BACKGROUND FOR THE BLEEDING HEARTLAND READER
Malcolm Price Laboratory School was a small K-12 school attached to and operated by the University of Northern Iowa. MPLS was primarily used by the teacher education program to train teachers. It was a critical part of UNI, “the teacher’s college”. Year after year, however, with mounting budget pressures at UNI, talk would take place about closing MPLS. Tired of this annual worry, supporters of MPLS through the help of their local legislatures, pushed for and obtained legislation creating the Iowa Research & Development School at MPLS. This group thought the days of threats of closure were over since their existence was now statutory. In 2012 they found out they were wrong.
In light of the recent events at the University of Iowa regarding the president selection process, I think it appropriate to share a narrative I drafted back in 2012 when UNI closed MPLS and other programs. It was the fruit of an open records request for email. The intended audience was the parents and supporters of MPLS.
After the UNI administration hinted toward the closure of the R&D School at Malcolm Price Lab School on February 16, 2012, many of us received responses to our emails about the closure stating “No decisions have been made.” A thorough review of the emails and documents revealed through the open records requests shows that statement was a lie.
During the 2009 legislative session, our elected officials created the Research and Development school at Price Lab School, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The following years, efforts were initiated to fulfill the legislative mandate, including, but not limited to, the Cedar Falls School District, UNI’s Dean of the Department of Education, Provost Gibson and the Board of Regents signing a boundary agreement on December 1, 2011 creating the boundaries for the R&D School and ensuring a smooth transition for student enrollment. Although there is no smoking gun in the documents provided to date; someone, somewhere, decided the R&D School must be closed. And, contrary to the administration’s spin, it is not about the money.
The tale of misinformation, spin and unaccountability is woven through the communications amongst the administration and the Board of Regents. In a January 3, 2012 email, Dean Watson emailed Provost Gibson writing in part “I was surprised that there was a spreadsheet of faculty reassignment that was configured without any input from me. I am stymied by Ginny’s dispositional stances in regard to MPLS.” In early January 2012, the administration was looking at the closure of the school and excluding the Dean of the Department of Education, one of the signatories of the December 1, 2011 agreement. In a document labeled Agenda for “Ben One-on-one” dated January 10, 2012, item two is labeled “PLS (any prep for meeting w/David” – presumably David Stoakes, the superintendent for Cedar Falls School.
In a document labeled Agenda, Price Lab School, Location Seerley 20 and dated January 12, 2012, a meeting is described with the initial attendees to be President Allen, Gloria Gibson, Dwight Watson and David Stoakes. Dean Watson’s name is crossed out and presumably did not attend. In the hand written notes, assumed to be Ben Allen’s since the document came from his file, the first written line is “What are best practices for shutting down school – how – how long”. On the second page of the same document also handwritten it states “Week after the announcement – have a parent meeting”. This document begs several questions, why did Allen, Gibson and Stoakes have a meeting? If “no decisions have been made” why are they planning the “week after the announcement”?
On January 23, 2012 at 3:23 p.m. there is an email from Brenda Busynski to email@example.com referencing an attached summary of a meeting held at 8 a.m. that same day. She notes “this was emailed to cabinetonly” and “Several **** bold items requiring follow-up.” Amongst the **** and bold items are the following: “Group B-PLS – Code change is needed – before we can decouple R&D from PLS”, “Timing – Tues (Jan. 24) 2 p.m. – Ben and VP’s to visit with Bob Donley re: timing of the decisions”, “8:50 a.m. – Update on Wixted Documents – Eileen by phone”, “Comments: This is to be ‘transformational’-we want to focus-on transforming for the future (we don’t want the entire focus to be on ‘budget/funding’)”, “Need to share ‘messages’ – with Bob Donley – before they go out. Bob D. to decide if the Regents should receive this message-“, “don’t want a media story on the UF contract”, “At this time we are discussing a ‘process’ – don’t want a big story etc.”, “Note: Overall message – we have not done this before – where tenure-tracked faculty are affected. This is a first”, finally, “Strategy – was recommended Ben visit with DM Register editorial staff”. This meeting is loaded with information and needs to be parsed.
First, this is the first we see of the administration acknowledging that a code change is necessary to close the R&D school; a theme that is constant throughout the communications up to and including February 24, 2012. Second, the administration has already made the decision (recall “no decision has been made”) as they discuss the “timing” of the announcement and they are already working closely with the Board of Regents. Third, this is the first we hear of the involvement of Eileen Wixted, a public relations firm retained by the administration for some amount of money at some point in time but that information is not contained in the documents and this firm will be discussed further. Fourth, the focus on “transformation” and not budget is an acknowledgement that the attention should be diverted from the unsupported justification. Finally, the ‘messages’ from the administration are monitored by executive director of the Board of Regents before it they are sent to the Board. Why? In all likelihood, although the Board of Regents was continuously consulted about the decision, they wanted to avoid the public appearance of impropriety while privately acting in unison.
About the Wixted firm; the full name of the firm is Wixted, Pope, Nora, Thompson and Associates out of Des Moines. They are a public relations firm specializing, in part, in crisis management. We could describe who they are but their own website speaks volumes:
Eileen advises two-thirds of the commercially owned and operated nuclear power plants in North America, and she is author of Media Guide to Radiological Issues. She also counsels and trains executives at many of the country’s leading hospitals. Eileen has served as interim senior vice president of communications & government affairs for Advocate Health Care, the largest health care system in Illinois.
Before founding WPNT, Eileen spent more than a decade as a broadcast journalist. Her reports on health issues were nationally syndicated and she won an Emmy Award. A Brooklyn, New York native, Eileen received her mass communications degree from Michigan State University.
“When you face difficult situations such as a plant accident, layoffs, financial improprieties, or medical errors, communication is a high risk proposition demanding skill and discipline. Smart leaders embrace the challenge and learn to succeed.”
And, they are more than just an Iowa firm: “WPNT has a growing presence in Chicago, Dallas, Des Moines, Europe, Houston and San Francisco.” Not only did UNI enlist the services of the firm, they retained the founding member, Ms. Wixted herself, (who was a broadcast journalist who advises two-thirds of the commercially owned nuclear power plants in North America). Please, ask yourself, if closing PLS was sound policy, if closing PLS was warranted by research in education, if closing PLS was warranted due to budget concerns, why would UNI need to pay for the services of a firm that specializes in crisis management for nuclear power plants to map out a plan for its closure??
Back to the documents. There is a paper titled “Decisions Needed” with Week 3 at the top (not sure where weeks 1 and 2 went) starting January 25. Once again, the document discusses the time for the “announcement” (recall “no decision has been made”). In a February 3, 2012 email from Ben Allen to Gloria Gibson, the need for a transition team was discussed for the decision that had not been made. Again, in a February 5, 2012 memo from Pat Geadelmann to Ben Allen it is echoed that “I believe we would need approval from the BOR to close MPLS before we could seek Code changes. In our request to close the MPLS, I think we would need to include a request for the Board to reaffirm its support for an RDDD center at UNI and to seek appropriate Code changes”. Her language, by the way, was in bold.
Perhaps the closest to the smoking gun email out of all is the February 7, 2012 (yes, a little over 2 weeks from the closure announcement) email from Dean Watson to Gloria Gibson and Ben Allen stating, in part and after review of budget proposals “I THINK WITH THIS MODEL, WE COULD MAINTAIN THE SCHOOL.” (Emphasis added and then some). Evidently, President Allen listened (this is sarcasm) because; in approving a February 10, 2012 email response from Jeneane Beck to Bridget Waggoner he allowed “No decision has been made yet.” Are you starting to sense a theme? By the way, the response to Ms. Waggoner was in an email stream to a State Senator, Brian Schoenjahn who, as of February 9th, had only heard rumors.
Perhaps one of the more interesting reads in the open records delivery is the “Defining the Future, Communicating Change” document dated February 15, 2012 at 2:45 p.m. It was prepared by Eileen Wixted and Tamera Hanson. What is most interesting about the document produced is that it includes edits. There are far too numerous edits to produce here, but, if you read the document, you can discern their attempts to control the message and the media. For example, “Wednesday, February 15th, Afternoon – Review of talking points and mock interview training with Ben at Wixted office.” February 16th was to be a meeting with Allen and the Des Moines Register in the morning and the Courier in the afternoon, presumable to direct the message. The same document addresses the topic of “Reviewing the Viability of the Lab School.” It has language to include and proposed language that is struck out. This is what was added “We need to assess the laboratory school model, the Malcolm Price Labortaory School building itself and our vision for a statewide research and development school model.”
In the very same document the Wixted firm prepares the letters of the administration to the stakeholders. Yes, the stakeholders that have been left in the dark until now. The “draft” communications from the Wixted firm from Des Moines were to external stakeholders, legislators and Regents. A separate letter was drafted for “staff and faculty” . All were written by the Wixted firm, all were to be signed by President Ben Allen. Yes, leadership at its best (price).
In a document dated February 16, 2012 5pm, I. Discussion it is noted in bold “$1.5M cut for FY13 AND decouple – r/d from mpls- by CHANGING legis. CODE – spr. 2012 or 2012 AND close school June 30, 2012.” “*** Note: Cannot lose the per pupil funding for FY2013- therefore – need to keep CODE 256G.3(re: R&D school funding) – especially 256G.3.c. – it states open enrollment under section 282.18 applies to r/d school. (note: don’t want any negative impact on our FY13 appropriations request)”. Also, “Q: WHEN to change CODE? – we don’t want to lose per pupil funding – we need to possibly: – amend part of CODE 256G – spring 2012 session (just want to remove a portion of 256G.2.4 “school using expanded facilities at the center for early development education, also known as PLS, in CF.L).” This may be the most insidious language to date. The plan was to try to keep the per pupil funding for the university without educating the children for which the funding was directed.
After learning of the administrations intentions, the Senate Democrats wanted information on what the vision for teacher education was post the closure of the R&D school. In an email dated February 19, 2012 at 8:16 p.m., 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 went on to write “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”…”I really don’t want this stuff floating around the internet too broadly.” The bold leadership touted by area business and the local press had no plan, they “quickly” threw something together and wanted it to be cutting edge, exciting – if not thoughtful.
Unfortunately, the plan developed by the administration in coordination with the media was working. In an email from Stacey Christensen to James O’Connor dated February 3, 2012, at 10:34 a.m., Ms. Christensen wrote: “This neutral coverage thus far has a lot to do with keeping the media apprised all along and trying to minimize the ‘big story’ announcements. So far the strategy is working. Jim, feel free to share with the cabinet.’”
[FEBRURARY 22ND, ALLEN ANNOUNCES CLOSURE INTENTION TO FACULTY AND PARENTS IN 3 SEPARATE MEETINGS]
On February 23, 2012 at 12:19 p.m. James O’Connor wrote to Ben Allen and others about an updated list of “talking points” to make sure the message was uniform. Needless to say, the last two months have been choreographed by public relations.
Also on February 23, 2012, the Board of Regents issues a “Statement from President Lang on UNI Price Laboratory School” expressing the Board’s support for Ben Allen’s leadership and scheduling a special meeting February 27, just four days later, “to consider the recommendations of President Allen relative to the Malcolm Price Laboratory School.” There was no reason given to call a special meeting. The language in the statement is telling in that it never refers to the R&D School, foreshadowing the coming Board action and running contrary to the law and all prior beliefs about the need to decouple MPLS from the R&D School. Further, the meeting is to discuss the “recommendations of President Allen”, plural. This is because, at the time, there were two docket items from UNI to the Board of Regents, “Action Requested: 1.) Approve the university’s request to close the Malcolm Price Laboratory School effective June 30, 2012. 2.) Approve an addendum to the Regents legislative agenda to include a request to the Governor and General Assembly to amend the Iowa Code to permit closure of the school and retention of the research and development center at the University.” The latter request was made in light of the law, the persistent understanding of the law by the administration, and by the language of the December 1st, 2011 Agreement signed by the Board of Regents and the University which states, in part, “WHEREAS, Chapter 256G of the Iowa Code establishes MPLS as the state research and development school….”
On Februrary 23, 2012 at 10:37 p.m. there is an email exchange between Pat Allen and Ben Allen. Ben Allen first writes, “When I spoke with Dave Miles today, he said that the Price Lab closing broke the existing record held by the baseball decision for the number of e-mails. All but one was opposed to my recommendation.” It is sad that the President of the Iowa Teachers College equates baseball with the role of teacher education at the University. It is more sad that the President of the university is directly contacting a member of the Board of Regents, the same Board the President needs to ‘persuade’ in four days, to accept his recommendations.
Sometime between February 23rd and February 24th, members of the Board of Regents decided, contrary to all previous emails and the December 1, 2011 contract, they had the power to close the R&D School without legislative approval. In an email dated February 24, 2012 at 3:13 p.m. from Patricia Geadelmann to Ben Allen, Ms. Geadelmann wrote: “On another front, they are seriously considering removing the second part of the request related to legislative action from the docket and only vote to close the school. This is coming from Bob and Keith. Tom is also involved. They are calling Tim. Next fall they would request that the matter be addressed in Code clean-up. This gives Gronstal an “out”. We just would not hire teachers or enroll students. We could face an injunction or lawsuit. They also question whether we need R&D in the Code….we can do R&D without it. I said that we wanted the official designation as the state r&d entity, not have someone else claim it, as well as to secure the partnership with the DE. They say the Board could also designate the center.” There is no indication where this utter about face came from in the documents collected to date. It just happened.
On February 24th and 25th, the public relations machine kicked into full gear. Several emails from the Eileen Wixted show that she prepared the news releases for the closure, and, laughably, the form letter to be sent to affected UNI students to be signed by Ben Allen. At this critical time for the University, neither the President of the University nor any member of the University penned the letter sent to its students.
Please recall at this point that the documents show handwritten notes from Ben Allen about the best practices for closing a school. The communications flew between Allen and the Universities public relations people about how best to handle the revelation of the information. The talking points were created and press releases honed. Recall also that a crises management specialist with an emphasis in nuclear power publicity was retained by UNI to handle this matter. Knowing all of this, consider the following.
President Allen had talked to Regent Dave Miles about the February 27th meeting and Regent Miles had forwarded Allen questions he would ask- a cheat sheet so to speak. President Allen forwarded the questions to Gloria and Pat in an email dated February 26, 2012 at 11:35 a.m. and wrote: “I am sending these to each of you and no one else. I might discuss this with the Cabinet after the phone call this evening but I do not want my responses to be viewed as being influenced by a communications strategy. I do not want these draft possible questions to be widely distributed. These are fair questions. Your thoughts are welcome.” Influenced by a communication strategy? Methinks thou protests too much.
What to draw from this? A decision was made, we do not know by whom or when but it was made without public comment or debate. The law was acknowledged, then ignored. Our University hired a PR firm to sell the public on an irrational and illegal decision. This is not how government should run. This is failed leadership.