Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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An Open Letter to Dr. William Ruud, UNI’s 10th President

  • Posted on Feb 17, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

This was published in this morning's Courier, and offers an overview of the challenges that UNI's recently hired President faces.  


Dear Dr. Ruud:

Welcome to UNI, Cedar Falls, Cedar Valley, State of Iowa, and the Upper Midwest.  Since you’re from North Dakota, welcome home.

Nice not to have to explain why we stay here, since you already understand.    

As you’re probably aware, many observers believe that UNI needs a Savior as much as a President.  From Day One,  “Save Us” will be the unspoken message from UNI’s conflicted and conflicting constituents—faculty, students, parents, alumni, taxpayers, fellow administrators, Regents. 

All of them embody disparate wants and needs, and your job amounts to finding ways to satisfy most of them most of the time.  That’s a Savior’s task on a Presidential salary.

Higher education faces unprecedented changes, top to bottom, and most academics react to real change like cold water on a hot griddle.

I speak from experience, having served in UNI trenches for four decades.

I knew and observed Maucker, Kamerick, Curris, Koob, and Allen from a variety of faculty perspectives.  Though none were drinking buddies, I spoke with them in dozens of venues over the years, observing what they did and didn’t do for UNI.

So for what it’s worth: 

*On top of ongoing budget issues, no previous UNI President has faced both falling enrollment and potential AAUP censure.   If censure actually comes to pass, and if enrollment continues to drop, UNI will likely be declared officially in decline.

 No president wants to preside over a university in decline, so—save us. 

            *Many faculty would also love to be saved from further disruptions, meaning pressures for campus-wide online education, faddish interactive teaching strategies, endless outcomes assessments, imposed technology, and so on.   If you support too many changes too soon, you risk losing faculty confidence.

Yet if you don’t support major changes, you risk obsolescence.  You will succeed only if you find the right balance.

*Major conflicts still exist on campus, rocks and hard places against which many an administrator has been flattened or crushed.  Faculty governance, for example, at UNI involves both a Faculty Senate and a Union.   Which group holds real power?  Depends.   Good luck. 

*Too much taxpayer and tuition money gets spent on unsupportable activities, as most faculty will insist.  Can you cut administrative costs?  Athletics?  If you want to raise faculty morale quickly, cut both.  Deeply. 

*Forget about pleasing everyone, and sometimes, anyone.   If you please faculty, your Board of Regents supporters will give you hell.  If you please the Board of Regents, the faculty will fume, gripe, and sue.  If you please students, both the Board of Regents and Faculty will sharpen their knives.   

If you please everyone, you’ve probably done essentially nothing.  

If you want to be loved, remember you have Fuzzy.  (Writer’s Note:  Fuzzy is Dr. Ruud’s cockapoo.) 

            Case in point: The Lab School. When Ben Allen closed it, he was only doing what every UNI President before him had sought for years. It was inefficient, insufficient, and ultimately unworthy of the university’s support. 

Many if not most faculty wanted it closed but feared speaking out. A few die-hard supporters thought closing it was the equivalent of UNI committing suicide.  They said so, loudly and publically for months, creating a verbal civil war.    

            Was there any way to avoid such rancor?  Faculty claim they weren’t properly consulted, but the administration considered “consulting” as little more than a delaying tactic, and endless swamp of meetings.  

            Still, Allen needed to be more straight-up, clear, and lay out alternatives from the beginning for everyone concerned.  Too much seemed below the board. 

Dr. Ruud, you have a reputation for being above board, transparent, and straightforward.  Everyone’s hopes it’s true.  

            *UNI still offers a superb undergraduate education, thanks to the quality of both faculty and students. 

If you maintain that without faltering, you will be a good president. 

            If you enhance it, you will be a great president. 

            If you transform UNI into a university that embodies positive change while offering viable and effective new approaches embraced by faculty and students alike, you will be taken as a Presidential Savior.  That would be a miracle.  

            Go for it.   

            Sincerely, Scott Cawelti, Emeritus Faculty and UNI Supporter        

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