Provost Butler lauds Iowa’s collaborative atmosphere

Photo by Bill Adams.

This spring, President Sally Mason named Barry Butler as UI executive vice president and provost. Butler had served in the role on an interim basis for six months prior to the appointment, but his history at the UI goes back much further. He joined the faculty of the College of Engineering in 1984, became a member of the college’s administration in 1997, and served as its dean from 2000 to 2010. Now he’s bringing his leadership skills to the entire university. He recently spoke with fyi about his career at Iowa, his goals for the current academic year, and what steps the University can take to retain top faculty.

You’ve spent your entire academic career at The University of Iowa—what makes this university such a great place to be?
The first thing that comes to mind is the people: I’ve had some really good relationships with faculty, staff, and students—not just in the College of Engineering but across the whole campus. Iowa allows for a lot of collaboration both within a given unit and across units. It’s very important to have the opportunity to work with others, and to be working with colleagues who want to collaborate and share the credit on big projects. That’s not something you see everywhere.

The state and local community plays a big role, too. Iowa City is a wonderful place to live, and I’ve met all sorts of great people across the state in the communities that I visit.

What accomplishment from your time as dean of the College of Engineering are you most proud of?
There are several. Three that stand out are in the areas of undergraduate education, graduate programs and research, and recognition.

Undergraduate education: I worked with the Engineering Faculty Council, departmental executive officers, and administrators from other colleagues to develop a curriculum that was supportive of the college’s goal to graduate students who are well-educated in the fundamentals of engineering, have an appreciation for the arts and humanities, can work in multidisciplinary teams, are articulate communicators, and demonstrate global awareness. That is, we developed a new curriculum that goes beyond technology.

Graduate programs and research: During my tenure as dean, the College of Engineering more than doubled its research enterprise as we embraced opportunities that reached beyond traditional departmental and collegiate boundaries.

Recognition of faculty, staff, alumni, and students: I established new endowed faculty chairs, professorships, and junior-level fellowships; recognized faculty and staff awards through our web site, college publications, and other avenues; and established the Legacy of Iowa Engineering awards. I think it’s important to recognize people who are successful in their fields. People appreciate being recognized for the efforts, and it brings up the value of the whole institution.

Why is it important to reach across disciplines and increase collaboration at the University?
I think you need to have a good understanding of more than just your discipline in order to be successful. That’s true for students, and it’s true for our faculty and staff. Much of today’s exciting research transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Part of my job is to provide leadership in the University’s cluster hiring initiatives. These hires are intended to strategically invest our limited faculty resources in areas that focus on areas of national or global need and significance, and that require the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines.

Our existing clusters are water sustainability, digital studio for the public humanities, and the aging mind and brain. Soon they will be joined by genetics (10 positions in six colleges) and obesity (10 positions in five colleges).

What are your goals in your first year as provost?
A major part of my job is advancing the University’s strategic plan. It’s really a blueprint of how to move the University forward. Most of it is academic, which falls under the responsibility of this office. Right now we’re identifying specific actions that we can take to contribute to areas such as student success. We want to make sure that when students come here to get an education, they get a degree and they’re successful in their field.

In addition, we have some leadership positions we’re working on. We have active searches for new deans in the Tippie College of Business and the College of Engineering, and we’ll be starting a search for the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences soon. There’ll be significant searches going on in the next year.

What measures is the University taking to keep top faculty?
Clearly when you have good people, they’re going to be recruited elsewhere. They’re attractive to other places, and that means they’re good.

That’s why faculty retention has to start the day you hire the person. The tendency is to think that it’s all about salary; that’s the only thing that matters. That’s not true.

All of us like a place where we have good colleagues, where we like working with the people next door to us. So retention starts by creating and maintaining an environment where people like to come to work. As provost, I have to communicate that to the deans who communicate it to the departments. Most of the deans already know it, but my job is to continually reinforce it.

The second piece is providing the things that people need. You need to make investments when the time is right, and that’s generally before people start looking elsewhere. When purchasing new lab equipment or other resources for a faculty member, it sends a positive message, a message that someone wants them here, that they’re willing to spend a little money. That means a lot. If you wait until that same faculty member walks into your office with an offer from another university in their hand, the message you’re sending is much different. You’re saying, “I’m only responding the message you have in that hand.”

How do you stay in touch with the needs and concerns of University faculty?
I meet weekly with the Faculty Senate officers. This provides an opportunity for me to communicate on current issues facing the faculty. I also attend all Faculty Senate meetings. I will meet with any faculty who ask.