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In budget cut, U of Northern Iowa to close museum

By Ryan J. Foley
Associated Press / February 23, 2012
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IOWA CITY, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa said Thursday it would close a 120-year-old campus natural history museum, trim subsidies for athletics and outsource campus printing services as part of a strategic plan to save money for other academic priorities.

The announcement from President Ben Allen came one day after school administrators announced plans to close Malcolm Price Laboratory School, a K-12 building that had been at the center of its efforts to train teachers and conduct education research for decades. All of the plans need approval from the Iowa Board of Regents, who govern the state's three public universities, and supporters said they are mobilizing to fight the closure of the museum and the lab school.

But the plans seemed to be moving quickly. Republican leaders in the Iowa House praised them, and the Iowa Board of Regents set a meeting for Monday to consider the school closure.

"On behalf of the Board of Regents, I want to express our support for President Ben Allen and the important steps he announced today that we believe will ensure the fiscal and academic integrity of the university well into the future," Board President Craig Lang said in a statement. "We are confident that President Allen's leadership and strategic vision for the University of Northern Iowa will continue to ensure the highest academic quality for our students."

UNI's plan would close the University Museum by July 1 and relocate some of its collection of 110,000 objects to libraries and academic buildings in an effort to increase access for students. Closing the museum, which had been open six days per week, would save $200,000 in staff costs annually and avoid a costly renovation to a building that is in need of major repairs. It would also mark a major shift for an institution that dates back to 1892, when faculty members in geology and biology collected artifacts and specimens for use in the classroom, and is one of five natural history museums in Iowa.

Sue Grosboll, who has directed the museum for nearly 20 years, said she reacted with "deep sadness." Grosboll said the closure was put in motion after she announced a two-year phased retirement in which she went down to part-time and will retire in January 2013. Grosboll said the museum does need a new or renovated building, but should not be closed. She said public school teachers would no longer bring students on field trips and students would spend less time seeing its exhibits and other programs.

"All of that will be lost," she said. "There really isn't anything quite like this as a museum of nature and culture."

She said supporters had already collected more than 1,200 signatures on a petition drive to save the museum, but she said she was doubtful the regents would stop its closure.

Allen said the museum was a way the university served the broader public, but relocating parts of its collection to other buildings and partnering with local museums to maintain the rest was a way to save money while still allowing access.

Meanwhile, he said the school would cut its general fund support -- tuition and state tax dollars -- to the athletics department by $500,000 over the next three years.

Athletic Director Troy Dannen said he was considering leaving some administrative positions unfilled and changing others from 12-month appointments to 10-month. He said he would also focus on generating additional revenue through ticket sales and fundraising and was optimistic no sports programs would be cut.

The university also said it would close UNI Print Services, which provides printing and copying services for students, faculty and staff, by June 30. The school said outsourcing its work to local companies would reduce printing expenses by avoiding more than $400,000 in equipment replacement costs and cutting salaries and benefits for workers. Supervisor Nancy Witham declined comment.

Allen said the school next week would unveil a list of proposed academic program mergers and closures that will target those with low enrollment and graduation rates.

He said he believed the regents would generally react favorably to his plans because they are critical for the future of the university. At the same time, he said he could not predict how they would respond to his plan to close Malcolm Price. He said the school was too expensive to operate and the aging building needed to be renovated or replaced, which a consultant estimated would cost more than $30 million.

Allen said he expected the intense opposition from students, parents and faculty members, "but that doesn't make it any easier."

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