University of Iowa explores bringing higher education to state’s prison population

Series includes one class by UI President Bruce Harreld

The University of Iowa is offering a pilot certificate program this semester that includes weekly sessions taught by full professors, college deans and even President Bruce Harreld.

To take part in the high-profile speaker series, however, would-be students need to be one of 31 eligible inmates in the Iowa Medical and Classification Center.

The series marks the first official academic cooperation between the public research university and the Oakdale prison facility in Coralville. Yet the effort also builds on the relationship between the two institutions already forged by Mary Cohen, a UI professor of music and education.

Since 2009, Cohen has led the Oakdale Choir, which is made up of community members as well as inmates in the medium security prison. The choir performs two concerts annually to a blended audience from both outside and inside the facility.

“People who have come to listen to the choir have left with a different understanding of the prison system,” Cohen said. “Especially when they hear an original song written by an inmate and performed by the choir.”

In recognition of the choir’s success, Warden James McKinney granted permission last year to expand audience beyond the previous maximum of 85, Cohen said. At the December concert, 229 people were in attendance — including Harreld, along with a few university vice presidents and deans.

With so many UI administrators offering support, the UI Center for Human Rights decided to push up its schedule for exploring options for creating some academic ties with the prison.

Kat Litchfield, programs coordinator for the center, said the long-term goal remains to develop a program through which inmates could earn college credit for courses taken in the prison. She eventually would like to see UI offering something similar to the Liberal Arts in Prison Program already in place at Grinnell College.  

Such a program, however, would involve a lengthy process to gain permission from the Iowa Board of Regents, the Higher Learning Commission and several other groups.

To speed things along for this semester, UI’s Prison Education Working Group developed the concept for the UI Speakers Series at Oakdale and an accompanying certificate.

“The certificate doesn’t hold any credit, but there is value in it,” Litchfield said. “It can be used at parole meetings and in future job interviews to show that they have put forward some initiative toward a goal.”

The series — which is not open to the public — kicks off Sept. 18 with Dan Clay, dean of the UI College of Education, and concludes Nov. 20 with a certificate ceremony and banquet dinner. In between, the inmates will hear weekly from professors in English, law, education, business, theater and religion.

To earn the certificate, eligible inmates need to participate in the full series.

“Just as freshmen have to take a bunch of courses they don’t want to pursue their degree, so we’re asking that, if you want a certificate, you have to do it all,” Litchfield said.

Harreld, who was a faculty member for six years at the Harvard Business School, is scheduled to lead a session on “Learning Through Discussion.”

“That’s exactly kind of teaching that we want our education volunteers to be doing: less lecture and more experiential,” Litchfield said.

The upcoming series also has inspired a three-day conference this week titled, “The Role of Transformative Education in Successful Reentry.” The majority of panels and events will take place Friday and Saturday in the University Capitol Center.

The conference begins Thursday night in the UI Voxman Music Building with a screening of the documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” followed by a question-and-answer session with Curt Tofeteland, who founded the program of the same name.

“We’re hoping that will help kick off the weekend’s conversation,” Cohen said.

Any future ties between UI and Oakdale also will need to build on the programs already in place between the prison and Kirkwood Community College, Litchfield said.

Kirkwood has contracts with Oakdale to provide literacy services to those inmates whose reading skills are below a sixth grade level. Working with the Department of Corrections, the college also offers high school completion courses for inmates and various certificate-level vocational programs.

The college does not offer any courses for credit through the prison, but it does offer proctoring services for inmates enrolled in two-year-, four-year or advantage programs through other colleges.

Reach Jeff Charis-Carlson at [email protected] or 319-887-5435. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffCharis.

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