UNI president: ‘I’m just a kid from Iowa’
By DOUGLAS BURNS
The new University of Northern Iowa president blends a rural Iowa sensibility with an academic powerhouse of a resume.
In short, Mark Nook, 58, an astrophysicist and native of Holstein, is equally at home in a feed mill or small-town high school — or a symposium dealing with high-minded research on how the stars and moons and other celestial bodies align and what that means for man. Nook did, after all, run both a planetarium and an observatory.
Nook said his Iowa background gives him an instinctive understanding of UNI’s students because he comes from a place like many of their hometowns.
‘‘I’m just a kid from Iowa, and small-town Iowa in particular,” Nook said. “And I think that’s what people are starting to realize. I’m extremely approachable.”
It’s important to get to know students and staff on a real level, not in simply an artificial way, because their views and on-the-ground consultation provide college presidents with the knowledge — and humility — to make calls that will profoundly shape a school, Nook said.
“I take the same approach to the university that I had growing up in Holstein,” Nook said. “If you run into somebody on the street, you spend a little time talking to them. If you run into a student on campus, you spend a little time talking to them.”
Nook, who assumed duties at UNI Feb. 1, recently visited Carroll where he went to lunch with Des Moines Area Community College Provost Joel Lundstrom and then talked with this newspaper for more than an hour about his background and goals for UNI, a state university in Cedar Falls with 11,900 students and 1,800 employees.
“It’s like a small town,” Nook said. “When you talk to the people at UNI, whether they’re students or faculty, they talk about community the way people in Holstein talk about their neighbors and their friends and why they live there.”
Ninety percent of UNI’s students come from Iowa. UNI has students and alums and teachers with ties to all 99 counties, Nook said.
“Sure, Des Moines is different than Holstein and Carroll, but there’s still this basic Iowa approach,” Nook said. “Some of it’s work ethic. Some of it is sensibility about being kind to each other. Nobody honks their horn at anybody in this state.”
Nook is UNI’s 11th president.
“The transition has gone extremely well, and it’s because of the people at UNI and up and down the Cedar Valley,” Nook said. “I think I know how freshmen feel on our campus and why so many of them come back for their second year. It really is a helpful environment with people wanting me to be successful.”
Nook sits on Gov. Terry Branstad’s STEM Council (science, technology, engineering and math), and is encouraged by Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ focus on it.
Nook spent most of his career as a professor involved in astronomy and physics. He ran that planetarium and an observatory in that capacity.
“It really is important to get students to understand what science is,” Nook said. “It’s something you do and not something you know.”
Why do many students find science and math boring?
The disciplines historically have been taught with too much emphasis on memorization, Nook said.
“But really, it’s a way of thinking, a way of processing the world around you,” Nook said. “When you open it up and let students play with it, instead of having to memorize it, then it changes the game.”
The university maintains strong undergraduate research programs to promote just that.
“Because we’re primarily an undergraduate institution we can get them in those programs right away,” Nook said.
Nook said he inherits many strong programs at UNI. Among them, accounting.
In talking with business leaders around Iowa, Nook said he’s found a preference for UNI graduates in that field as well as finance.
“We certainly want to keep those growing and doing well,” Nook said.
The arts, music and performing arts, are strong on the Cedar Falls campus, too, Nook said.
“Iowa’s largest college marching band is at UNI — 300 plus,” Nook said,
He cited the jazz band and men’s chorus as well.
Over the last two decades, the University of Northern Iowa and Des Moines Area Community College have partnered for a 2+2 program that has helped populate area schools with teachers. In the full DMACC system, the elementary education program includes 20 to 25 students at any one time, Lundstrom said.
The students complete two years of school with DMACC and then move on to UNI coursework to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s all focused on the students,” Nook said.
The connections with the community colleges are important as university budgets are stretched, Nook said.
What’s more, many students are placebound and not able to travel for school.
UNI also offers a 3+2 program for engineering with Iowa State University as the latter institution can’t accommodate all the students interested in engineering, Nook said.
Students start at UNI for three years before transferring to ISU for two years. After the five-year program, students leave with a physics degree from UNI and a bachelor’s in engineering from ISU.
“That has turned out to be a great degree combination,” Nook said.
Tuition at UNI is $8,300 a year with room and board estimated at $8,600 for a school year.
Nook said that when he considers budget issues, his chief concern is student impact. That means, among other things, universities shouldn’t make across-the-board cuts.
“You look at things that are growing, and you invest in them,” Nook said. “You look at things that the state doesn’t need you to be doing or aren’t going well, or aren’t getting a return, and you move away from them.”