Iowa regent president backs UI’s consideration of a public-private partnership

Regent President Mike Richards offered his support for the UI’s possible public-private partnership on Thursday.


Joseph Cress

Regent Michael Richards listens to a presentation during a meeting in the Reiman Ballroom of the ISU Alumni Center in Ames on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

Katie Ann McCarver and Kelsey Harrell

AMES — The state Board of Regents president on Thursday commended the University of Iowa’s consideration of a public-private partnership that would place the responsibility of maintaining the campus utility system with a private contractor as “forward thinking.”

“I want to publicly commend [UI] President [Bruce] Harreld and the administration for forward-thinking and exploring potential public-private partnership with its utility system,” he said at the regents’ Thursday meeting at Iowa State University. “They are being thoughtful and deliberative, as they should be.”

The UI announced it was considering entering such an agreement on Feb. 8 after Gov. Kim Reynolds asked the regent universities to explore public-private partnerships. Until June when the request for qualifications and the request for proposals processes are complete, UI officials have said the UI will not know how much money would be involved in the agreement.

Richards said time to look at the facts is needed to make a good decision.

RELATED: UI exploring public-private partnership for utility system 

“They are doing this,” he said. “They are also being transparent throughout the process, having open discussions with a wide variety of constituents over the coming weeks and months.” 

In the last couple of years, the regents have sought additional sources for the universities, Richards said. They challenged the schools to find new and creative ways to take advantage of existing assets.  

Richards emphasized that tuition, state appropriations, and reallocations represent the three main areas of revenue for regent institutions. However, he compared higher education to other forms of industry, in that costs will inevitably continue to rise over time. 

“Any new revenue stream such as the one the UI is looking at is another way to develop and supplement existing revenues,” Richards said. “New revenue shouldn’t replace existing sources, but it does help grow the overall pool.”

RELATED: UI Faculty Senate addresses potential public-private partnership

Richards said the university and the regents hope to come to a conclusion about the agreement within the year and, if it proves successful, maybe consider implementing a similar project at other regent institutions.

The UI owns its utility system, which is composed of a generating plant, water, chilled water, and tunnels for distribution and would still own it after entering into an agreement.

“We’re not selling or leasing our utility system,” Harreld said. “Instead, we’re asking third parties to bid on operating our utility system for our benefit and to our quality standards and values.”

RELATED: Staff Council weighs decision to pursue public-private partnership for utilities

Ultimately, Harreld said such an agreement and the endowment stemming from its proceeds would contribute to the UI’s strategic plan to increase retention and graduation rates, access to quality health care, and more.

“That’s what I aspire to do,” Harreld said. “Please note we’re just at the very beginning of a very long process. As a team, we’re looking forward to continuing our engagement with our community, our consultants, and [the] board.”