Letter: Harreld appointment undermines rather than building on past greatness

It’s a new day at the University of Iowa. That’s what the Iowa Board of Regents are saying about the selection of the new UI President and former corporate executive Bruce Harreld, a candidate that they actively recruited and who appeared to have inside favor. I wish him well actually. I’m sure he is a smart and capable person. Oddly, the problem and controversy here is not personal, even though his selection and the process involved epitomizes a seismic shift in higher public education.

Terry Brandstad’s Board of Regents made little pretense in this charade of a selection process. The last UI presidential search took months. This one took 2 weeks. The regents claim it was an open process, and it was. Open for everyone to see how transparently predetermined, rushed and without serious vetting it was. Perhaps we can dispense with the formalities next time and just have Gov. Brandstad anoint the next UI president.

He will make $60,000 more than former president Sally Mason and was offered a guaranteed tenure position; this for someone who, by any reasonable standard and by his own admission, has neither the training nor the experience for this job.

That Mr. Harreld had a 2.5 percent faculty approval rating after the four candidates had presented themselves to the UI community is widely known. The other candidates were in the high 80 and 90 percentile. The regents flagrantly ignored any “faculty input” and put their guy in. He will make $60,000 more than former president Sally Mason and was offered a guaranteed tenure position; this for someone who, by any reasonable standard and by his own admission, has neither the training nor the experience for this job.

Yes, it’s a new day here at the UI, and it can be summed up in one word: “numbers.” High enrollment classes (i.e., the most popular) are kept; those that the marketplace deems unworthy are removed, regardless of quality or content. Lofty mission statements now ring hallow as the three once proud Iowa universities grovel and compete for the same lucrative Iowa student. And how do you capture this prized native? By marketing of course. Glitzy ad campaigns and shinny pamphlets will promote the coolness and fabulous facilities of each school. It’s all about making the Iowa student happy and confident that the commodity they (and their parents) are buying is worth it. Considering Mr. Herrald’s expertise in corporate branding, his appointment makes perfect sense.

When president Harreld and the regents laud the UI as a great university, do they stop to consider how it got that way? Was it a vibrant and motivated community of professors (both tenure and non-tenure), inspired department heads, dedicated professional staff, gifted graduate students, leading researchers and a student body that was region-friendly but also international and diverse? Were past presidents experienced administrators who understood the value of shared governance and the role of true public higher education? Were the universities properly funded by the state as a shared public benefit?

But this a new day and we are told that “fundamental change” is required, as the “status quo is unsustainable.” Yes, innovation and growth is essential for any institution. But Mr. Herreld’s presidential anointment does not build on past greatness; it undermines it. The diverse liberal arts education that a healthy democracy requires, the kind that has benefited all Iowans since 1847, is not compatible to the bottom line mentality of a cash starved UI Inc™. Iowans should consider what this new day brings. Who profits? Who wins? Who benefits? Unless you’re in that select group of connected, corporate businessmen that get personal phone calls from the Governor, it won’t be you.

James Dreier, Lecturer, University of Iowa

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