University of Iowa president Sally Mason is retiring, effective August 1, according to reporting by the Des Moines Register and later confirmed by the University. She will have spent eight years as President, succeeding David Skorton.
Mason's broader tenure can be debated by others, but if athletics is the front door to the University, ours under her was a flimsy particleboard DIY joke hidden by a fresh coat of paint. As an overseer of athletics, Mason's time in Iowa City was more or less a disaster, marked by mediocrity on the field and scandal (and bumbling response to scandal) off of it. One year after her arrival in Iowa City, the mother of a student-athlete who had been allegedly assaulted by two football players leaked a letter to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, detailing what was incompetence at best and a cover-up at worst by school administrators. With her job in jeopardy, Mason dismissed two high-level administrators; those two administrators subsequently sued the school for wrongful termination and defamation, with one case eventually making it to the Iowa Supreme Court before coming out in Iowa's favor.
Mason also oversaw response to the scandal involving former athleitics academic advisor Peter Gray, who reportedly traded football tickets in exchange for inappropriate photographs found on his University-issued computer. Gray was also accused of sexually harassing student athletes without repercussion during his ten-year stay at UI. Mason issued an apology but offered few reforms.
In the interim, there was the rhabdomyolysis outbreak in January 2011, repeated dust-ups with the student body and student newspaper over the last few years, and the recent Tracey Griesbaum field hockey issues, which got the Athletic Department scolded by ESPN. There was one of the least-successful periods in the history of the school's athletic department, with just five conference titles in all sports won by the Hawkeyes during her tenure (three wrestling, one. There was also her approval of the worst contract in the history of college football coaching contracts, a deal that, like so many other things, she could lay at the feet of Gary Barta.
At the end of the day, placing blame on underlings is the hallmark of Mason's tenure, and in Barta she found a willing accomplice. Their relationship became symbiotic, with Barta's department largely keeping the heat off of the President in exchange for general deference to Barta's wishes on facilities and personnel. In the process, each became a firewall against the other's ouster, with Barta's office rolling out its typically-bumbling response to each headline and then quietly absorbing piles of criticism. For all but the biggest problems, Mason stayed insulated, and she did her best to keep that insulation in place.
Iowa will announce a new president sometime this spring or summer. With any luck, it will be someone with the gumption to end the buck-passing and tackle legitimate problems facing the University of Iowa. As bad as they seem to us, issues in athletics are secondary to many of those other problems. But a new president could well be the first domino to fall in a move toward a new and improved Iowa athletics department.