Harreld hit with series of questions at UI Town Hall

Bruce Harreld speaks at the UI Town Hall meeting on Feb. 23 -- photo by Adam Burke
Bruce Harreld speaks at the UI Town Hall meeting on Feb. 23 — photo by Adam Burke

At the first of several planned University of Iowa town hall meetings, the atmosphere turned heated as community members had a chance Tuesday to ask new UI President Bruce Harreld questions.

The crowd partially filled the lecture hall in the Pomerantz Center with protestors on the perimeter and in the front of the room holding signs reading “Resign,” “To Hell with Harreld” and “Is tenure secure?”

Harreld, who’s been a divisive figure since the Board of Regents announced him as the new UI president last September, delivered an opening presentation. “I’d like to start a dialogue and conversation about what we do about it and hopefully we’ll start coming together as a community,” he said. The question, he emphasized, setting the tone for the event, was “Where do we go next?”

By various metrics, including faculty research funding, awards and salaries, UI has slipped in rankings, indicating “a downward shift in our performance,” according to Harreld.

UI has also fallen 22 spots in the US News & World Report rankings. In terms of faculty salaries, between 2006 and 2016, the university has dropped 20 slots. Harreld said he’d been talking about this “rapidly declining situation” across Iowa, with the legislature and regents. “The core of an institution like this are our people,” he said. “I think if we can’t retain and recruit the best talent, it’s an issue.” He’d asked the legislature for $4.5 million dollars to assist with a faculty vitality program, he said: “I have my fingers crossed … But it’s tough. Maybe we need to find other ways to solve this problem.”

The first barbed exchange of the event occurred less than 20 minutes in, as Harreld continued praising the faculty and staff: “I’m betting [they] are nothing but world class people.” An audience member in the front row laughed loudly at this remark. Harreld replied, “Even you, m’am.” She replied, “I’m talking about you .. I don’t work here.” Harreld replied, “I’m not surprised,” prompting rumbling and applause from the audience.

He resumed his talk, praising increasing enrollments but also reiterating the university’s slide and the loss of nearly 100 faculty members, as well as a decline in morale. “So the question becomes, what are we going to do?”

A different audience member stood up and interjected. “Sir, you just insulted someone,” he said. “… and now you’re wondering about morale.” Applause came from the audience. “Excuse me, sir,” Harreld replied, “These signs that are standing up are insulting me.”

Protestors at the UI Town Hall meeting on Feb. 23 -- photo by Adam Burke
Protestors on the perimeter of the room. — photo by Adam Burke

Continuing his presentation and speaking over periodic shouts from the front row audience member, Harreld addressed new revenue sources, including new programs, increased philanthropy and tuition. “Important pieces of this institution are being squeezed fiscally.”

He listed UI’s priority needs as faculty compensation and support, the protection of critical areas like the Writers Workshop, UIHC and student mental health services, as well as new interdisciplinary areas.

Finishing his speech, Harreld said he didn’t “like that option,” of maintaining the institution’s current downward trajectory. “I look forward to working with you.”

Provost Barry Butler and Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz then took the podium for a presentation on the university’s strategic plan for 2016-2021, during which the audience was more muted. The initial steps for the plan, they said, were to agree on the most pressing issues, develop a clear strategic and execution plan, and build ongoing accountability.

Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin then addressed student housing. The undergraduate housing issue, he said, was capacity, while the graduate student housing issue was affordability. Until the new Madison St. residence hall is completed in 2017, adding more than 1,000 new beds, the university will have to increase the number of students in dorm rooms, place some of them in expanded housing (“a nice name for living in a lounge,” Rocklin said), make available more leased apartments for returning undergraduates and institute a temporary lottery system for sophomores and up, who will for one year not be guaranteed university housing.

Rocklin called the contentious issue of graduate housing a “vexing problem,” saying, “We don’t have an answer on campus.” A graduate housing task force will deliver a report with policy and practice recommendations this summer.

By the time the Q&A portion of the town hall began, some members of the audience seemed impatient. All of the questions were directed at Harreld. Several referred back to scandals that have drawn attention since his appearance on the UI campus, including a perceived lack of transparency around his hiring and an incident in which he joked that unprepared teachers “should be shot.”

Harreld with a front-row protestor. -- photo by Adam Burke
Harreld with a front-row protestor. — photo by Adam Burke

The first audience member to speak said Harreld had “displayed a pattern of sexist and dismissive behavior towards women on this campus,” citing several examples. “Is this something that you intend to address, specifically with your crisis communications consultant?”

Harreld’s response: “No.” After applause and a cry of, “Answer the damn question,” from the front row audience member, he said, “Next question.”

The next question addressed the much-debated presidential search process. “Given this perception, how does this address your function?” the attendee asked. “And how do you help us erase this part of our memory?”

“[I can’t] speak to the search process, only what I experienced,” Harreld said. “I think I’m here because I really do care about major public research institutions. And in spite of the haranguing here … I hope we can actually get to work and start dealing with some of the issues we face as an institution.”

At one point, a student from the political science and communications department approached the mic and addressed the audience, condemning their behavior. “Disruption serves a political purpose, you all should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said before addressing students and faculty “aligned with black revolutionary politics inside of this room who I have sat in meetings with. The reason that I left, the reason that I’ve never engaged politically with any of y’all is because y’all don’t know how to fucking act.” Turning back to Harreld, he posed a question about Harreld’s lack of experience in higher education. The president’s response referenced applicable experience, including “dealing with complex situations and getting to the essence of them.”

Another attendee noted Harreld’s extensive public discussion of faculty, but asked if he had a plan to “promote and support and retain staff.” Harreld responded that staff “Play a very, very important role,” but compared the structure of the university to a hospital. He said when faculty, like doctors, “aren’t really functional,” there’s a trickle-down effect. “Let’s actually deal with it in the appropriate order,” he said.

John Solow, the chair of the economics department in the Tippie College of Business, who said he’d been at UI for 34 years, said he was disappointed in the meeting. “I didn’t really come here to hear about what’s going on with the undergraduate housing crisis. We are looking for a vision,” he said. “What I heard was, things are pretty bad, we need to start cutting stuff. Let’s start figuring out who’s getting on the lifeboats and who’s not.”

“The answers to that are here already in our community,” Harreld said, emphasizing that, “it’s not my vision, it’s our vision.” He said he wasn’t talking about cutting, but prioritizing. As the audience started to talk over him, he said, “There’s a difference … you could take resources and put more of them over other areas than in all areas at the same time.” As the audience began to laugh, he insisted, “That’s not a cut.”

The tone continued to sour. When asked about support for graduate students and what Harreld could to do reverse the trend of decreasing graduate enrollment, the president replied, “What do you think we should do?” The student responded, “I’m not paid over half million dollars to think about it.”

An undergraduate approached the microphone and began to deliver an impassioned account of being black on campus. “We face a culture where we’re told we’re not accepted,” he said, citing the exploitation of black football players and a resource center that hasn’t been renovated since the 1960s. “We face classrooms where not only do we see peers that don’t look like us or come from backgrounds, we don’t have faculty that come from our backgrounds or look like us, we face micro-agressions in these classrooms, we’re called racial slurs in the dorms, we’re called racial slurs at fraternity houses, we’re called racial slurs downtown at night, we’re called racial slurs in classrooms. We face resource gaps, we face capital gaps, we face network gaps. This being said, what is your plan to address this? Because it’s not profitable for black students to be accommodated, but it’s just.”

Harreld promised that he shared the student’s concern: “As I walk around this campus and observe, I actually think we don’t celebrate, respect diversity nearly enough in all ranks of the institution.” He said each issue need to be addressed. “Please come, please get involved, engage us, help us work this out.”

But the student replied that the problems were long-standing and earlier attempts hadn’t solved them. “We’ve been doing a lot of talking,” he said. “I’m honestly tired of being told to keep coming to conversations.” As Harreld pressed on with request for engagement in the process, the asker cited midterms and other student concerns. “It’s kind of busy,” he said. “And you guys are being paid money” to address the problems.

Landon Storrs, a history professor, referenced a projection that by 2029 there might be no state appropriations for the university. “We may be taking take this decreasing and dwindling down to nothing … as a fact and the new status quo, not as a choice.” She hoped the president of a public university would address these concerns.

Harreld agreed and said he would “be out there aggressively.” He said he’d been “trying to do all I can,” but “we need to consider a plan B or C.”

At one point during the Q&A portion of the event, an audience member approached Harreld’s podium and addressed the crowd. “We have been duped and we are being duped, even now. We are being played. How can we expect anything fruitful to come from such a rotten tree? Harreld is a mere branch on this rotten tree. The roots are systems designed to disenfranchise, silence, marginalize and exclude … This particular problem has gone on too long,” he said. “We have to start somewhere, the trail of corruption leads all the way to the governor’s door … They [the regents and Governor Terry Branstad] have made clear that cronyism is the law of the state. The only thing I have to say to you, Bruce Harreld, is will you resign today?”

“No, I’m going to resign in November 2020,” Harreld replied, referring to the end of his contract.

The speaker, an organizer with the Iowa Black Liberation Action Collective, announced the launch of “Operation: Fire Harreld,” calling on community members to “choose a side.” The crowd began shouting at this point, including some obscenities from the assertive front-row audience member.

At this point, the questions turned toward Harreld’s hiring. One attendee called it an “embarrassment” and said it was not entirely Harreld’s fault but that his “authority and reputation have been compromised.” He asked if Harreld might keep “an open mind about stepping aside for the good of the state.” In response, Harreld said, “Thank you.”

Another audience member said, “I think you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He said Harreld lacked the right vision for the institution and added, “You’d do us a lot better and you’d do you a lot better if you resign.”

The town hall came to a close shortly after two hours. According to Harreld, there will be another town hall later in the spring, and one again in the early fall.