IOWA Magazine | 12-09-2019

Six Presidents, 50 Years, and the Decisions that Shaped the University of Iowa

The UI's former presidents return for homecoming to reflect on their defining moments at Iowa and share their hopes for the university's future.

This past October, the University of Iowa's six living presidents—Willard "Sandy" Boyd (81LHD), Hunter R. Rawlings III, Mary Sue Coleman (19LHD), David J. Skorton, Sally Mason, and J. Bruce Harreld—assembled in Iowa City during homecoming weekend for the rededication of the presidential portrait gallery at the Main Library. The leaders reflected on their tenures, revealed their visions for the university's future, and shared their ideas about what lies ahead for higher education. In honor of this historic meeting of the minds, Iowa Magazine takes a closer look at the presidents who guided the university to new heights.

David J. Skorton, Mary
Sue Coleman, Hunter R. Rawlings III,
Sally Mason, and J. Bruce Harreld PHOTO: DAN ROLLING From left, David J. Skorton, Mary Sue Coleman, Hunter R. Rawlings III, Sally Mason, and J. Bruce Harreld (not pictured: Sandy Boyd) at the UI President's Residence.

What's Next for Higher Ed?

Current UI president Harreld joined past leaders Rawlings, Coleman, Skorton, and Mason for a recent presidential panel at Voxman Music Building. In this video from the event, the presidents share their optimism about the future of public higher education at America's leading research universities.

What We Faced: UI Presidents Recall Their Defining Moments

Mary Sue
Coleman, David J. Skorton, Hunter R. Rawlings III, J. Bruce Harreld, and
Sally Mason PHOTO: TIM SCHOON/UI OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION Sandy Boyd (seated) helped bring fellow UI presidents Mary Sue Coleman, David J. Skorton, Hunter R. Rawlings III, J. Bruce Harreld, and Sally Mason together over homecoming for a special unveiling of the presidential portrait gallery at the Main Library.

Representing a half-century of leadership that spanned the Vietnam War era to the recovery after the flood of 2008, five past presidents remember the major decisions they made that helped shape the university.

Willard "Sandy" Boyd (81LHD)

15th President of the University of Iowa, 1969–81; Interim President, 2002–03

  • Currently: Boyd, the former president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, retired from teaching at the UI College of Law in 2016. Earlier this year he published a new memoir, A Life on the Middle West's Never-Ending Frontier, from UI Press.

  • Key UI achievements: Led the creation of the UI Foundation, now the Center for Advancement, in 1956; oversaw numerous building projects during an era of unprecedented growth in faculty and the student body; guided the university through the campus unrest of the late-1960s and early '70s; co-founded the Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center; championed human rights, fairness, and welcoming people from all races, genders, and cultures to the UI.

  • UI memory: "In 1963, I became chairman of the first university committee on human rights. There was concern that landlords and other groups were discriminating against black people. The concept for us was to react to complaints, but we looked at it differently and wanted to be affirmative about it. We wanted to be sure the institution itself was changing. So we worked with the city to develop a human rights ordinance and, ultimately, a fair housing ordinance. We felt the burden should be on the institution, and not on the individual. When I was appointed to be academic vice president and dean of faculty, people said to me, 'Now you've got to walk the walk,' and I was prepared to do that. That was the most important thing for me during my time as president—opening the university to all people."

Sandy Boyd explains why people, not structures, make great universities.

Hunter R. Rawlings III

17th President of the University of Iowa, 1988–1995

  • Currently: Professor emeritus and president emeritus at Cornell University and has served as an instructor at George Washington University

  • Key UI achievements: Guided the university through the difficult days following a 1991 campus shooting in which six people died; opened the Pappajohn Business Building for the Henry B. Tippie College of Business, as well as the Oakdale research park; led the university to its selection as the site of the National Advanced Driving Simulator; oversaw campus recovery from the 1993 flood

  • UI memory: "Nov. 1, 1991, was a day of horror. My wife, Elizabeth (92MFA), and I were in Columbus, Ohio, and we were going to attend a football game the next day. In the hotel, I got a call from Ann Huntzinger (67BA), my assistant, and she said, 'I'm under my desk in the office.' I'll never forget that.

    "That's the kind of trauma that no one's prepared for; I don't care how much practice you've had. And frankly we hadn't had any practice for anything like that, because it was unheard of. I'll never forget the way Ann Rhodes (76MA, 82JD), who was in charge of communications for the university, stepped up, and so did others in the community. I remember a minister welcomed Chinese students and said, 'I know you're all feeling nervous about what's going to happen to you now, but we want you to know that you've got a safe place here, and we're all supporting you,' and we had that kind of response from the community and from the university. I've never been prouder of a group of people under terrible stress than I was then."

Hunter Rawlings speaks on first impressions, Iowa values, and the UI's strength in the liberal arts.

Mary Sue Coleman (19LHD)

18th President of the University of Iowa, 1995–2002

  • Currently: Professor emeritus and president emeritus of the University of Michigan, president of the Association of American Universities

  • Key UI achievements: Led development efforts on campus, including the construction of 11 buildings; established the Stepping Up Project to combat binge drinking on campus; increased external research funding amid budget cuts; merged men's and women's athletic departments; held fireside chats to increase dialogue with students

  • UI memory: "The event emblazoned in my mind—and it shows the spirit of this place—is the day that the Old Capitol burned. It was just a soul-crushing event, that this was the heart of the campus. We thought it would be destroyed, but they saved it. Even better, it got turned in from this crumbling building that nobody quite knew what to do with into this gorgeous museum, and to the great credit of the people here who made that happen."

Mary Sue Coleman reflects on the UI's steadfast service to Iowans throughout the state.

David J. Skorton

19th President of the University of Iowa, 2003–06

  • Currently: President emeritus of Cornell University, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges

  • Key UI achievements: Integrated the STEM disciplines with the arts and humanities; opened the Blank Honors Center and Pomerantz Center; oversaw the UI's "Good. Better. Best. Iowa" fundraising campaign that raised more than $1 billion; opened his home to students in 2006 after a tornado hit Iowa City; started the president's block party with his wife, Robin Davisson (88BS, 91MA, 94PhD)

  • UI memory: "I learned a lot about the importance of the humanities and the arts at the University of Iowa. I'm a doc, and I did research in engineering, and so I came from the STEM world and knew implicitly that there was some importance to it in general in education. But I learned much more about it by being exposed to Frank Conroy, our late wonderful leader of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who was my mentor in music. We had a band that consisted of Dan Moore, who's still head of the percussion program here, and John Rapson, who, until recently, was in charge of the jazz program, and a couple of others. Frank called the group, 'Close Enough,' and he had a big, big influence on me."

David J. Skorton shares the origins of the president's block party and what he learned from playing in a jazz combo with a former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Sally Mason

20th President of the University of Iowa, 2007–15

  • Currently: Consultant for the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities and trustee for Des Moines University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

  • Key UI achievements: Led campus through the 2008 flood and recovery efforts; created more scholarship opportunities and services for veterans and first-generation students; taught a president's leadership class; launched the Office of Sustainability; led the planning for Hancher Auditorium, the new art and music buildings, UI Stead Family Children's Hospital, Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building, and Petersen Hall; oversaw the "For Iowa, Forever More" campaign that raised nearly $2 billion

  • UI memory: "My most vivid memories of the flood include images of the hundreds of people who worked tirelessly to fill and place sandbags, move books in our library, and empty our art museum; and meetings in our 'war room,' where key members of my administrative team were making critical decisions on how to protect the campus, ensure the safety and well-being of our people, and plan for what would be a lengthy clean-up and recovery. At one point, I had the opportunity to view the flood from our life-flight helicopter. The views were stunning and shocking—homes under water, roads and facilities inundated, and the water raging.

    "There are so many stories of heroic work and wise action taken by many different people during the flood. People just did what needed to be done and focused on helping others. That's Iowa, and I grew to know that our people in Iowa are very special. Creative and caring are the two words that always pop into my head when I think about how we all interacted during this time."

Sally Mason recalls the resilience of the university community during the 2008 flood.
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Hall of presidents

UI Predidential Paintings

New paintings debut at the UI's presidential portrait gallery.

The portrait gallery of University of Iowa presidents is finally up to date.

Portraits of the three most recent UI leaders—Mary Sue Coleman (19LHD), David J. Skorton, and Sally Mason—were unveiled during dedication ceremonies on Oct. 17, so that all 20 former presidents are now represented in the gallery on the fifth floor of the Main Library.

John Culshaw, the Jack B. King University Librarian, noticed when he arrived at Iowa in 2013 that the collection needed updating. "I thought we needed to complete the collection because an important part of the Libraries' mission is to preserve and share the history of the university," he says. "I also thought that we should be proud of the fact that we have two female presidents, whose portraits were missing."

Culshaw started working not long afterward with the Office of the President, Center for Advancement, and President Emeritus Willard "Sandy" Boyd (81LHD) to bring the gallery up to date. Coleman, Skorton, and Mason agreed to sit for portraits after some nudging by Boyd. Artists Ellen Cooper; Sergei Chernikov; and Maquoketa, Iowa, resident Rose Frantzen were commissioned to complete the works.

University Archivist David McCartney says the older portraits were displayed at various parts of campus over time, including at the Iowa Memorial Union, President's Residence, and Museum of Art. The portraits took up residence in their current Main Library gallery in 1972, moving from Old Capitol.

Culshaw says that while he's pleased to bring the gallery up to date, he hopes it will be more than just a collection of paintings on a wall. "I hope that they inspire students to think about leadership and how they can succeed in higher education," he says.

To view the online presidential portrait gallery, visit

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