When the announcement came on Sept. 3 that the Iowa Board of Regents had unanimously selected J. Bruce Harreld — a corporate executive with no experience in higher education administration—to be the 21st president of the University of Iowa, the vitriol came swiftly.
COGS, the UI’s graduate student union, released a statement condemning Harreld’s selection within hours of the announcement, arguing that “the hiring process was hijacked by the Board of Regents, resulting in a breakdown of the shared governance system with the University of Iowa faculty.” Faculty members, meanwhile, took to social media and local news outlets to express their frustration, while numerous Harreld parody accounts popped up on Twitter to lampoon the newcomer.
The overwhelmingly negative response should come as little surprise to the regents. Though Harreld touts a lengthy resumé in the business world, having served as an executive for Kraft General Foods and IBM, as well as a lecturer for both Northwestern University and the Harvard Business School, the incoming president has no experience running an educational institution—let alone an institution with well over 20,000 enrolled students. Doubts over Harreld’s qualifications came to the fore when, just prior to his selection, a now-infamous, voluntary poll conducted by the American Association of University Professors’ UI chapter found that less than two percent of faculty respondents saw Harreld as being qualified for the presidency.
In contrast, the other three candidates—Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov and Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz—all received faculty approval ratings above 90 percent. Steinmetz was the most popular candidate, receiving approval from 97.6 percent of faculty respondents.
With such wide approval margins separating Harreld from the other three candidates, the Board of Regents’ announcement that Harreld would replace Sally Mason as the next UI president left critics stunned. Residents and faculty alike were left scratching their heads, wondering how the least popular—and least experienced—candidate could have possibly secured the presidency.
Harreld, meanwhile, offered up a brief statement through the UI’s press office. “I am truly happy to be here,” he said, calling his appointment an honor and a “watershed moment for a great institution.” Given the fierce response he and the regents have received thus far, one has to wonder how happy Harreld is feeling at the moment.
On Sept. 8, following a long Labor Day weekend, the University of Iowa Faculty Senate met in the Old Capitol’s Senate Chambers to discuss the divisive appointment, as well as future steps. News that the UI’s incoming president had virtually zero approval among existing faculty made for a eye-catching headline, and the story quickly found purchase among national news outlets.
The meeting was somber to start, with opening remarks from Faculty Senate President Christina Bohannan that sounded more like a eulogy than an introduction.
“This has been, I think, one of the most difficult things that this university has faced, certainly in the time that I’ve been here,” Bohannan said, opening up what would eventually become a two-hour meeting. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking for all of us, and I think that … this university has been betrayed. Faculty, staff, students. All betrayed.”
Bohannan’s voice trembled slightly as she spoke. Her demeanor wasn’t that of outrage, but rather, bleak disappointment. She mentioned that at the outset of the search process, the Faculty Senate advocated for an open search with as much faculty involvement as possible.
“We wanted to represent faculty voice, and we wanted to do the very best we could to represent faculty well—to give faculty credibility in the process,” she said. “And I can tell you that at every step along the way, that is what the faculty involved in this did.”
“We did not get the result we wanted,” Bohannan continued. A closed search might have been preferable after all, she said, lamenting the amount of faculty time and resources that were poured into the vetting process. “It would have been preferable to where we are right now, because we would have gotten to the exact same result. And the problem with this so-called open search is that it dragged a lot of faculty down with them.”
Bohannan, speaking to a room packed with press, public and faculty members, said the search process had failed.
“It failed because the regents did not listen,” she said. “The regents said that they wanted faculty involved in this process. They said that they wanted to hear from us, and that they respected our viewpoints, and in the end, they clearly did not. That’s it.”
Bohannan said the Faculty Senate did what they could to “get those faculty voices heard.”
“We did our absolute best to represent you in good faith, and I’m sorry that it didn’t work,” she said.
Indeed, faculty voices were heard, whether from the Faculty Senate or other feedback opportunities. During a Harreld Q&A vetting session held prior to his appointment, the candidate was hit with a flurry of tough questions about his lack of education administration experience, not to mention some resumé fact-checking questions on behalf of UI Communications Professor and Little Village columnist Kembrew McLeod. When asked why he listed a business on his resumé that does not actually exist—Colorado-based Executing Strategy, LLC—Harreld clarified that he put it there by mistake, and that the company was actually a Massachusetts-registered organization that he used “quite a while ago” for consulting work.
“I too quickly pulled it from out of my head and put it on the resumé,” he said, noting that the business had lapsed in Massachusetts some time ago. “There is no Colorado corporation. I live in Colorado. That’s my post office box … It’s me, personally.”
McLeod later asked Harreld if he was “putting us on.”
In an apparent effort to soften the blow, the UI’s Office of Strategic Communication released a joint statement two days after the forum—the morning of Harreld’s appointment—chastising the manner in which some attendees vetted the prospective president.
The statement, issued by the UI Faculty Council, Staff Council, Student Government and Graduate and Professional Student Government, carries an oddly parental quality, finger-wagging at the UI community for its bad behavior.
“UI shared governance groups regret that while many members of the UI community asked thoughtful questions at Mr. Bruce Harreld’s town hall forum, some of the questions transformed a vigorous debate into a hostile atmosphere,” the statement read, before calling on the UI community to honor the “respectful exchange” of ideas. “Many of our constituents were embarrassed by these comments and felt they were not characteristic of the UI community as a whole.”
At the Sept. 8 Faculty Senate meeting, attendees were quick to point out that these lines of inquiry were well-warranted. As discussion opened to the floor, at least two dozen faculty members, instructors and department heads spoke out. For many in the room, the appointment represented a brash display of cronyism between Gov. Branstad and the Iowa Board of Regents.
“This is Iowa,” said Philosophy Department Chari David Cunning. “We just don’t do that sort of thing here.”
“We are outraged, we are disgusted, we are so very hurt,” said COGs Publicity Chair Ruth Bryant.
Christopher Brochu, professor at the UI’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, called the appointment “wasteful” and “dishonest.” He questioned fiscal responsibility of bringing in candidates who seemed to have no real chance of being selected.
“They hired a consulting agency that failed to catch glaring errors in his resume,” Brochu pointed out, exasperated.
The faculty comments continued on for another hour, with the vast majority of criticism leveled at the regents. Comments were repeatedly met with waves of applause from fellow faculty members. Many argued that Harreld’s appointment is symptomatic of the real issue: A lack of transparency between state officials, the Iowa Board of Regents and UI faculty.
Indeed, a Sept. 3 article by Iowa City AP correspondent Ryan Foley points out that Harreld was initially recruited by members of a search committee. Of the four candidates, Foley notes that Harreld was the only candidate to receive a call from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad during the selection process. Branstad claims he reached out to Harreld after the candidate contacted Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter to inquire about the governor’s support for the UI. A Branstad spokesman told Foley that the call was innocuous, noting that governor did not endorse any candidates during the selection process. The Faculty Senate’s Sept. 8 meeting made it clear, however, that UI faculty are far from convinced.
The fact that the Board of Regents is a governor-appointed board, with Rastetter himself appointed by Branstad in 2011, weighed heavy on the night’s discourse. And how could it not? After all, the regent’s decision to appoint Harreld as the 21st UI president despite overwhelmingly negative approval ratings and feedback among faculty was, for many, perplexing at best. The Faculty Senate tried to make sense of the decision, though opaque selection details and non-disclosure agreements made any real consensus impossible—at least for the time being.
As the meeting continued, one thing had become abundantly clear: The Faculty Senate had completely lost faith in the Board of Regents’ ability to ethically exercise shared governance.
Discussion soon turned to strategy, as faculty members proposed holding a vote of no confidence against the regents. Though Faculty Senate members acknowledged that such a vote would carry no real authority beyond the gesture itself, advocates framed the vote as the first step in an ongoing campaign against exclusionary governance.
A few faculty members raised doubts about the impact such a vote might have (both in terms of efficacy and public relations). In response, one instructor pointed out that, given the regent’s apparent disregard for the views of the UI faculty, what’s the harm in a loud, visceral response? After all, he continued, a slow and methodical approach has yielded the Faculty Senate little progress thus far. Symbolic gestures are important too, stressed another faculty member. Others pointed to previously issued statements from organizations like COGS, arguing that it was time for the Faculty Senate to join the fight. For some time, the discussion lingered on how such a vote would come across in the media.
Earlier in the night, Faculty Senate President Bohannan helped make the case when she articulated her most recent interactions with the board. Prior to Harreld’s appointment, Bohannan said she reached out to its members in a “last-ditch attempt to be absolutely clear about the choice that was before them, and what was at stake.”
“We communicated in no uncertain terms that there was just no support for that fourth candidate, Mr. Harreld,” Bohannan said. “We couldn’t have said it any plainer. We also communicated to the regents that the choice of the candidate who lacked any real faculty support—and not just faculty support, [but] student or staff support; it’s unanimous—we said the choice of that candidate would destroy any relationship between the faculty, the Faculty Senate and the regents.”
“Again, we couldn’t have said it any plainer,” she said.
Following Harreld’s appointment, Bohannan sent a strongly worded response to Rastetter.
“I sent him a message saying that he betrayed our university, that he betrayed the faculty, the staff, the students, the search committee, the faculty senate officers, and he betrayed me,” Bohannan said. “We had talked about the value of that feedback, and clearly it didn’t matter. And at this point, I communicated that any trust that might have existed between the Faculty Senate and the Board of Regents is broken.”
Following Bohannan’s comments and nearly two hours of faculty discussion, the Faculty Senate’s motion to issue a vote of no confidence in the Board of Regents finally came to the floor—the first such vote in nearly a decade. The energy in the room was palpable at this point, and when the motion came a vote, it passed quickly.
What’s next for Harreld and the UI?
Later that evening, the UI Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Government followed suit, passing their own votes of no confidence. The following day, the UI Staff Council drafted and approved a letter of disappointment to the Board of Regents, expressing their own frustration with the board’s disregard for faculty input.
A protest against the regents is set for Oct. 21 inside the Iowa Memorial Union, meanwhile. The event will take place in conjunction with a Board of Regents meeting, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 20-21 in Iowa City.
In one sense, the presidential appointment will continue on as normal, with Harreld set to assume the UI presidency this November. Until then, his involvement in the fray will likely remain minimal. Upon requesting an interview with the incoming president, UI officials told Little Village that Harreld won’t be taking interviews until he settles into his position this fall.
As far as the Faculty Senate goes, the organization’s fight against the Board of Regents has only just begun, assuming its members stay vigorous. Much of the Sept. 8 meeting involved media strategy and PR discussion, with faculty members expressing their eagerness to continue the conversation well into the months ahead, involving both on and off-campus constituencies like parents and alumni. And although Faculty Senators were quick to acknowledge that a vote of no confidence may have little, if any, impact on the Board of Regents, the alternative—to sit back and go along quietly—was deemed unacceptable. In the days since, some UI faculty members have proposed forming a union as well, the Press-Citizen reports.
The Board of Regents wasted little time in making their disapproval of the no confidence vote known.
“After listening to all stakeholder feedback as well as having frank conversations with each of the candidates, the board unanimously thought Bruce Harreld’s experience in transitioning other large enterprises through change, and his vision for reinvesting in the core mission of teaching and research, would ultimately provide the leadership needed,” Rastetter said in a statement released hours after the vote.
“We are disappointed that some of those stakeholders have decided to embrace the status quo of the past over opportunities for the future and focus their efforts on resistance to change instead of working together to make the University of Iowa even greater.”
Rastetter, who was appointed by the longest serving governor in the history of Iowa, is advocating against the status quo.
Drew Bulman is probably looking for his next article to write. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at @drewbulman. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 184.