On the Cyclone Fanatic podcast last week, the website’s publisher, Chris Williams, interviewed Iowa State University Athletics Director Jamie Pollard about the past two weeks at the university, when it made national headlines for contributing to the highest per-capita coronavirus outbreak in the nation and a quickly reversed decision to allow 25,000 fans to attend the Cyclones’ ill-fated football home opener on September 12 against Louisiana.
The conversation, which was also transcribed here, featured Pollard’s trademark frank opinions about his frustrations over the recent events. He was both praised by fans for speaking his mind and criticized by others for the blame he placed on university faculty and the Ames community for what he framed as their unrealistic and self-serving demands. “I’ve never been associated with a community that is like the city of Ames,” he said. Later, he complained in response to recent criticism of his department, “Apparently, there are people in this world who just feel they know everything and feel that their opinion is so important that they need to write and also be vicious when they write.”
During the interview, Williams acknowledged that he didn’t “know the politics of Ames,” which have long taken place against the backdrop of tensions between the city’s student and non-student populations, as well as between politically powerful developers and residents who have organized in support of more carefully planned growth. Here’s some additional context about that and other details based on Pollard’s remarks during the interview.
ISU faculty, Ames community abandoned ISU President Wendy Wintersteen
Williams described ISU’s quick about-face on its announcement to allow fans to attend the football game “like the most anti-Jamie Pollard thing ever, because you’re always getting out in front of things.” Pollard responded by discussing how, six months ago, the university and athletics department agreed to be on the same page when it came to the pandemic. What happened over the past two weeks, he added, “was probably the most frustrating and disappointed that I’ve ever been since I’ve been at Iowa State … because we got burned by being aligned.”
As Pollard told it, the university wanted a 50 percent attendance cap for the game, a decision that was made before the surge in coronavirus cases that shot the Ames metro area to the top of the New York Times list of hotspots with the most new cases per capita across the country. When the surge happened, Pollard said, he was prepared to announce that no fans would be allowed to attend, but instead stuck with the university when it chose not to move classes exclusively online. Although Pollard himself acknowledged that the surge of cases was a predictable outcome of students returning to campus and partying before the start of classes — “exactly what you expect students to do” — he blamed the reversal of the decision on ISU faculty and the Ames community, which he said “abandoned” Wintersteen, despite that many of those same people likely would have opposed the idea even had it been announced earlier. “She really was left with no choice but to reverse the decision,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I was disappointed that people she’s been colleagues with for 40 some years abandoned her and left her out there high and dry.”
Later, Pollard said that only two percent of student athletes had tested positive for the virus since June 15. (He took a jab at the University of Iowa in the process, saying their athletes were less motivated to avoid infection because their seasons were on hold in the Big Ten.) He attributed Ames’ top hotspot status to the targeted testing of students, neglecting to mention that many other universities throughout the country were doing the same thing at the time.
“Well, guess what, we’re now two weeks later, and the positivity rate’s way back down,” Pollard said. “There’s no positivities in our athletic department and there’s no reason we couldn’t have played Saturday with fans. But, the decision was made two weeks ago, loud and clear, by the community.” He then spoke to the difficulties in navigating a pandemic that changes by the day. “I’m going to guess over the next week the positivity rates are going to continue to go down and we’re going to watch there be fans at games all around the country, including NFL, and people are going to say, ‘You need to have fans,’” he predicted, adding that the athletics department would likely be called “idiots for going forward” with fans if another spike occurred before game day.
According to a list compiled by DraftKings Nation on September 3, the day after ISU reversed its decision to allow fans to attend its home opener on the 12th, the only school allowing more than a 25 percent attendance capacity to start the season was the University of Alabama at Birmingham. More than three quarters of NFL teams announced last month that they would not allow fans to attend their home opener. A small handful of NFL teams permitted attendance over the past weekend, when the Cyclones played to an empty stadium, but none over 25 percent.
None of ISU’s faculty have volunteered to cut their pay
“I’m sitting here as the leader of the athletics department [thinking], ‘Wow, I’m going to have to publicly say we’re considering dropping sports, that [football head coach] Matt Campbell’s going to have to get another pay cut,’ when none of the faculty on this campus have taken a pay cut yet,” Pollard told Williams. “Not a dime.”
In early April, Pollard announced that coaches and administrators in the athletics department, including himself, would have their salaries cut by 10 percent and bonuses eliminated for the upcoming academic year in order to cover $4 million of a $5 million budget shortfall caused in part by the cancellation of NCAA basketball tournaments. (Pollard’s salary was $757,000 before the cut.) The Des Moines Register reported in June that Campbell’s $3.5 million salary was further reduced by $147,000 he gave up to help his assistant coaches offset their own cuts.
The Iowa Board of Regents in late July approved voluntary pay cuts for each of Iowa’s three public university presidents, including Wintersteen, whose $590,000 salary was also reduced by 10 percent. (University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, by comparison, earns the same salary and reduced his by 50 percent, directing the money to a fund meant to help cover the costs of student emergencies including COVID-19.)
While faculty may have yet to agree to similar pay cuts, they will certainly be impacted by the effect the pandemic is having on the university’s budget. In July, Wintersteen estimated revenue and cost losses at $73 million and said that performance-based pay raises would be put on hold. She also announced a voluntary retirement incentive program as part of an effort to avoid faculty layoffs. The Board of Regents reduced ISU’s budget by $41 million this year, which Wintersteen said could lead to the loss of as many as 100 faculty positions, primarily through attrition.
It’s also worth noting that although Campbell, Pollard, and Wintersteen all agreed to significant pay cuts, they are also the first-, fifth-, and sixth-highest paid ISU employees respectively, according to salary data for the 2019 fiscal year published by The Des Moines Register.
Proposal to close Stephens Auditorium was a ruse
Williams introduced one of his questions by mentioning that he was a theater major at ISU for a while. “I got out of there,” he said, “but the arts are very important to me.” He went on to add that many people, from his experiences, are unaware that the athletics department now oversees Stephens Auditorium and, for that, is “really doing the arts a favor.”
Pollard agreed, then claimed that his announcement earlier this month that the auditorium should be closed “indefinitely” was just to prove a point. “I knew we weren’t going to shut down the performing arts center, but those people needed to understand the consequences, too,” he said, referring to faculty who support the arts but, in his view, care little about sports programs. Comparing them to “kids” who don’t understand financial decisions, he claimed, “They want to make it [decisions] in a silo without any other consequences.”
In 2019, Wintersteen handed control of the Iowa State Center’s Stephens Auditorium, Fisher Theatre, and Scheman Building over to the athletics department as part of an ambitious plan to woo an outside developer to build an entertainment district there with a hotel and convention center. Pollard cited a 2013 study commissioned by ISU showing that the auditorium needed tens of millions of dollars of work owing to years of deferred maintenance. He also said that it operates with an annual budget shortfall of about $1 million — which is not true, according to an article by Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times, who wrote that a 2019 report from the university actually “showed that it is self-sustaining,” adding that the auditorium is far from the only campus building behind on maintenance.
The athletics department is partnering on the entertainment district project with the ISU Research Park and its president, Rick Sanders. His position is an example of how a small group of business leaders in Ames works together to make many of the major decisions in the city, often with little say from the community. A former Republican county supervisor, Sanders left that role in 2019, shortly after he was re-elected and then picked to head the Research Park following a nominal nationwide search. Before that, Pollard had contributed $950 to Sanders’ campaigns from 2008 to 2018, and the former supervisor’s wife, Calli Sanders, has been an an associate athletics director at ISU since 2003.
Stephens Auditorium “was the Building of the Century 100 years ago”
The way Pollard described it, you might have thought that Stephens Auditorium was an abandoned relic of a past age on the verge of collapse. “The building hasn’t had a dime put into it for years,” he claimed. “It’s an embarrassment now.” But that’s far from the case. Cullen also reported that “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.” Construction was completed on the building in 1969, 51 years ago, and the American Institute of Architects selected it as Building of the Century — a “prestigious honor,” according to ISU itself — in 2004, not 1920.
Ames residents want new things, but they don’t want to pay for them
“People in this community, I’ve said it before, they didn’t want a mall, but they want new retail,” Pollard continued. “They didn’t want a swimming pool, but they want a place for their kids to swim. They want people to take care of the elderly, but they didn’t want a healthy lifestyle facility. They want conventions in Ames, but they voted down the convention center. They want a university, but they don’t want students. They want us to have a football team, but they don’t want fans.”
You can scroll down to the next section for more on the convention center, but here’s a look at some of the other issues Pollard listed off, beginning with the mall.
In the early 2000s, against the advice of the Ames Planning and Zoning Commission, the city’s Land Use Policy Plan was amended to include a 650,000-square-foot mall near Interstate 35 on East 13th Street and a strip mall across the street. Residents were divided on the idea, because of the economic impact it could have on the existing mall and local businesses but also because of how the proposed location was contrary to their vision of sustainable development. Erv Klaas, a respected professor emeritus of animal ecology at ISU who was largely responsible for the establishment of the popular Ada Hayden Heritage Park, led a campaign against the mall proposal, which led to the election of three anti-mall council members. The idea was ultimately abandoned when the recession hit.
“The developers, the realtors, and the builders — three areas that work closely together — essentially form a cartel, a powerful cartel that controls city government because city government controls their self-interests,” Klaas told me in 2010. Dean Hunziker, the head of the city’s most prominent development company, countered with a viewpoint similar to Pollard’s: “There’s a lot of energy vampires in this community. They suck the energy out of everything.”
For the past five years, the city and Ames School District have explored options, with little success, to replace the aging municipal pool at the high school that’s shared by students and other residents. The pool is partly funded by school district tax dollars — but not Pollard’s. He lives at a property valued at $879,400 in north Ames, where many of the city’s wealthiest residents reside and which is part of the Gilbert School District, meaning that none of their tax dollars go toward Ames schools. However, the pool does also receive city tax dollars.
The healthy lifestyle facility, a recreational center with a pool that would cater not only to elderly residents but anyone who paid membership dues, was one proposed solution. The $49 million project was to be partially paid for with $29 million dollars from a modest tax hike, but the proposal fell more than 10 percentage points shy of the 60 percent margin it needed in a September 2019 bond referendum. Opponents included a rival fitness center owner and residents concerned that the membership costs would be overly exclusive, as well as the usual small government types.
When Pollard said, “They want a university, but they don’t want students,” he was likely referencing the longstanding tensions in the community between some year-round residents and students, who now make up more than half of Ames’ population. Over the years, there have been recurring conversations at City Council meetings on topics such as housing density as booming student enrollment began to change the dynamics of once-quiet neighborhoods near the university.
Community turned its back on convention center referendum
After chiding critics as being “so overly self-righteous about their beliefs versus other people’s beliefs” and arguing that the football fan situation “exposed” the fact that some residents are “oblivious” that there are “consequences for those decisions,” Pollard returned to the topic of the convention center.
“Keep in mind, this is that same community that several years ago [then-ISU president] Dr. [Steven] Leath offered up a plan of $30 million for a $45 million convention center for this city and all they had to do was vote for the $15 million and they turned their backs on it,” he said. “They voted it down and they said if the university wants a convention center then let them do it. Isn’t that interesting? They want their cake and to eat it too.”
Not only was Pollard’s explanation of what led to Ames voters rejecting the convention center a gross oversimplification of what actually happened, but his figures were way off. The proposal was for a renovation and expansion of the Iowa State Center’s Scheman Building, which was projected to cost just over $38 million with costs split evenly between the university and a revenue from a city property tax hike.
Despite blowing through more than $16,000, a committee formed to promote the referendum came nowhere close to convincing the necessary 60 percent of Ames voters to support the idea. The committee’s inept campaign was highlighted by its miscalculation of figures provided by ISU economist Dave Swenson that were used in public presentations without his verification, as well as economic projections that were far higher than those in a study commissioned for the campaign. The math behind the inflated projections, this reporter was told when breaking the story, was “proprietary” but led to rosier figures because the study supposedly did not account for local economic factors — a false claim, because the study explicitly noted that it did. In the end, only 37 percent of voters backed the proposal.
The divide within the Ames community is a microcosm of national political polarization
Asked by Williams if he thought this was the case, Pollard answered in the affirmative. “People are either all the way on this side or all the way on that side,” he said, adding: “In our country right now, neither side wants to let either side win. That’s why we have such a vicious political process right now.” What he left out was ISU’s own role in contributing to this in recent years.
In September 2015, when Donald Trump was running for president, then-President Leath cheerfully escorted him around Jack Trice Stadium’s field, where the two waved to football fans before a game as Trump supporters clashed with immigration rights demonstrators in a parking lot outside. Before Mike Pence became Trump’s vice president, Leath traveled to Indiana to meet with the then-governor during a hunting trip alongside Ames developer Dean Hunziker and NRA board member Pete Brownell.
Throughout his tenure, Leath was criticized for his inept handling of diversity problems on campus. Pollard’s awareness of these issues was questionable, as well; for example, just days after white supremacist posters were distributed around campus, he went on the Cyclones’ TV station dressed for Halloween as the racist and anti-gay head of the Duck Dynasty clan. He also stood by women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly in a racial discrimination suit brought by a former star player that ended with a $60,000 settlement.
Leath’s tenure was also marked by giving and receiving favors from Republican politicians, including his boss, then-Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, a GOP power player and agribusiness tycoon with a major presence in Ames. (Rastetter was also a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 who ignored questions about the president’s arbitrary and discriminatory Muslim travel ban despite its impact on ISU.) With brazen disregard for conflict-of-interest concerns, Rastetter arranged the sale of land in Hardin County for recreational use that Leath sold for a $60,000 profit after leaving Iowa. At ISU, Leath also defended the unusual no-search hires of two former GOP lawmakers, including his former airplane flight instructor, Jim Kurtenbach.
Leath was recruited to ISU in the first place by a search committee co-chaired by Roger Underwood, a fellow agribiz magnate close to Rastetter and Steve King donor with little regard for the importance of diversity issues.
ISU was dealing with budget cuts before COVID-19
Pollard said that “a year ago,” before the pandemic, “campus was dealing with tremendous budget cuts because of declining enrollment.” It’s true that the university’s enrollment has declined — since 2017, not just last year — but this followed nearly a decade of growth that peaked at a record high in 2016, near the end of Steven Leath’s tenure as president.
However, ISU was not caught off guard by this — the university knew that a decline in enrollment was inevitable. The city of Ames was another story when enrollment boomed. About five years ago, the City Council began a series of discussions about how its Land Use Policy Plan, a blueprint for long-term growth adopted in 1997, had failed to predict the university’s record enrollment numbers. The situation contributed to an affordable housing shortage and led to a sharp increase in demand for housing in general. In response, a host of new apartment projects were started, clearing out older buildings in the process, for example with the controversial redevelopment of Campustown to add high-rise apartments for students with ground-floor retail spaces.
Other local development projects that Leath helped to put in motion included a major rehaul of the Ames airport, which ultimately led to the so-called Planegate scandal that precipitated his abrupt departure from the university for a pay raise as the president of Auburn University in Alabama.
Leath did not last long at Auburn. Just two years after his arrival, he was pushed out by the Board of Trustees. Confidentiality agreements have prevented all of the details from emerging, but the university was apparently displeased with Leath’s sweeping personnel changes, extravagant spending on development projects including a remodeling of the president’s mansion that was millions of dollars over budget, and micromanagement of the athletics department.