Snuffing culture at ISU

Iowa State University Athletic Director Jamie Pollard sent out a strange email to supporters late last week in which he suggested that CY Stephens Auditorium should be closed “indefinitely” and all future shows should be canceled in light of the catastrophic impact the pandemic has had on the athletic department budget.

We are not sure what “indefinitely” means, and Pollard isn’t saying. 

It is alarming, and action should be taken to remove CY Stephens, Fisher Theatre and the Scheman Building from athletic department oversight and create a separate management authority reporting to the President’s Office.

It makes no sense for the athletic department to run one of Iowa’s top cultural showcases. 

It was not clear from Pollard’s letter that he understands the importance of these facilities to the mission of Iowa State — to spread knowledge of science and culture throughout the state. 

The letter reminds us of deep problems in collegiate athletics that the pandemic has made into a financial crisis. Iowa State is millions short of budget because football can’t be played in front of fans. It brings down the entire house of cards. But that doesn’t mean you bring down arts and culture to preserve coaching salaries.

The athletic department took over the entire Iowa State Center from the vice president for finance about a year ago. There were grand plans to turn the Scheman Center into a cocktail house for athletic department donors, and build a hotel and some sort of retail complex. The Scheman Center was designed in 1975 to be a state conference center serving the Extension mission invented at Iowa State. It has served that role well. Scheman houses the Brunnier Art Gallery, one of the few in the world devoted to textiles. It will be reduced to a backdrop for brats and Busch Light.

CY Stephens and Fisher come as part of the bargain, and it is harder to figure out how they serve the athletic mission. 

Pollard suggests setting them aside. He misreported that CY Stephens costs the university $1 million. In fact, the 2019 report showed that it is self-sustaining. 

He said it is millions short on deferred maintenance. What non-athletic building at Iowa State isn’t?

In fact, donations (not raised by the athletic department or the Iowa State Foundation) helped fund several improvements last year to CY Stephens, including more handicapped accessibility. Even if cultural attractions at Iowa State cost $1 million, it is part of the core function to provide these experiences.

CY Stephens is central to Iowa State. Of course, its events have been scaled back significantly as has everything. But they will come back, just as we suppose football will come back. 

Truth be told, CY Stephens historically had a better operating statement than Cyclone football. And its stage productions — the first being the New York Philharmonic — are essential to the academic experience at a major research university. Pollard does not express a vision for the future of the Iowa State Center.

VenuWorks of Ames manages the facility with a positive cash flow. The university could better serve its long-term capital needs if it were overseen by the President’s Office and not the athletic department. A separate fundraising and advisory board apparatus could be established to fill capital investment needs (and protect it from assaults).

Closing CY Stephens “indefinitely” cannot be part of the discussions. It is too important to be left to an athletic director who clearly does not understand its place in the mission or history of Iowa State University.

Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times.

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