Tom Vilsack (file photo)

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack today said it’s time to move the three state universities “to the next level.” Vilsack was asked during a taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program if he’d be interested in becoming the next president of Iowa State University.

“I don’t have a pilot’s license,” Vilsack replied. The show’s host laughed. One reporter said: ‘Oh, my.” The other reporter on the program said: “Touche.”

Vilsack was referring to outgoing Iowa State president Steven Leath’s piloting of a university-owned plane and subsequent questions about a “hard landing” that caused damage.

Vilsack just completed eight years as President Obama’s ag secretary and he’s currently leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council, but in December, Vilsack said he was interested in working with students. Today, Vilsack suggested that is not the role of a university president these days.

“You can be the president of a university, but what exactly are you doing? Well, it’s sort of like running for president,” Vilsack said. “Half the time you’re raising money and the other half of your time you’re in meetings and so forth and you’re directing a very large organization.”

Vilsack did offer advice to the future president of ISU and the people in charge of all three public universities.

“I have had the chance and privilege of going to a lot of universities in my prior position. I think we too often in this state are satisfied with good, but not great,” Vilsack said. “I think our universities are good, but I think they could be great.”

If the University of Iowa, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa could get to that “next level,” Vilsack said the universities could be “incredible drivers” of creativity, innovation, new economic opportunities and excitement about the entire state of Iowa.

“When the football season begins at the University of Iowa or Iowa State, do we think our teams will compete for the national championship or are we just satisfied if they get to a bowl game? I’ll tell you, you go to Ohio State, you go to Michigan — it’s not about competing in a bowl game in January. It’s about winning a national championship and I think that’s an attitude we need to develop more of in this state,” Vilsack said.

“We are humble. We are aw-shucks kind of folks. We don’t want a lot of attention, but the reality in this world if you want to attract bright young people, you want to retain your bright young people — you’ve got to give them a sense that you are committed to being great.”

Vilsack served two terms as Iowa’s governor and left state office in January of 2007. Vilsack today said you “never say never” in politics, but he says it’s doubtful he’ll ever be a candidate for public office again.

Iowa Public Television will broadcast Vilsack’s interview next Friday evening.