black suv beside grey auv crossing the pedestrian line during daytime

Automobile Report 2024

I’ve had many cars over my lifetime, and learned a bit from each one. Most were purchased used. Some were purchased new or leased. Some were 10 to 20 years old. I’ve had cars from Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevy, and other brands. I’ve also lived without a car for many years, choosing to use public transit, pay for a taxi, ride a bike, walk, or rent a car whenever needed.

I want to share from my experience so that others can benefit and be better guided to the car that best fits their needs.

Long Search for the Perfect Vehicle

My first “perfect” vehicle was a 1991 Geo Metro with a 3-cylinder engine and over 40 MPG fuel efficiency. It was $10,000 purchased new. I drove that car for over 10 years and 220,000 miles. It was a 4-door hatch back. So, it had seating for four, but also plenty of storage with the rear seats folded down. The front-wheel drive and good ground clearance allowed it to perform well in Iowa winters. The ultra-compact size made it very easy to park. I’ve occasionally considered purchasing a present-day ultra-compact car.

Vehicles similar to the Geo Metro are available today for about $16,000 such as the and Nissan Versa and Mitsubishi Mirage. These are very appealing cars because you get 90% of the features and functions of a car costing much more, and the additional benefits mentioned above including 40-43 MPG fuel efficiency.

With my work requiring hauling of equipment, and needing to accommodate four passengers with luggage for road trips, I began searching for the perfect vehicle for my current needs. The on-call support services I offer require that I be able to travel at any time. I often need to travel in inclement weather. So, I needed a vehicle that could provide that reliability.

As you’ll read below, my search spanned over about 20 years and many vehicles. The vehicle I was searching for didn’t exist until 2018 when Subaru began selling the Ascent, a slightly larger version of the Forester. I waited a year, and purchased the 2019 Ascent. After about a year, I dedicated an entire podcast episode to the Ascent. [Podcast Episode #45Listen on Spotify]

If you want to purchase one vehicle for long-term ownership that will accommodate your changing vehicle needs over decades, the Ascent would be a good choice. It has 5,000 pounds towing capacity, seating for 6 or 7 people, but also the fuel efficiency of a 4-cylinder engine. The extra horsepower, when not used for pulling 5,000 pounds, makes merging into highway traffic a breeze. If you are leasing or buying and selling every few years, it could be a costly vehicle to own. The greatest value is in long-term ownership.

The rest of this document describes some context and other insights from my vehicle ownership experiences.

Status Symbol

If you’re buying a car as a status symbol, the car you choose really depends on where you live and who you are trying to impress.

Ideal status symbol vehicles depend on context. In a rural area, having a Ford F150 does not necessarily convey prestige or luxury, but it does allow a person to “fit in” with other vehicle owners which is a kind of status.

There are some social circles where an Audi, BMW, Lexus, or Mercedes, in a lower-trim would be the “blend in” car. We think of a status symbol as an attempt to convey superiority or greater than average success. Yet, even the ground floor of status that conveys “I’m like you” is a certain status.

I live in a college town where it’s expected that people will make informed, intelligent, frugal purchases. For the six-figure income people I know, who clearly aren’t restrained by a budget, they also purchase the most practical and economical vehicle that fits their needs. They don’t buy new. They buy used vehicles of about 3 year old with 36,000 miles. The Toyota Camera or Toyota Corolla have always been popular choices for used vehicles. Buying new guarantees a dramatic drop in a person’s net worth, similar to what a market crash does to a retirement fund. So, smart shoppers buy used.

This is consistent with Warrant Buffet’s car buying advice and practice: “Warren Buffett’s choice of cars is just one example of how his philosophy of prioritizing value over social status can help individuals achieve financial success and maintain a fulfilling lifestyle.” [Source]

I like to complement people’s cars with a sincere comment. If I notice someone has a newer vehicle, I might say, “Did you get a new car? That’s nice.” Most people appreciate that, and the immediate response is usually, “It’s new to me. I got it used.” People want to avoid being perceived as wasteful or buying a new car to impress others.

In my town, those who buy new cars are considered chumps and suckers who are wasteful and have a desire to impress others. However, in Beverly Hills, a new car might be viewed positively. So, there’s no universal single car that’s going to impress others.

With cars, clothing, or other material things, it’s best not to worry about what people will think about your purchase and instead, as Warren Buffet advises, prioritize value over social status.

My Current Vehicle

The car I’m currently driving is a Subaru Ascent. It looks new, but it is actually 4 years old, going on 5 this summer. Its like-new appearance is due to parking indoors and keeping it washed when needed. I only drive it about 7,000 miles per year, despite using it for a few long road trips and my business.

I’m a bit self-conscious about looking like I’m driving a new car, for the reasons mentioned above. I’m not the kind of person who drives a newish looking car to impress others. Someone recently asked me, “What would a car like this cost?” I explained that it’s sort of embarrassing to be driving a somewhat fancy car instead of a used Toyota Corolla which would seem to be the more practical and frugal choice.

In the United States, the current average car price is about $48,000. The entire line of six SUV-style vehicles from Subaru cost between $25,000 and $44,000 for the base models. The Ascent has a base price of about $34,000.

Subaru tends to be an economical choice, known for reliability, long lifespans, and holding their value. For that reason, a used Subaru can be almost as expensive as new models. You can pay a little more and get something new, with better safety features, quieter ride, improved fuel efficiency, and a warranty.

The Subaru Ascent has a similar appearance to the Subaru Forester, but is slightly larger.

For longer road trips, with four people, plenty of luggage, and other travel items, the Ascent has enough room so roof-mount storage isn’t needed. As a business vehicle, the Ascent has a third row of seating that folds down to accommodate larger items.

As a company, Subaru is known for partnering with numerous non-profit organizations with an emphasis on parks, sustainability, and causes that appeal to traditionally progressive-minded people. So, Subaru vehicles are more socially accepted in some circles.

Subaru Forester

As mentioned above, my previous vehicle was a Subaru Forester — a 2016 model.

There is much about the Forester that I prefer over the Ascent. If a person doesn’t need the extra row of seating and cargo area of the Ascent, the Forester is really a much better choice of vehicle due to:

  • The lower cost at $27K (Forester) vs $34K (Ascent)
  • Improved fuel efficiency of 33 mpg highway compared to 26 mpg highway for the Ascent
  • Lighter weight of 3,600 pounds compared to 4,590 pounds for the Ascent
  • Smaller size for easier parking

From a distance, visually the vehicles look the same. I drove a Subaru Forester for many years and really liked it.

For my work and needs, having the extra space of the Ascent became a requirement. Also, the Ascent has X-Mode which provides better traction and control on ice and snow. For winter driving, the Forester was an improvement over the Honda CRV. However, the Ascent with X-Mode proved to be worth the upgrade.

Honda CRV

Prior to the Subaru Forester, I had a 2013 Honda CRV. It was one of the first all-wheel-drive vehicles I owned, and I appreciated the improved traction compared to the front-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla that I’d owned previously.

The Honda CRV more storage capacity than the Corolla. The hatch back and folding back row seats created flexibility for hauling large equipment.

Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla replaced the Geo Metro. It had safety and reliability, with a relatively low price. Today a Corolla has a price of about $22,000.

As a sedan, I found that it was low to the ground and as a result had slightly limited visibility. The small deep-well trunk wasn’t as convenient for hauling equipment. For the price, it allowed me to have a reliable car for my work.

Used Vehicles

Most of my previous vehicles were used. There’s a perception of savings and value with a used car. What I found is that the maintenance, repairs, and occasional breakdowns became costly. Sometimes there would be a repair bill of over $1,000 in a month. That would be $1,000 that wasn’t invested in a CD and earning interest. It wasn’t $1,000 that increased the value of the car. It was $1,000 spent, and I would still just have an old unreliable car that I couldn’t really rely on and feel confident with.

On one occasion, I was driving an older car and went over a small bump in the road. The axel and suspension completely collapsed, perhaps from rust, and the vehicle fell to the street. I’ve had breaks go out, clutches stop working, engines fail, electrical systems stop working, and many other expensive breakdowns.

To offset the unreliable nature of the used cars I had, I would sometimes rent a car for longer road trips. That provided greater reliability and less worry.

Prior to purchasing the Geo Metro in 1991 for about $10,000 new, I was driving a 1970s Pontiac with a V8 engine. That car would get about 12 miles per gallon. Some point along the way, I had a very old Cadillac that had about the same fuel efficiency.

I was driving about 100 miles (two hours) per day for a total of 3,000 miles per month. So, divided by 12 MPG, that’s 250 gallons per month. At about $2 per gallon, the cost of fuel was $500 per month.

I calculated what life might be like with the Geo Metro at 40 MPG. Doing the math again, that’s 3,000 miles divided by 40 MPG. That’s 75 gallons of gas per month instead of 250 gallons. At $2 per gallon, that’s $150 per month for gas instead of $300 to $500. I realized that purchasing the Geo Metro, with close to 0% interest, the car would be basically free. I’d actually save $425 per month.

I ended up paying about $10,000 for the Geo Metro and drove it for over 220,000 miles. That’s a cost of about 5 cents per mile for the vehicle itself, plus the cost of fuel and oil changes. It was a super economical car.

The reliability of the Geo Metro and the latest fuel efficiency technology sold me on the idea of buying a new car rather than always driving old used cars.

Electric Vehicles

Partially electric hybrid vehicles have been around for a while. The Toyota Prius was brought to market in the late 1990s. [Source]

The all-electric plug-in vehicles are newer, with the Nissan LEAF being the first readily available production electric car with the greatest retail prominence. [Source] It was first introduced in 2010.

Other experimental cars have been available, but for those looking for an electric car from an actual dealership, the Nissan LEAF has been a favorite choice.

Despite having about 14 years of development, revisions, and improvements, with other major auto manufactures joining the EV revolution, only in recent years have larger vehicles become available.

The importance of having trucks, vans, SUVs, and other larger vehicle styles is that they meet the needs of those wanting to be sitting higher up for greater visibility — being more visible to other vehicles and having a greater visibility site distance from a higher vantage point. People needing to have more seating and storage would not be purchasing a Nissan LEAF, Tesla, or similar sedan-types of vehicles.

Given the present mileage range limitations and charging constraints, electric cars continue to be only marginally practical as a second vehicle or as a primary vehicle for regular commuters. A helpful workaround would be to use an electric car like the Nissan LEAF for the daily commute and errands, then rent a car for longer road trips.

Cost continues to be an issue for those considering an electric car purchase. The Nissan LEAF is $28K to $37K depending on the range and features you want. [Source] By comparison, a Ford F150 EV could be $54K to $80K. A RIVIAN could be $73K to $98K. So, by that measure, the Nissan LEAF seems like a good value.

The only drawback to the Nissan LEAF is the smaller size and low ground clearance. Getting out of the car is like getting up from a bean bag chair. Larger vehicles seem easier to get in and out of.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Some auto manufacturers have partnered with municipalities and regions to make hydrogen cars and refueling stations readily available. This allowed for some small-scale test markets. For example, Honda had cars available for use in Southern California.

Hyundai is the current manufacturer providing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the 2023 NEXO Fuel Cell small SUV. There is a disclaimer on the Hyundai website stating: “Currently, 2023 NEXO Fuel Cell is available only at select California dealers.”

Hydrogen fuel cell cars offer a somewhat clean renewable fuel to replace gasoline. The hydrogen fuel is only as clean as the manner in which it is produced. If hydrogen is procured using coal, it won’t be as clean if it’s produced using wind, solar, or hydro power.

The video below provides more information about the Hyundai NEXO as it was in 2020.

Living Car-Free

The final miles driven in the Geo Metro were a trip to an auto salvage (junk yard) in Iowa City on Earth Day about 10 years ago. I was able to drive over 220,000 miles in that car. That’s almost the distance to the moon. I got $200 for the car. For about 7 years, I relied on bicycle, taxi, public transit, and rental cars for all my travel. The cost of taxis and rental cars was much less than owning a vehicle.

By living within biking or walking distance from work and close to a local grocery store, a vehicle simply wasn’t needed on a regular basis. I didn’t need to hassle with parking and maintaining a vehicle, or the other costs associated with car ownership such as insurance, registration, and fuel costs. That saved me a lot of money, and resulted in getting more exercise and time outdoors.

Further Reading

For more on the topic of cars, you can read Chapter 7 of Test Pattern for Living by Nicholas Johnson. Here is an excerpt:

“It’s like finally giving up cigarettes. You just wake up one morning and realize you don’t want to start the day with another automobile. Cigarette smoking is not a pleasure, it’s a business. In the same way, you finally come to realize that you don’t need General Motors, they need you. They need you to drive their cars for them. You are driving for Detroit and paying them to do it. Automobiles are just a part of your life that’s over, that’s all. No hard feelings. You’ve just moved on to something else. From now on you just use their buses, taxis, and rental cars when they suit your convenience. You don’t keep one for them that you have to house, feed and water, insure, and care for.”

“You ride a bicycle because it feels good. The air feels good on your body; even the rain feels good. The blood starts moving around your body, and pretty soon it gets to your head, and, glory be, your head feels good. You start noticing things. You look until you really see. You hear things, and smell smells, you never knew were there. You start whistling nice little original tunes to suit the moment. Words start getting caught in the web of poetry in your mind. And there’s a nice feeling, too, in knowing you’re doing a fundamental life thing for yourself: transportation. You got a little bit of your life back! And the thing you use is simple, functional, and relatively cheap. You want one that fits you and rides smoothly, but with proper care and a few parts it should last almost forever.” [More…]

Writing Style

The reference articles I write usually end up on the Resources For Life website or the Iowa City Tech website. Those are written in third person with an objective writing style. For writing that relies heavily on my personal experiences, those I share here on my personal About Greg Johnson website.

Thanks for taking time to read about my vehicle experiences. Feel free to contact me with any comments or questions. [Contact]

Preparing for what’s next…

In 1997, I established the website as an online venue for engaging in public interest work and supporting others who work to make the world a better place. 

To fund those efforts, rather than asking for donations, I planned to start businesses that would generate surplus revenue to cover the cost of my outreach efforts. That model worked well for 24 years.

Since there were no big-money donors or advertisers, I was unrestrained in the challenges I could undertake and the commentary I would write.

Through writings, videos, public speaking, and direct outreach, I hoped to positively impact education, the environment, healthcare, consumer rights, worker rights, housing, civic engagement, and other areas. 

One of my favorites areas of public interest work has been consumer advocacy. An example would be a negotiation I had with Apple that reduced the cost of a product by 90%. In 2003, the song American Pie was selling for $9.99 on iTunes (purchase of the entire album was required). I negotiated with Apple’s legal counsel at the time, arguing that their advertising promised songs for 99-cents. After an extended dialog over many days, I won that negotiation. My time was volunteered. I received nothing personally of monetary value, and there was no news coverage of the victory. But the satisfaction of having won against Apple still inspires me to this day. There were similar successes over the years and also some bewildering instances where companies would not back down from engaging in short-sighted, self-destructive practices.

In 2012, I launched the Threat News Radar project with the goal of tracking news of global issues that threatened the environment, human rights, government stability, and the world in general. By 2018, there were so many of these threats in the news that it was no longer possible to write individual articles about them. So, I would share the dozens of weekly stories through social media. It required less time to write a short summary and provide a link. Now, in 2021, there are so many of these reports daily that it’s not possible to keep up. 

In recent days, there have been reports of 1,200-year droughts as well as numerous 1,200-year floods around the world. Now there are websites dedicated to reporting on the massive floods we are witnessing globally. Fires in the west are creating thick haze and air quality issues impacting Chicago and even New York. Southwestern states are running out of water. A lack of interest in curtailing viral threats is resulting in cycles of more contagious variants of greater lethality. The seriousness and frequency of all these threats continue to increase. Last year in Iowa, we had a storm that left 300,000 people without power. 

Four days ago, more than 32,000 websites and apps went down, including those from Amazon, American Express, AT&T, Costco, FedEx, GoDaddy, LastPass, McDonald’s, UPS, US Bank, Vanguard, and about 32,000 others. It’s not yet known if this was the result of human error or malicious hacker activity. But does it really matter what the cause was? These incidents of massive outages and security breaches are increasing in frequency and impact.

The U.S. national debt continues to increase every second, with seemingly no concern that it be paid down. Regional population growth exceeds the availability of water and other resources required to support life. Indeed, the world population continues to grow at a rapid rate, resulting in regional scarcities that produce strife, war, and suffering.

Given the above facts, it’s even more important than ever that we not dwell on what’s wrong in the world. It’s also equally important that we not ignore global threats. Those of us who care should focus on solutions. We should do what we can to raise awareness and take positive action in our own lives.

For these reasons, in preparing for what’s next, I’m focused on pursuing minimalism and simplifying my life. I am getting rid of possessions I’m not using. I also am looking for ways to simplify my digital life. Over the past few days, I’ve reduced the website to a single simple webpage. It had grown to be too much for one person to manage, and much of the content was outdated. The cost in time and money to maintain the site was excessive, and the website in itself produced no revenue.

The global priorities and urgency have dramatically shifted, and we all need to adjust accordingly. I’m currently evaluating where my time and resources can be better invested to have the greatest positive impact in the world.

I’ll report more in the days to come about my plans for what’s ahead. I’ll continue to provide tech services since that is my personal area of expertise and the best way to help those who depend on me.


  • This article is part 3 in a series on the need for minimalism. Parts 1 and 2 are in my most recent monthly updates. [Part 1 | Part 2]
  • The photo above is from a visit to the Hoover Dam on 23 Dec 2019.
  • To signup for my short monthly email for news about what’s going on in my life, please click here.

Realization: Few things were actually essential

Like others during this global pandemic and the national emergency in America, I’ve been cutting back on non-essential activities and purchases.

In the process, I’ve started to realize that it’s all been kind of non-essential. So much that we’ve been spending our time and money and energy on, even much of the work and business activity has been non-essential.

Now we’re left with staying home reading books, painting, cooking, baking, gardening, composing music, and going for solitary walks in the park. Families are staying home and spending time together; playing board games, sharing meals, laughing. For those continuing to work, they are working from home.

We’re less ‘hurried’ and not so busy. Whatever it was we were doing that we thought was so important suddenly isn’t so important. Stress is relieved.

We’re acting like Scandinavians in our cleaning, scrubbing surfaces, and getting more tidy at home. There’s a city to the north of us that has instituted free public transit. Stores are dedicating special shopping times to focus on serving the elderly. Everyone is home schooling. No longer wasteful, at home people are becoming frugal and conserving on everything to make supplies last.

Somehow, overnight, America has become another country.

Is this how the world will be going forward?

For now, I’m heading out for my daily trail hike to take a few nature photos and reflect on this new world we live in.

# # #


Below, the short film Happiness portrays the world we’ve left behind.

Teachable Moments: Reflecting on 30 years at the University of Iowa

Three years ago, on 16 December 2015, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: I chose to resign from my career at the University of Iowa after decades of service. I decided to grow my own consulting business to become my primary source of income.

At the time, I didn’t say much about my decision to leave. Unfortunately, some changes in management resulted in the work becoming really unbearable, and I didn’t want to speak negatively of the University or any staff members at that time. As someone who writes regularly and transparently about my life experiences, my silence left some people wondering about the reasons for my departure.

I’m writing now to share some context and reflection as I look back on my work at the University. There were some valuable teachable moments that are worth sharing.

While my time at the University spanned over 30 years, those were not contiguous years of service. I’d spent time abroad as an undergrad and did other work after graduating. My cumulative service at the University was just over 20 years of employment.

This article is primarily about my employment and work-life at the University. In the future, I plan to write more about campus life as a student. My personal website serves as a kind of memoir written in real-time going forward and also sharing stories from the past. So, this article is part of a series of writings with that goal in mind.  

My First University Job

My first tech support job at the University of Iowa was as an undergrad working in a language lab computer cluster on campus. That job became an important part of my education. For me it was like a paid 4-year internship that gave me practical experience and skills I’d use for years to come. I kept that job until I graduated and it became a springboard for other opportunities.

There were a lot of inspiring academic experiences to be discovered on campus. I  won’t mention them all here. I’ll reserve that for another missive, but one experience really stands out.

As an undergrad, I was grateful to have been able to take an interdisciplinary course with three professors teaching a group of 12 students. David Baldus (a law professor), Dr. John MacQueen (a medical doctor), and Alan Nagel (the head of the English Department at the time). We focused on “Hard Cases in English Literature” discussing historic ethical and legal challenges raised in classic literature. Having a 4:1 student to teacher ratio, made the class more personable compared to a lecture hall with a 500:1 student-teacher ratio.

After graduating, I moved away briefly for my first job as a non-student and spent several years working in San Francisco and then in the Washington D.C. area for a retail electronics and computer company. A few years later I returned to Iowa City.

College of Law

I was fortunate to be available in the early 1990s when an opportunity came up to work at the College of Law installing and then supporting the computer network and user community there. After 18 months, I was ‘scouted’ by what is now called ITS – the central campus IT services group who offered me a raise to join a network services team.

The College of Law eventually hired 5 people to provide the services I’d been offering. It made me feel good to know that I was delivering a significant value to the college. I’d been providing instantaneous support by using a voice pager messaging system before cellular phones were readily available. It was the same system being used by doctors at the time. I had a mobile services cart with all the tools and software needed to perform hardware and software support throughout the building. Eventually I had a 7-pound cellular phone that I put on the cart to make sure people could easily contact me with. Most support calls could be resolved in minutes over the phone which saved time and reduced frustrations. 

Donating to the University

At the College of Law, the paging system I was using, the cell phone, the tools, software, and even my own office computer and peripherals were all purchased with my own personal funds. This saved the college thousands of dollars, and allowed me to work with some fun technology that otherwise would not have been available due to limited funding. I purchased one of the first external writeable CD drives for about $1,200 and a scanner for about the same amount. 

I know my contributions don’t seem exceptional or significant when compared to the multi-million dollar donations made by those who have buildings named after them, but to me they seemed like something meaningful I could contribute.

I continued this practice of paying for all my supplies, services, and equipment over a span of 30 years, and even paying for some supplies and equipment to help others. From grad students on a budget to departments with limited funding, I offered cables, adapters, computer parts, printing services, all for no charge. Having instant ‘pre-approved’ access to any tools I needed to get my work done really helped create an efficiency in my workflow. I could just walk to the store, and in 5 minutes be back with whatever cable, adapter, or power cord was needed to get the job done. It supported my goal of instantaneous problem solving.

I was able to cover these costs with the additional income I had from my outside consulting business. I remember at one point, I was working a regular weekend gig that provided more income in a weekend than I earned all week at the University. Although the University didn’t pay as well as private companies and direct consulting clients, the benefits were good and the workplace culture was positive. This is how academic institutions have traditionally been able to attract and retain talented people willing to work for little less.

UIHC Consulting

I spent some time in the mid-1990s providing tech support to a department in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It was nice to be working for the University but getting paid as an independent contractor doing freelance work. I had a considerable amount of freedom to work on the projects assigned and I reported directly to the departmental administrator as well as to several doctors I was working with. That work paid well because there were not several layers of administration taking a cut of the budget between me and the department. I continued doing consulting and freelance work through 2001.

Language Media Center

In the late 1990s and into the year 2000, I was happy doing consulting work full-time, and probably would have continued, but one day I saw an ad for a job at the University working in the same language lab that I worked at as an undergrad. It prompted me to contact my old supervisor from 20 years prior. We had a good conversation reminiscing, and then she asked if I was calling about the job. I’d actually just called to visit, but the job did sound interesting and I decided to interview for the position. So, in the summer of 2001, I was back working at my old job, this time as a staff person rather than a student.

The Language Media Center was a really great place to be working given the experience and diversity of skills I’d developed over many years. I was able to flourish in the tech-side of multimedia while also supporting computers and people with a variety of support needs and abilities.

It was that ideal situation you hear about – where a person is paid to do what they enjoy. As a result, I’d spend 50 or 60 hours a week working at the LMC. There was always some project to work on or someone needing support. Back then we had extended hours and were open into the evenings and on weekends. People appreciated having some after-hours support, especially for evening events that took place in the building.

My supervisor was exceptional and knew how to equip, empower, and inspire people to achieve their best work. She hired smart, hard working, high caliber people, and then gave them the tools, training, and support they needed.

When the proper conditions are created, employees thrive. They go above and beyond what’s required or expected. That’s the context I was working in. It was really the best job and work environment I’d ever experienced. It’s that kind of workplace culture that encourages people to stay.

Wanting to give back more the University community, I joined with campus partners and organizations in common projects that served our department and division. This helped me ensure the practices, policies, and standards I was using were consistent with the broader IT community on campus. Sometimes tech people want to ‘do their own thing’ but I believed that standards were important for continuity and efficiency.

Flying Without Instrumentation

Robust organizations are data-driven and outcome-focused. Stakeholders are involved in decision making. Producers and consumers are partners in the governance process. Transparency is valued. Projects are collaborative. Teams and individuals cooperate. This is the kind of environment typically fostered in higher education institutions and successful businesses. As mentioned previously, this is the kind of workplace culture that attracts and retains talented hard working people.

Departments at the University are peer reviewed by members of other institutions. These reviews provide valuable insights into how academic units can perform more effectively and be better aligned with the University’s mission. When it came time to have our departmental review, I was eagerly awaiting the report – looking forward to getting some impartial feedback from the committee and suggestions on what we could be doing better.

The report was very positive. The committee concluded our department was providing services essential to the mission of the University. They determined we needed more space, more funding, and more staff. The College ignored the recommendations of the committee. We lost space and lost funding and had no increase in staffing. That was sort of a wake-up call for me. I couldn’t understand how someone could pay for an independent study, then reject the study once it was completed.

I share this story because it was an early indication to me that some aspects of the University’s character and culture were changing. As an employee, it made me feel less secure in my job and less confident about the fate of my department. Rather than acknowledging our contribution as reflected in the report, it seemed we weren’t being valued. Having space taken away from our group, instead of being given more, made our work more difficult.

When higher-level administrators ignore the findings and advice of colleagues from peer institutions, it’s like a pilot flying through a storm refusing to look at the instrumentation. If you’re on that airplane, you’ll feel a bit apprehensive. You might start clutching your life-vest.

It was then that I began to consider how I could make a lateral career move within the University if some high-level administrator on a whim decided to shut down our department.


I’ve been encouraged following the news of states like Tennessee where legislators are increasing the state’s investment in higher education. Programs like Tennessee Promise ensure that everyone capable of achieving an advanced degree can get one. This creates a valuable equity of workforce readiness that results in the state becoming a magnet for top-tier businesses and high paying jobs. Today Tennessee is home to the world’s fastest supercomputer that may find a cure for cancer.

Unfortunately, in Iowa, legislators are less enthusiastic about higher education and public education. Instead of investing more money, they are repeatedly shrinking our education budget by millions of dollars. As a result, academic institutions are looking for ways to cut back, and downsizing is an easy place to start.

I’ll share a few observations about the impact of downsizing.

In advance of an annual physical with my doctor, I’d called the hospital with a question. My call went to voicemail so I left a recorded message. I thought it was odd that nobody was available to answer the call. Several days went by, and I’d had no response to my request. Finally I spoke with a nurse at the hospital, and asked her why there was such a delay in having someone get back to me. She explained that she was the only person responding to calls because they had cut back on staff at the hospital. She said there were hundreds of patient calls she had to respond to. Some high-level administrator thought it would be a good idea to cut back on staffing to save money. As a result, employees were stressed, unhappy, and overworked. Patients were not getting quality care and service. This is an example of how bottom-line thinking and ‘downsizing’ can produce undesirable results.

In the building where I worked on campus from 2001 – 2015, we had a custodial team that would arrive around 4PM and spend the evening cleaning the building, leaving after midnight. Because our lab was open after 5PM, and I would often work in the evenings, I got to know the custodial staff. They were a good group of hard working people. Caring for the building took a lot of work. By 2015, the downsizing trend impacted our custodial team. One evening, I saw one of the custodial staff and asked where everyone else was. He told me they had reduced staffing and now he was the only one cleaning the building – one person doing the work of four or five. He didn’t seem happy about the situation.

It became increasingly common to see office staff working after hours. Requests for additional staffing were denied, and as people left, the vacancies were not filled. Work was shifted to the remaining staff people. So, this resulted in people feeling overworked. It was an easy way to save money: Eliminate a full-time position, and shift the work to existing employees, thus recuperating the payroll costs as savings. It probably made sense on paper, but when implemented didn’t produce good outcomes.

At one point, a department head passed away unexpectedly. This was a sad event for everyone in our building. The College refused to fill that person’s position, so that entire department suffered.

I share these examples of downsizing and bottom-line thinking not as a criticism, but as an observations and ‘teachable moments’ where initiatives designed to create a more lean organization went too far and produced undesirable outcomes.

Under New Management

I’d mention informally to someone that I had concerns about my present career path at the University because our department wasn’t getting the recommended support we needed, and my colleagues would all be retiring in a few years. In the climate of downsizing, and a seeming unwillingness by the part of administrators to be guided by impartial data and stated goals, I thought there was a likelihood my department could be phased out. I’d seen it happen with other departments on campus. I asked this person for some advice about my long-term plans.

They apparently thought I wanted to be immediately transferred into their organization under their management. That was their ‘takeaway’ from our meeting.

So, one day I arrived at work to discover that this person had abruptly transferred me to their organization – without any meetings or prior discussion with my colleagues or my supervisor about the impact on our academic unit. An ambush meeting was arranged with my supervisor who went to the meeting not knowing what it was about. It wasn’t an exploratory or fact finding meeting. A decision was made that impacted me, my colleagues, and my department – all without any input from us or coordinated planning ahead of time. My supervisor was upset with me, thinking that I’d take this action without consulting her first. It was a very poorly executed mess, and my first glimpse of how it would be working with this new manager.

Experiencing Downsizing

An IT person in my building who I think was feeling overworked decided to take a job outside the University. As part of the downsizing trend, I was asked to take on his full-time position while continuing in my old full-time position. I agreed to the arrangement because I’d grown to really enjoy working with everyone in the various departments in our building. I really believe I could apply hard work and innovation to do both jobs in the same way I supported the entire College of Law on my own.

I soon discovered that the job I’d agreed to take had in some respects been neglected for years. I found unapproved network hardware that had been installed years ago. There were new computers and unopened equipment that was supposed to have been delivered to faculty and staff that was just sitting in boxes for many months. The building inventory hadn’t been kept current, so computers assigned to one user would be in someone else’s office. There were computers in the building that were listed as being elsewhere on campus. It would take two or three people working full time to get the mess cleaned up.

I didn’t blame the person who I was replacing. It was clear to me that he had inherited much of the disorganization I found, and he was too overworked to improve the situation. I’d been in the building for almost 15 years and knew that many of these problems pre-dated his time working there.

Initially I tried applying herculean efforts to bring order to the situation, but I was being given greater responsibilities and duties across campus by my new manager. One service I was responsible for was used by thousands of undergrad students and their instructors so it was essential to make that a priority. It was beginning to look like it wouldn’t be humanly possible to get everything done even with working evenings and weekends.

A Master Class in Poor Management

Over several months in working with this new supervisor, I felt like I was taking a Master Class in what it means to be a poor manager. It was one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m purposefully omitting their name. For purposes of this story it doesn’t really matter who they were. What’s significant is the example of how poor management can cause businesses and institutions to lose some of their best people.

One of the first directives I was given by my new manager was to not respond promptly to support requests because this would establish the expectation that support could always be provided promptly. For the same reason, I was told not to answer emails after hours or on weekends. I was also told not to use my mobile phone, but instead to have people leave voicemail messages on my office phone – which would almost always be the case if I was out doing my job helping people in the building. Using the mobile phone had helped me answer simple support questions in real-time and avoid having support requests pile up.

These new directives would result in a substantial inefficiency in service delivery making my job almost impossible. There’s a misconception that providing exceptional and prompt service comes at a great cost. The fact is that prompt support benefits everyone and involves less work. Delays create inefficiency and frustration. Simple problems escalate into worse problems.

Another request was that I not help people with their personal computers and devices. That’s something that all of us had been doing in my department. We were a tech support center. We were tasked with providing user support for the various services and programs offered by the University. It was common for faculty and students to use their own devices for their academic work. If faculty members would take their computers to Best Buy or some other outside support provider, they could inadvertently compromise student data to snooping which is a potential violation of laws regulating privacy of student records (FERPA). If they had any health information on their computers, a data breach could violate HIPAA regulations. For example, an email from a student sharing healthcare information related to a request for accommodations.

On one occasion I requested time off for a doctor appointment. The supervisor asked me how much vacation time I’d be using for that doctor appointment. I explained that I planned to use sick leave for the doctor appointment – based on the prep and recovery instructions provided to me by the doctor. The supervisor said I would need to use vacation time rather than sick leave time for some of my time off. I had hundreds of hours of sick leave accumulated because I’d rarely taken time off work due to sickness. I typically worked even on occasions when didn’t feel great. So, to be told to use vacation time for health related time off was hard to understand. The supervisor defended their position by telling me that they had a similar procedure and didn’t need much time off. It was just bazaar.

In one meeting with some campus partners, the supervisor went off topic and criticized me for including my job title and support areas in my email signature. This was a common format used by everyone on campus, but for some reason the supervisor didn’t want others knowing the scope of my support responsibilities. The others in the room looked on with bewilderment. I explained that even if I didn’t have that information in my emails, it was posted on the main ITS website listing me as a contact for various campus services.

When I had my first performance review with this new supervisor, I received a good review, but it was clear to me from what was said that the supervisor had not contacted any of the primary administrators I worked with on a daily basis. After investigating this further, I found that the supervisor basically created my review out of thin air. Those who should have been consulted were upset to learn the review was completed without their input. I was upset as well because I’d worked on some important initiatives that I wasn’t getting credit for.

The few examples I’ve given here are mild and just the tip of the iceberg. It became clear to me that work-life under this new supervisor would be very unpleasant. I’d been an award winning member of the University community and I wanted to leave with the positive reputation I’d earned over three decades of hard work.

I share this experience because it was an important part of my experience at the University. I think it’s important to reflect on what conditions cause dedicated and talented people to leave.

I’ve had people ask me, “Why didn’t you do something about the situation?” Unfortunately, larger institutions and businesses often don’t have mechanisms in place for addressing and correcting problems with mid-level managers. If procedures exist, they are often ineffective. Employees are typically worried about retaliation, and rightfully so. A soured relationship with a supervisor can make work-life miserable, and result in a negative recommendation later – making getting another job difficult. So, most employees, even if they are dissatisfied just won’t say anything. Processes for grievances and whistle-blowing are intended to be confidential. If complaints quickly result in the supervisor being informed about what was said and who complained, then employees are even more reluctant to offer honest feedback about concerns. In this situation, because of IT support unification, had I moved to another department, I would have still been reporting to the same person. So, the only form of protest I had was to leave. Others had already left out of frustration, and I hoped that with more resignations eventually the exodus would bring attention to this person’s management shortcomings.


In November of 2015, Tristan Walker, the founder and CEO of Bevel, reached out with an offer to hire me. He had seen some of my writing and marketing work online. He and his team liked what I’d written about the company and products. The work with Bevel would be part-time marketing that could be done from my home in Iowa City. It was a perfect complement to my consulting work. So, I accepted the offer. At the time it also provided a positive explanation for leaving the University without having to speak about some other reasons I wanted to leave. The work with Bevel was rewarding. I still use their products. This month Bevel was acquired by Proctor & Gamble. It was enjoyable to be with the company fairly early on to see it grow.

The Decision to Leave

I decided if I was going to leave the University, I wanted to provide a full two-week notice. So, on 16 December 2015 I provided my resignation for December 31, knowing that it would provide a full month before classes would start again in mid January. In addition, I offered to come back and volunteer with my department to provide any additional training to team members there. Despite these efforts, my supervisor was critical of the timing saying I didn’t give them enough time to find a replacement.

I had one final meeting with the supervisor to complete the standard paperwork for off-boarding. Then unexpectedly the supervisor asked me to hand over a computer that had been assigned to me about 12 years prior. At first I didn’t even know what they were talking about. Then I recalled an old Windows computer that would have been sent to surplus years ago, but how would I prove that? I really didn’t want my University record to indicate there was an unaccounted for computer.

Fortunately my colleague kept impeccable records of all equipment sent to surplus, including dates, models, and serial numbers. She produced the record in minutes. The supervisor seemed surprised and a bit disappointed. It seemed to me it was an effort to get me in trouble. Then the supervisor asked about some other computers. They were all accounted for as well. They weren’t even computers assigned to me.

I found out later that I was supposed to be given a survey in which I would provide among other things feedback about my supervisor. That paperwork was not provided.

These departing experiences were a confirmation to me that I was doing the right thing and getting out just in time. It was a good feeling to finally have closure.


In December 2015, I made arrangements with my department to train my replacement and other staff members after my last day in order to ensure I’d have the time and focus to provide adequate training. 

So, I returned in January 2016 to volunteer with the Language Media Center, and those days of working with the department uninterrupted were really enjoyable. I felt bad about leaving and it was an opportunity to give something back and show appreciation for the many good years of working together.

UIOWA Apple Repair Center

In the summer of 2016 there was a half-time position open at the Apple computer repair center on campus in the Iowa Memorial Union. It would involve working with someone I’d known for many years and respected highly. So, I applied for the job and was hired. Before repairing any computers, I went through the official Apple training program to become an authorized repair technician.

I really enjoyed working at the repair center. There were no meetings to attend. Nobody was calling on the phone. I had no emails to answer other than a few customer questions. It was restful and rewarding work. I could just focus on repairing computers. We were providing convenience and value that people really seemed to appreciate.

I learned a lot from the manager of the repair center. Not only about Apple repairs, but also about exceptionalism in management and operations. He taught by example.

I continued working at the IMU into the fall semester, but the demands of my growing consulting business made it impractical to continue working there.


Overall, my experience at the University of Iowa was positive, both as a student, and as an employee across multiple campus centers and departments. So, I’d highly recommend UIOWA for anyone considering an education or career there.

I promised at the outset of this writing that there would be teachable moments, and there really have been. Over the years I’ve learned that exceptional managers can make a world of difference. A rewarding work-life can change a person’s life. I’ve had many excellent managers over the years, and I can reflect now with greater gratitude for each of them.

I’m grateful to have been inspired and empowered through my time at the University. At a young age, I not only learned important skills, but the importance of service to the world around me. 

I’ll close with a quote that’s engraved in the entryway of the Iowa Memorial Union that I think describes the impact of higher education for many people. It’s consistent with my experience as a student and later as a staff person on campus – being inspired by the UIOWA community to live a life of service.

“If this magnificent structure is to fulfill the dreams out of which it has arisen, it can only do so by stirring the impulses of the young men and women of Iowa to lives of service to mankind.”

~ James Weaver, 1926

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