IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A Republican pollster warned the University of Iowa a year ago that its public standing was suffering from an image as a heavy-drinking school where sexual assault was too common, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press that school officials have withheld from the public.
Washington-based pollster Chris Perkins told university leaders that those perceptions meant the school was no longer considered safe by some parents and students, and had lost some credibility "as a serious academic institution." Perkins, who received the polling work under a controversial university no-bid contract with a GOP insider, recommended specific messages for a communications strategy to combat the image.
"Iowans believe that cleaning up the party school image at the University of Iowa will result in attracting more students, gaining more research grants and overall improving the education system," Perkins wrote in the 52-page report, which was prepared for university leaders following a statewide poll of 1,000 residents in December 2014.
Earlier that year, protests erupted when the university's then-president, Sally Mason, said sexual assault could never be completely eliminated because of "human nature." The issue had become an increasing public concern in 2013, when the school started releasing public warnings about reported rapes involving acquaintances. The Princeton Review also named the university the nation's no. 1 party school in 2013.
The university won't release documents detailing polls and focus groups conducted by Perkin's firm, Wilson Perkins Allen. The AP obtained the undated report from a university employee who requested anonymity because the school didn't authorize its disclosure.
The school has said that releasing the information would help rival schools and "serve no public purpose." But the secrecy has been pilloried by open government advocates, including Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans, who suggested this week that the school was illegally trying to hide embarrassing information.
"If the research had found Iowans heralding the university's academic prowess or its cost versus value in Iowans' eyes, you probably would see billboards touting that," Evans said, adding that releasing the reports would show whether the university got a good deal for the polling.
University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said the polling data helped the university produce marketing materials and communication pieces.
In his report, Perkins recommended that the university emphasize messages about "working to crack down on underage drinking and drug problems" and "prosecuting sexual assault and harassment criminals." He said the party school image could hurt student recruitment, and warned that perceived high debt loads for graduates and financial aid shortages were other concerns.
The university hired former Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn in 2013 for social media outreach under a $24,900 contract — below the $25,000 threshold requiring quotes from multiple vendors. That work has been performed by a subcontractor started by another former Iowa GOP official. Months later, the university obtained a waiver to give annual statewide polling work to Strawn without competitive bidding, even though his firm doesn't do such research. Strawn subcontracted with Perkins, who has worked for high-profile Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Tom DeLay.
In all, Strawn's firm has been paid $320,000 from university donations. After the AP reported on the no-bid contract in December, the university president of its governing board said the "optics of this are not pretty" and that the work should have been bid.
The university's former vice president for strategic communications, Joe Brennan, said Thursday that the polling helped inform a strategy to emphasize the school's contributions to Iowa's economy, health and quality of life. He said doing more to showcase what happens inside university classrooms and labs counterbalances the "party school" narrative.
"There's nothing to hide here. The University of Iowa has a smart communications strategy," said Brennan, who was not AP's source for the document.