt relief really impacts our graduates and not so much our current students because it's people who have graduated and are holding loan debt. I did get a question just yesterday. I was meeting in a, you know, communications class, future journalists. So kind of fun to be here today. And one of that was one of the questions is, what does this really mean?

Mark Nook And I said, well, you know, as we look at that, it's for those students that are currently out. It's not necessarily going to impact you unless there's a long term sort of congressional solution here. So the thing that I'm really interested in is how can we look at the long term structure of financing higher education? How do we do that nationally?

Mark Nook How do we do that at the state level? And then what portion is the responsibility of the students? And that's a longer conversation than anybody has had for a while. And hopefully it can be had when we finally do have a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Stephen Gruber-Miller So what are some of those things that UNI and other schools can do to kind of lower costs and make sure students don't leave with as much debt?

Mark Nook Yeah. You know, one of the things that we've done at UNI in particular, is institute what we call live like a student. It's a it's a financial literacy package. It's also a student loan consultation service. The full name of this is live like a student today so you don't have to tomorrow. Right. And it really is about helping students understand what their revenue streams are, what their expenses are, what that gap is, and how you can close that gap by raising your revenue or decreasing your expenses.

Mark Nook And then if you do need to take out a loan and they qualify for a private loan, we require that they sit down with a loan officer and for a half an hour and go through exactly that. What we found is that about 60% of our almost 70% of our students decrease the amount of loan they were planning to take out by $950 per year.

Mark Nook So we've actually reduced debt to where our students are $5,000 below the national average, where just ten years ago they were on the national average. So this program's had a tremendous impact. It's one of the things we can do, just helping students understand what their costs are, how they can manage their budgets. One of the other things we've done is to work closely with the state legislature to try to increase the state appropriations so we can hold our tuition as flat as possible.

Mark Nook And over the last several years, we've really been successful at keeping our tuition increases at a very low rate. We've been pretty close with peer institutions around the Midwest. We're a little bit above them. So keeping it down is pretty important. And building that gap between us and Iowa and Iowa State is really essential for the health of our institution, and I think also for the opportunities that students and their parents have here in the state of Iowa to give them different price point options and still have access to high quality education.

Linh Ta UNI is embarking on a $250 million public campaign. Can you talk a little bit about that and how much of that is going towards student education and how much of that is going towards infrastructure and maintaining facilities?

Mark Nook Yeah, it's, you know, exciting to be in this $250 million campaign. We publicly announced it on October 7th. We have as of now, we've raised about $190 million in pledges and actual cash in hand. The first piece of that is about access and success, and it's all about tuition, scholarships, grants, those sorts of things. That's going to be about 75 million to 80 million of the 250 million.

Mark Nook So a big piece of it. The next section of it is engaged, learning. And I think the way I think of this we're working on it is to help students take the education that they get in the classroom and apply it to everyday life in their particular profession. And so support for internships, support for we have a lot of classes that get students out into the community, engaged in community service, support for that.

Mark Nook One of the things we're all really talking about is support for student teachers as student teaching is the original internship right in higher ed. It was the first internship. It's always been an unpaid internship and more and more people are recognizing that internships really should be paid positions at some level. So how can we do that with the student teachers?

Mark Nook Can we raise some funds to help offset the costs that students incur as student teachers? Another piece of it then, is to help us build out academic programs like the nursing program and our gerontology program. some of our science programs, support accounting, but then the last piece is our iconic spaces. In 2026, when we turn 150 years old, the Campanile will be 100 years old, the UNI-Dome will be 50 years old.

Mark Nook And the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center will be 26 years old. We started it a year or two early, so but it all works out. So we're raising funds for those iconic spaces in particular. That total is about $70 million for those three entities, most of it going to the UNI-Dome, which is such a, not just a regional center, but really serves this entire state with state football playoffs, the various ag and home shows that happen in there, concerts.

Mark Nook So it really is a resource for the state. So it's one we've got to pay attention to and make sure we keep up to date and after 50 years it needs a little work.

Stephen Gruber-Miller So one of the things you were talking about earlier, I think you called it academic positioning, but thinking about the degrees that UNI offers, obviously a big one is education. What kind of interest are you seeing in your education program currently? What sort of conversations are you having with, you know, schools and state leaders about how UNI students can help meet the teacher shortage that the state has?

Mark Nook Yeah. For one, the enrollments have been steady for us, which is unique. That's not true across the state or across the country in hiring in teacher preparation programs. The number of students we've graduated each year hasn't dropped off over this period. Everyone else has seen that. Right. So and I think that speaks to the strength of the reputation and the quality of the education that we have at the University of Northern Iowa and teacher preparation.

Mark Nook That said, we have a nationwide teacher shortage. We have a shortage in the state of Iowa as well. So one of the things that we have in our legislative request is for $4 million to support teacher development in particular, and in particular support students in that journey. At the moment in the state, the only support we have for teachers is after they have a degree.

Mark Nook In other words, it's a retention incentive. If they're currently teaching, if they took out student loans, there is an opportunity for them to apply and get some help paying those student loans off if they're in the right disciplines and in the right schools. What we're asking for is $4 million that would help us recruit people into that pipeline and grow the pipeline of teachers, recruit new teachers into the field.

Mark Nook And a lot of those dollars would go towards student teachers, supporting student teachers and actually helping pay them as their student teachers, at least a stipend to defray some of the extra costs they take on as student teachers and make this internship student teaching a paid internship.

Stephen Gruber-Miller So one of the things that the legislature has discussed in the past couple of years is some alternative ways that teachers could get licensure. Is that you welcome competition for the program you offer or is it in some way going to detract from your ability to attract those students?

Mark Nook We're actually participating in many ways. The state's RAPIL program is one that we manage, and it is an alternative mechanism to engage in to get to licensure. So we're very engaged in that. We've had conversations with the governor's office in particular about what some of these things might look like. You know, we've got another program that we're running, a set of programs where we work with people who are currently paraprofessionals in education.

Mark Nook So they're working in the schools now as support staff and helping students that are having trouble. They've got a two year degree. They want to become teachers. We've got a 2 year, a two plus two program so that they can complete that education and get a license to teach and the education they need to be a competent, professionally qualified teacher, especially at the elementary ranks.

Mark Nook We do it in Waterloo. We've got a program running in Des Moines and in Boone.

Kay Henderson You mentioned a new nursing degree at the University of Northern Iowa. You also mentioned accounting. Are there other disciplines or professions where you're looking to offer new degree programs?

Mark Nook Yeah, accounting isn't necessarily a new program. It's a it's a strong program for us. It is a program where we've recently gotten approval from our accrediting agency to be able to offer courses here in Des Moines. And we're looking at how we might be able to manage that and make that work out. As we look at academic positioning, the first thing that faculty identified was health care, that the need in the state, especially around nursing.

Mark Nook But there will be some other areas probably within health care as well. The other areas that have been identified, sort of big areas. One of them is in big data or data analytics and we've got a data analytics program in the College of Business, but we also recognize that data analytics is important in every other field, whether it's education, the sciences, the humanities.

Mark Nook And so how can we make data analytics available to students regardless of their discipline, so that they can have a better understanding of how to use the data that's in their field? Another area that's come up on our campus is applied engineering technology. We probably won't ever grow a real engineering program, Iowa State and Iowa both do such a great job at that.

Mark Nook But there are some applied engineering programs. We have one on campus now, electrical engineering, technology, the things we do in manufacturing and construction management. Where are some things that we can grow out on that? We partner with John Deere because they've got such a group of industries there in the Cedar Valley. And there are some things there that we can work on to see how we grow that. The stuff we're doing with manufacturing in particular, and automation and our foundry work kind of gives us a good spot to grow those sorts of things out of.

Mark Nook And the other one is sustainability and some of that is ecological sustainability, but it's also thinking about how do you build sustainable communities, how do you build sustainable businesses? So right now it's this idea of what might we grow in academic programs that sort of fits under a sustainability umbrella because it's becoming more and more important here in the state of Iowa and across our country, ecological sustainability, quality of air, quality of water, but also then sustainability of communities.

Mark Nook How do you really build successful communities? What's that mean? So those are the sort of the four big areas that we will be looking at where we might go next.

Linh Ta In January 2023, UNI students will be able to change their names to their preferred names on their official student IDs, something that hadn't been allowed before. What changed now? Why the why the change now?

Mark Nook One, it was a request from students to be able to use that name. I think every one of the universities has had requests for this. Iowa and Iowa State both allow it on their IDs. We've been using the preferred name on their, on the rosters for quite a little while. One of the things that has changed is early on we were using, you were able to use your student ID as an official ID.

Mark Nook It's no longer accepted as an official ID anymore. Right? As an official ID, it would have to have your official name on it. But since it isn't an official ID, it is a university ID, we don't have that same tie. So now it is appropriate for us to put that preferred name on there. And so that's what's really made the change.

Kay Henderson You mentioned earlier that there's a fundraising component for the UNI-Dome, which many Iowans are familiar with. If you could just briefly walk us through some of the changes that you're hoping to make, because many Iowans walk through that facility and they are not UNI students or athletes.

Mark Nook That's right. With the state football championships there, with all the ag shows and the home shows, the other events, one of the biggest ones for people coming in that we want to do is to pull all of the bleachers out. Right now, if you attend to an event there, you're setting on 18 inches of aluminum with a pretty solid back behind you.

Mark Nook What we want to do is pull all of those out and replace them with stadium seats and cup holders so that you can be a little more comfortable when you're in the venue. They, of course, will be purple to represent the Panther pride that we all have. One of the other things that we'll be doing is replacing the, there's an indoor track and field surface there.

Mark Nook We’ll replace that and upgrade that to better standards and make it also very UNI specific, purple and gray and our big logo on it. One of the big improvements will be in the restrooms. Our current restrooms need some work. We’ll actually be moving them to where they there will be outside what is the current UNI-Dome.

Mark Nook They'll be attached to the UNI-Dome. You won't have to go outside. But it will also open up some space then for us in the in the concourse area of the UNI-Dome. So it'll be much easier to move around in the UNI-Dome as well because we'll move the restrooms, expand the number of restrooms. We'll also be making some changes to the suite area where now we rent those out.

Mark Nook Right now, there's three of them. They're really large. What we're finding as people would like them to be a little bit smaller and things, so we'll restructure that. New graphics, new sound system, new ventilation system. So better air quality in the dome, a better sound quality in the dome. So overall, just a much, much better experience in what is one of the iconic structures, not of UNI, but really of the state, really a special place.

Stephen Gruber-Miller One of the changes we've seen just recently in college athletics is the name image likeness rules. I'm curious how much that's changing things for UNI athletes. What effect is that having?

Mark Nook You know, we've got a few athletes that have entered in to name, image and likeness deals with various people. It's certainly something that we are tracking carefully as an institution. Our athletics department has put a lot of effort into this. I think there are a handful of athletes that are gaining quite a little bit from that, some of our teams and programs are. So overall, I think it's a positive aspect.

Mark Nook It is a change, so it's going to take us a while to adjust. It's taking our student athletes a little while to adjust and figure out exactly how to use that, how to make it work, and what are all the limitations but also what are all the advantages to them. So we're still kind of early in that, but we have seen some successes for some of our student athletes.

Kay Henderson Quick question about football. What happens when the Big Ten expands? Will UNI still play Iowa?

Mark Nook You know, we're set at the moment to play both Iowa and Iowa State I think two years from this fall. We play them both in the same year. That's the first time that's happened. I think that's something that's going to be determined by the Big Ten and by the University of Iowa, not by us. I really like the fact that we have played either Iowa or Iowa State each year.

Mark Nook I think it does a lot of good for the state of Iowa. The things that I've seen when I've been at those games, the way the crowds interact, it's always a positive atmosphere and those games have always been pretty close and occasionally we've won one of them, right? So it is interesting to watch those games play out.

Mark Nook Yeah.

Linh Ta You know, we've talked a bit about infrastructure today, but one of the big parts is on campus living. You know, some of the residence halls think I remember my mom used to stay in them and they're you know, they're still there. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, any plans this renovation and how to keep it attractive for getting students?

Kay Henderson And sadly, we have about 45 seconds left.

Mark Nook Okay. Yeah. So, you know, we built Panther Village a while ago and that really is the suite style. And that's the thing that a lot of students are looking for. We have renovated our Quad Noehren and that area and there's some renovation in our towers as well. So we always want to keep them facilities that students are really engaged in and are not just comfortable living spaces, but spaces that build community so that the students are connected to each other and get connected to the university in a big way.

Kay Henderson Well, thank you for sharing this space for the past half hour. Thanks to Mark Nook for being on this edition of Iowa Press. If you missed part of this program or want to watch any of our previous episodes, you can do so at For everyone here at the network, thanks for watching.

Announcer Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities, and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow.

Announcer Learn more at