Faculty connect with central Iowa during annual trip

Craig Just (center), adjunct assistant professor in the UI College of Engineering, speaks to a crowd in Goodell, Iowa, during this spring's UI Faculty Engagement Corps outreach trip. Just is flanked by Goodell resident Patrick Sweeny and Goodell City Clerk Dixie Revland. Photo by Jon Winet.

University of Iowa faculty travel the world for research, teaching, and professional development, but few follow their wanderlust closer to home. What does Iowa offer compared to Paris, Beijing, or Buenos Aires?

Just after the spring semester ended, 28 faculty members left town in search of the Iowa beyond Iowa City and found Marshalltown, Webster City, Goodell, and Des Moines. They were part of the sixth annual Faculty Engagement Corps, sponsored by the Office of the Provost as an opportunity for faculty to spend time listening to and learning from Iowans in their communities.

They met teachers in Marshalltown, economic development leaders in Webster City, city and state officials in Des Moines, and nearly the entire town of Goodell, listening, learning, observing, sharing, eating, laughing, and eventually understanding Iowa in a whole new light.

“Before I went on the trip I lived in Iowa City,” says Jon Winet, associate professor of art and art history. “Now, I live in Iowa.”

The program sparks ideas and builds connections year after year as faculty are introduced to the communities from which their students come and in which the state taxpayers live.

Incoming College of Education dean Margaret Crocco connected with administrators from three Iowa school districts, discussing demands for teaching students who are learning English and who circulate in and out of school throughout the school year. There was an audible gasp in the room when Bea Niblock, principal of Marshalltown’s Anson Elementary School, shared that almost half of the students finishing the school year are not the same as those who started it.

Chuck Connerly, professor and director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, spoke with city officials in Des Moines about internship and practicum opportunities for his graduate students.

And in a moment of pure serendipity, Barbara Eckstein, professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, ventured to Webster City’s Kendall Young Public Library for a quick visit after dinner and met Emily Wollan, an incoming first-year English major. Now, a student who will shortly experience the shock of entering a university nearly four times the size of her hometown already has a personal connection with one of her future professors.

But the heart of the trip was a visit to Goodell, a town of about half a square mile that fewer than 200 people call home.

The meeting grew out of one man’s devotion to his hometown and desperation to save it from what could be its death knell: a $2 million bill to upgrade its wastewater treatment.

Lifelong Goodell resident Patrick Sweeny contacted Craig Just, associate research scientist and adjunct assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, last fall after a late-night Internet search turned up an article on Just’s research on alternative wastewater treatment options. After exchanging a few messages, Sweeny invited Just to Goodell to continue the conversation and involve other local residents.

“I said, ‘How about if I bring 20 of my colleagues with me,’ and that’s how we ended up taking the Faculty Engagement Corps to Goodell to talk sewage,” Just says.

The distance between Goodell and Iowa City seems much greater than the 184 highway miles, but despite the contrast between a declining rural town and a thriving university community, the two are inextricably connected: Goodell sits on the upper fork of the Iowa River, which winds its way south and east, eventually bisecting the University of Iowa campus.

In both his communication with Sweeny and at the community meeting during the trip, Just emphasized that his work is not far enough along to offer a solution for the folks in Goodell, but, he said, being able to discuss the issues with the people who are directly impacted has tremendous value as he moves forward.

“I could be trying to develop low-cost alternative methods, but if my idea of ‘low-cost’ is not in line with yours, it won’t make a bit of difference,” he told an animated and somewhat agitated community gathering.

“The trip was a wonderfully substantive introduction to the issues shaping Iowa in terms of education, the environment, and the state’s economy. I simply could not have imagined a better way to get to know a little bit about the state of Iowa and a lot about the wealth of expertise among my new University colleagues.”

Margaret Crocco,
incoming College of Education dean

As Just and Sweeny led the meeting, the rest of the Corps sat on folding chairs, interspersed with more than 50 local residents who had responded to the invitation to meet the University group. Individuals stood to ask and respond to questions in the large community center gathering space, but later sat around tables or assembled in the small kitchen to share their experience of a rural Iowa lifestyle that seems to be slipping through their fingers.

“To some degree a meeting like that is a potential culture clash of sorts—people from the Ivory Tower who live and work largely in the abstract and theoretical, encountering the Goodell sloggers who live by getting things done day by day,” Sweeny said after the meeting. “There was some apprehension about this prior to the meeting, but over and again I have heard enthusiastic comments that this was not the case. Anytime, for any reason, you can dissolve the barriers like that it is a good thing and well worth the time.”

The next morning, the faculty group heard the other side of the Goodell story in a meeting with Wayne Gieselman, environmental services division administrator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and members of his staff. They have the unenviable task of enforcing environmental laws and regulations in towns like Goodell, where they are seen as government stooges who care nothing for real people.

None of the University contingent could argue with the strong desire to protect the state’s natural resources, but the two meetings offered a stark contrast between a reasonable law and its unintended consequences.

“The trip was a wonderfully substantive introduction to the issues shaping Iowa in terms of education, the environment, and the state’s economy,” Crocco says. “I simply could not have imagined a better way to get to know a little bit about the state of Iowa and a lot about the wealth of expertise among my new University colleagues.”