A University ‘for’ Iowa, or just ‘in’ Iowa

If the University of Iowa is serious about its strategic plan, it would recognize that jewels like the Labor Center demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution.

There are lots of good reasons not to shutter the University of Iowa’s Labor Center.

For starters, any such move would be rash, shortsighted, and wasteful. The Labor Center’s core continuing education mission teaches labor leaders about workers’ rights, about civil rights in the workplace, and about occupational health and safety. Those who have benefited from these courses over the years credit the Labor Center with helping them — and their local unions — sustain workplaces which are safer and more equitable.

For the pittance in state funds (about $500,000) devoted to the Center, the returns the state — in fewer harassment claims, fewer workers’ compensation settlements, fewer cases of wage theft — are incalculable.  Closing the Labor Center, in this respect, is like taking down the stoplights at an intersection: you could claim savings in signage and electricity as a result, but at what cost?

In turn, the threat to the future of the Labor Center — the only academic center in the Regents system devoted to work and workers in Iowa — sends a terrible message to the state’s working families. In an era of spiraling inequality, when the combination of stagnant incomes and rising tuition are putting a college education increasingly out of reach, do we really want to harden the perception that the state’s universities only serve the interests of the upper classes? There are about 1.6 million wage earners in Iowa, a quarter of whom do not earn a wage sufficient to climb above the poverty line.  These Iowans — as citizens, voters, taxpayers, and parents — should know that the state’s public institutions are for them too.

And finally, the University’s claim that the Labor Center is peripheral to its academic mission is simply not true. The University’s current strategic plan sits on three pillars: student success, research, and engagement. The Labor Center contributes on all of these fronts, and especially on engagement and outreach to the rest of the state. On this score, the strategic plan argues that the University should “enhance UI’s statewide visibility and increase access to UI expertise,” “support the translation of intellectual work into applications to enhance economic development,” and “create lifelong learning opportunities that broaden UI’s reach across Iowa.”

The Labor Center does all of this and more. It is one of the few arms of the University with a sustained and serious “extension” mission to the rest of the state. If the University is serious about its strategic plan, and about proving its value to those outside Johnson County, its best option is to nurture such forms of engagement with off-campus Iowa constituencies rather than abandon them. It is jewels like the Labor Center that demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution; which demonstrate that UI can and should be The University FOR Iowa and not just a University IN Iowa. 

Colin Gordon is the F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa and a senior research consultant with the Iowa Policy Project. He is the recipient of the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (2016) and the UI’s Distinguished Achievement in Publicly-Engaged Research Award (2015).

Hit ‘reset’ on center closings

The Labor Center is critical to all three elements of the university’s mission.

Editor’s Note: These are the remarks of Professor Elizabeth Heineman, chair of the History Department at the University of Iowa, prepared for a news conference Wednesday about the planned closing of the UI Labor Center. Professor Heineman was one of several speakers at the news conference.

elizabeth-heineman_0My name is Elizabeth Heineman. I’m a member of the History faculty at the University of Iowa, where I’ve taught for almost 20 years.

The announcement of the closure of the Labor Center and many other centers and programs complemented them on their good work, but said they weren’t critical to the university’s academic mission and student success. I’d like to talk about the university’s mission and the Labor Center’s role in fulfilling it.

The university’s mission is a three-legged stool: teaching, research/scholarship, and public engagement/community service. We’ve heard a great deal about the Center’s public engagement and community service, so I want to talk about the other two legs of the university’s mission: teaching, and research/scholarship. I’m here to say that the Labor Center — in addition to everything you’ve already heard — is also critical to these elements of the university’s mission.

Let me start with some information about the Labor Center’s research activity.

  • The Labor Center is a major recipient of nationally-competitive grants, which have totaled some $950,000 since 2002 — almost a million dollars. These attest to the Labor Center’s outstanding role in the research mission of the university. In fact, far from losing steam during the current stringent budgetary environment, the Center won a grant of nearly $200,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities just this spring. The NEH doesn’t throw money around. This kind of grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities means that the Labor Center is on the map in the research world. This is exactly the kind of activity that helps to establish UI as a major research university.
  • Why does the Labor Center keep winning these major grants? One reason is the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, nationally recognized as one of the country’s most important collections in labor history. It has been used for cutting-edge research by Iowa faculty, staff, and PhD students as well as scholars nationally and internationally — and every time someone travels from far away to use our collections, it enhances the University’s reputation as a hot spot for research activity.
  • Perhaps most important: the Labor Center is an integral part of the university’s teaching mission. We’ve heard a bit about graduate education, but the Labor Center is perhaps even more crucial to undergraduate education.
    • Labor Center staff teach courses: not just in communities and on the shop floor, but in the undergraduate classroom. Their courses on labor history in the US and internationally are a crucial part of any basic education in both US and global history.
    • In those courses, students aren’t just reading textbooks and listening to lectures. Rather, they’re using the Center’s oral history collection and performing their own oral histories, gaining experience in public history, not just academic history. Often, they choose to research their own hometowns. When they go home to do interviews, when they talk with their families and neighbors about their assignments, it helps to send the message that the University is committed to preserving the history of working Iowans and Iowa communities – and engaging our young people in the process.
    • Finally, the Labor Center is very important in facilitating internships with community organizations. Those internships help students to gain jobs skills, and they provide fresh perspectives and energy for the host organizations.

It’s possible that those who made the decision for closure weren’t aware of all these aspects of the Labor Center’s activity. No one can be in command of all detail. This is why a process of consultation and input is necessary — consultation with the people on the ground who work closely with the Center and who are aware of all aspects of its activity and its contribution to the university’s three-legged mission: teaching, scholarship, and public engagement.

I would like to see such a process. Let’s hit reset, gather the information we need about what, exactly, would be lost if the Labor Center were to close. Otherwise, we risk losing a resource that is invaluable to the state and to the university alike.

Tying science to policy — for Iowa

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

160915-59170_dox35x45The Iowa Policy Project has always enlisted the help of students and professors or former professors from Iowa colleges to help produce good research.

IPP founder and researcher David Osterberg, left, in his job as a professor of Public Health at the UI, has been part of the annual statement on climate change signed by researchers and teachers at all the colleges and universities in Iowa.

This year’s statement, released today with 187 signers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities, is about farming to sequester carbon and improve water quality: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture.

An excerpt:

Farmers and land managers who have implemented proven conservation practices have positioned Iowa to lead implementation of Climate‐Smart Agriculture. Iowa’s leadership through wider adoption of conservation practices will benefit our state, while these practices lessen human contribution to net greenhouse gas emissions. …

We, as Iowa educators, believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.

Find the full statement here.

Find the news release here.

The statement envisions “a multi‐faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs” to generate a more diverse landscape. It concludes:

Such a landscape would benefit all Iowans by transforming Iowa’s vast croplands into resources that simultaneously generate food, feed, fuel, a healthier climate, better soils, wildlife habitat, and cleaner waters.

The lead authors are Chris Anderson, who has served as assistant director of Iowa State University’s climate science program, and Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, with editorial assistance from senior science writer Connie Mutel of the UI.

Also contributing were: Gene Takle, Diane Debinski and David Swenson, ISU; David Courard-Hauri, Drake; Neil Bernstein, Mount Mercy; Peter Thorne, Greg Carmichael, Elizabeth Stone and David Osterberg, UI; and Kamyar Enshayan, University of Northern Iowa.

The issues raised in this statement fit well with our work at the Iowa Policy Project. We produce papers on water quality and confined animal agriculture, and connect these issues to public policy impacts. What we do at this small policy institute fits into larger questions addressed by academics and policy people in the state.

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

Basic RGB

Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)

160822-solar-timeofday

The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.

 

A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Connecting dots draws tough course for Iowa jobs

Why is job outlook dim? Don’t blame an educational gap or the business cycle. Long-term projections favor low-wage service jobs over better-paying sectors.

The chart projecting Iowa jobs in the near future is not pretty.

click on image for interactive version

Using the most current state level numbers, for 2008-2018), this graph shows that the fastest growing jobs taking larger shares of the Iowa job market through 2018 are in sectors that pay lower than the state median wage. Dots represent occupations; blue dots pay higher than the statewide median wage (2011 numbers) and red dots pay lower. Move your cursor to each dot to see the occupation, its 2008 employment, its median wage and projected employment.

Only 4 of 18 occupations projecting job gains over 1,500 by 2018 pay better than a median wage, and only one of the 10 occupations projecting job gains over 2,000 pay better than the median. Six occupations (retail sales, office clerk, nursing aides, home health aides, food preparation, and customer service) project job growth greater than 4,000 and the highest wage in this group falls more than $2.00 short of the median wage.

Why is this happening? Don’t blame it on an educational gap, in which workers with skills pull away from the rest. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research has shown — here and here and here — today’s low wage workers are older and better educated  than ever.

It also is not an artifact of the business cycle, as the Department of Labor estimates in long-term projections that about a third of new jobs through the next decade will be in low-wage service occupations (retail, home health care, child care, janitorial).

Combine these projections with the troubling trend of the last business cycle, which hit good jobs hard. The National Employment Law Project has shown (here and updated here), that job losses during the recession were concentrated in mid-wage occupations, while job gains during the recovery have been concentrated at the low end.

Our work, it seems, is cut out for us — well-paid or not.

Posted by Colin Gordon, Senior Research Consultant

Note: Colin Gordon is a Professor of History at the University of Iowa and Senior Research Consultant at the Iowa Policy Project. This post is taken from his blog, TelltaleChart.org