More specifically, their salaries.
According to reporting from Iowa Politics, the House Republicans are discussing a bill that would prohibit the presidents from getting raises if the universities increase tuition.
Is it fair to hold back the president's salaries if tuition is increased? Tell us in comments.
Since 2004, tuition and mandatory fees at the three schools have gone up about 44 percent, according to data from the Iowa Board of Regents. Meanwhile, the presidents' salaries also climbed.
The presidents' latest raises packed a few more dollars onto their six-figure compensation packages.
UI President Sally Mason's base salary was increased to $483,600 annually plus $150,000 per year in deferred pay, and UNI President Ben Allen's salary was increased to $332,800 plus $70,000 in deferred compensation. Former ISU President Gregory Geoffroy's salary was increased to $440,249 before he left, which is virtually the same as his replacement Steven Leath is now earning.
There are more factors involved than simply raising money.
The universities are contending with inflation that drives up their operational costs, as well as budget cuts that have rolled back state funding, which has forced the schools to shift the burden of education costs to students and their families through tuition.
Here is more coverage on the topic from Iowa Politics.
Bill calls for university presidents to feel the pain of tuition hikes
By Lynn Campbell
DES MOINES — If students enrolled at Iowa's state universities have to pay higher tuition, university presidents should share the pain, some House Republicans said.
"This is about making accountable a person that is receiving a half-a-million dollars in tax dollars to run an institution," said state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton. "This is not about denigrating the university. This is about improving it on behalf of the taxpayers and the students of the state."
Especially infuriating some House Republicans was University of Iowa, or U of I, President Sally Mason's hiring of two highly paid assistants during tough budget times. Tysen Kendig was hired as vice president for strategic communication in February 2010 and is paid $280,000; Mark Braun was named Mason's chief of staff in October 2008 and makes $200,000, lawmakers said.
Kaufmann called the hirings "absolutely indefensible."
"A person with a bachelor's degree making almost $280,000 a year and adding that position at a time when tuition was increased during tough times is not defensible in my neck of the woods," Kaufmann said. "Adding a personal assistant with a bachelor's degree that's making $200,000 a year is not defensible."
House File 2128, proposed by 11 House Republicans, says if the Board of Regents increases tuition at state universities, the board would be prohibited from increasing university presidents' compensation or benefits the next year. A three-person House subcommittee debated the bill Thursday.
The Regents in August approved a 4 percent increase for the base salaries of university presidents.
The increase brought Mason's base salary to $483,600, former Iowa State University, or ISU, President Gregory Geoffroy's salary to $440,249, and University of Northern Iowa, or UNI, President Ben Allen's salary to $332,800. Mason and Allen also saw increases to their deferred compensation packages. Geoffroy retired in January and was replaced by Steven Leath.
In December, the Regents approved a 3.75 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduates in the 2012-13 school year. The increase of $240 per student would raise about $24 million. Regents staff said the state has cut funding to state universities by 25 percent since fiscal 2009.
"There's an age-old fallacy within education institutions that you either give us more money or students are going to suffer," said teacher and state Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City. "Well, I think that there's a third rail and a third option. That third option is to look at administrative expense, and that cuts should come from the top, not necessarily from the bottom, and not necessarily from our kids."
But state Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired teacher, said state funding is key to keeping tuition low at state universities.
"You seem to think there isn't a correlation between what we allocate in the Legislature and tuition increases. And I'm telling you there's a direct relationship," Mascher told Taylor. "Higher ed, as a whole, has taken it on the chin across the country during this economic downturn. But in Iowa, it has been disproportionately on our Regents institutions and they have suffered more than other states around the country. That bothers me a great deal."
ISU engineering professor Steven Freeman, president of the ISU Faculty Senate, told IowaPolitics.com he doesn't see the connection between student tuition and university presidents' salaries.
He said if the Legislature wants to control the cost of education for students, lawmakers should look at how much money they are giving to state universities.
"Tuition increase is based on lots of things and a lot of it is not in the control of the university president. I'm not sure why they are drawing that connection," Freeman said. "I'd be much more comfortable if they said increases should be in line with everybody else on campus."
Faculty saw a slightly lower pay raise last fall than the 4 percent received by university presidents. The average increase was 3.13 percent at U of I, 2.9 percent at UNI and 2.3 percent at ISU.
UNI Student Body President Spencer Walrath defended the pay raises for university presidents. He told IowaPolitics.com that students would probably always see a tuition increase, if only to match the rate of inflation. He said it's appropriate for university presidents' pay also to increase to match inflation.
"I see the rationale behind the bill, and I don't believe that the presidents are by any means suffering for want of money," said Walrath, 22, of Cedar Rapids, who's majoring in music and psychology and minoring in political science. "At the same time, they have an enormously difficult and stressful job and deserve to be compensated appropriately for all of their work."
Allen accepted the 4 percent pay raise approved last fall but said all of the money would be returned to the university. In 2010, Allen and Geoffroy declined a 3.3 percent pay raise because of a series of cuts to the universities' state appropriations. Mason accepted that 2010 raise, but it was her first since joining the university in 2007. None of the presidents received salary increases in 2009.
"UNI President Ben Allen sets an excellent example: He is paid the least of the three state university presidents and for at least the last two years has refused his salary increase," Walrath said. "He instead puts the money into a scholarship fund managed by he and his wife."
The issue received a vigorous debate Thursday, but it isn't expected to go anywhere. Only Taylor signed off to advance the bill to the full House Education Committee. He was outnumbered, 2-to-1.
State Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, the subcommittee's chairman, declined to sign off on the bill. He said he's getting his doctorate and hopes to be a college president someday. Byrnes said he chose to hold debate on the bill to raise awareness of the issue, and to send the message to university presidents that they're making good salaries and should put students first.