Leadership & Governance

A Controversial Search Ends With a Controversial Chief for the U. of Iowa

Tim Schoon, U of Iowa

J. Bruce Harreld greets people on the Iowa City campus after his selection as the U. of Iowa’s next president was announced. He vowed to reach out to those who have criticized his lack of academic leadership experience.
September 04, 2015

Two days after faculty members peppered J. Bruce Harreld with questions about his qualifications to run a major research university, Iowa’s statewide Board of Regents named him on Thursday as president of the University of Iowa.

Mr. Harreld is a business consultant and speaker and a former executive at several multinational corporations, and has taught at Harvard’s business school. But he has no experience in higher-education leadership — a fact that riled many rank-and-file faculty members, who described the appointment as the Board of Regents’ latest attack on the state’s flagship university.

The nine-member board announced its decision Thursday afternoon, after interviewing the four finalists for the position earlier in the day. The other three candidates — two provosts and a college president — have traditional academic backgrounds.

Mr. Harreld, who is 64, will succeed Sally K. Mason, who retired on August 1 after leading the university for eight years. The regents signed Mr. Harreld to a five-year contract, and he’ll make $590,000 annually.

Ms. Mason has had a strained relationship with the regents during much of her tenure. And over the past year, the board had tried to impose a new model for allotting state money to the state’s three universities, proposing initially to take millions of dollars away from Iowa and give them to the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University.

Some faculty members and others raised fears that Mr. Harreld would simply be an ally of the board, by agreeing to such cuts in the name of efficiency, effectiveness, and transformation.

"Someone who has not had academic administrative experience, just those things make me not have as much confidence in how the person is going to serve as our president," said Cornelia C. Lang, an associate professor of physics and astronomy.

At a news conference just after his appointment was announced, Mr. Harreld acknowledged the tensions over his background and vowed to reach out to those who had criticized him. When a healthy shared-governance structure is in place, he said, "I think the risk of hiring someone like me is much lower."

Testy Exchanges

Mr. Harreld’s appearance at a public forum on the flagship’s Iowa City campus this week included tough questions about his qualifications and his background.

At that forum, Kembrew McLeod, a professor of communication studies, had a contentious exchange with Mr. Harreld about where Executing Strategies, a consulting firm that Mr. Harreld created last year, was registered. While his résumé located the firm in Avon, Colo., Mr. Harreld’s hometown, the firm is in fact based in Massachusetts.

"It’s really bizarre that he didn’t take the time to carefully vet his résumé that he’s submitting for a university president’s job, and then he’s hired to become president two days later," Mr. McLeod said.

After the event, the university released a joint statement from groups of faculty, students, and staff stating that some of the questions Mr. Harreld faced had "transformed a vigorous debate into a hostile atmosphere."

But there is other evidence of widespread concern about Mr. Harreld’s qualifications. The university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors released poll numbers showing that less than 3 percent of responding faculty members believed Mr. Harreld was qualified for the president’s job. Several faculty members said they were shocked that those numbers didn’t dissuade the regents from appointing him.

"We would anticipate and hope and indeed expect that the regents would consider and take into account our point of view, which I think we made entirely clear," said John M. Logsdon, an associate professor of biology.

Ignoring faculty members’ opinions on the search won’t help morale on the campus, which is already low, Mr. Logsdon said.

"He’s going to need to find a way to engage with faculty, students, and staff in a way that is not combative and that is productive," Mr. Logsdon said.

Opposition to Mr. Harreld’s candidacy was not unanimous, however. Kevin P. Campbell, a department chair and professor of microphysiology and biophysics, said he was a rare professor on the campus who was excited about Mr. Harreld’s appointment. Mr. Campbell met with him and a small group of medical-school professors on Tuesday, and said he thought Mr. Harreld showed the ability to bring groups together.

Some administrators, such as leaders of Iowa’s health-care operation, also viewed Mr. Harreld’s appointment as a positive development for the institution.

"I was actually tickled pink," said Kenneth L. Fisher, associate vice president for finance at the University of Iowa Health Care.

The hospitals and clinics at the university make up about half of the institution’s overall $3.5-billion budget, and Mr. Harreld could be instrumental in helping those operations to thrive in a fast-changing environment, Mr. Fisher said.

"We view health care as a business, and I think his core understanding of how business runs will be helpful and give us an ally we have not had," he said.

Reaching Out

Mr. Harreld said during his news conference that he wanted first to reach out to those on the campus who don’t think he’s qualified for the top job. He said that teaching and research are where the "big payoff" is for the university.

He also spoke of how senior faculty members spend their time, and said that the university doesn’t have enough senior professors who teach. He said he would talk with professors and the provost, P. Barry Butler, about topics like new learning models and balancing teaching and research.

Faculty members weren’t surprised to have a nontraditional candidate like Mr. Harreld in the mix, but they worry that his experiences don’t line up with those that they feel should be valued at a large, public institution.

"The reason a lot of people choose to work here is because they don’t want to work in a private, profit-driven world," Professor Lang said. "It makes faculty members very nervous."

And they wonder what kind of changes a specialist in corporate turnarounds may try to force on an academic community.

Mr. Harreld "was installed in his position for a particular purpose," Mr. McLeod said, "and that is to ‘turn the university around.’"

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.