Leadership & Governance

U. of Iowa Chief’s Past Meetings With Regents Rekindle Faculty Worries

September 25, 2015

New information shows that several members of Iowa’s Board of Regents helped recruit J. Bruce Harreld as a candidate for the presidency of the University of Iowa the day before the application deadline for the job, and not just the three regents who were on the 21-member presidential-search committee.

The revelations about the meetings have renewed suspicions among some faculty members that the board was set on Mr. Harreld long before it announced its decision to hire the former IBM executive this month. Since Mr. Harreld’s appointment, questions have swirled about both his qualifications for the position and the process used to select him. The Faculty Senate has approved a vote of no confidence in the board, and an assembly of faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences voted unanimously on Wednesday to censure Mr. Harreld for inaccuracies on his résumé, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.

Emails sought by The Chronicle in an open-records request show that Mr. Harreld met privately with four board members on July 30 in Ames, Iowa, less than two weeks before the search committee chose him as one of four finalists to be considered by the board as the next president of the Iowa City campus.

A statement released on Thursday by Bruce L. Rastetter, president of the board, explains that Mr. Harreld had two separate meetings in Ames that day — one with two regents who, like him, were also on the search committee and another meeting with two board members not on the committee. Mr. Harreld also had dinner with Steven Leath, president of Iowa State University.

Mr. Rastetter said he had not met with Mr. Harreld in Ames, but had coordinated the meetings, which he said Mr. Harreld had requested "in order to become more informed about the expectations the board had for the next president of the University of Iowa."

"I considered Mr. Harreld’s requests for these additional meetings on July 30 not only appropriate, but due diligence on his part," Mr. Rastetter said in his prepared statement. "He wanted to gather as many facts as he could about the position. I appreciate the fact that he was interested enough to want to do his research on the job, and took his time gathering facts."

But the new details emerged as faculty, staff, and students continued to protest the regents’ choice of Mr. Harreld to lead the university.

"It is now beyond dispute that the regents ran a sham search," said Katherine H. Tachau, a professor of medieval history at Iowa and president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. "Why would anyone accord any legitimacy to the person selected under the veil of this process?"

Doubt and Suspicion

Search-committee members were, in fact, instructed to recruit candidates for the position, though the list of applicants for the job was meant to be confidential until the four finalists were named.

However, emails show that board members who were outside of the process were also involved in recruiting Mr. Harreld.

Mary Andringa, a regent who did not sit on the search committee, was one of those invited to meet Mr. Harreld in Ames.

"I urge you to continue to give us in Iowa a chance to tap into your great skill set, experience, and passion for excellence through strategic change by being open to the presidency of the U. of I.," Ms. Andringa wrote in an email to Mr. Harreld on July 31. "Higher education, as you articulated in our meeting, is heading toward crisis. Crisis necessitates change — it may be the big challenge that can energize you in the next five years!" she wrote.

Mr. Harreld responded that "it is clear that many critical elements are in place to enable UI’s next leader to take the institution to the next level. I am sure you will attract an excellent, academically oriented leader as you finalize the search."

The search committee met after July 31 to winnow a list of 46 applicants to nine, who were interviewed in Chicago on August 11 and 12.

The Ames meetings were just the latest anecdote raising fears that Mr. Harreld had received preferential treatment from Mr. Rastetter and other members of the board and search committee.

Jean E. Robillard, Iowa’s interim president, invited Mr. Harreld to speak to staff members of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on July 8.

Dr. Robillard, who is also vice president for medical affairs and was chairman of the search committee, said Mr. Harreld had not been an official candidate for the position at that time.

Local news organizations have also reported that Mr. Harreld ate lunch that day with four members of the search committee, including Mr. Rastetter and Christina Bohannan, president of the Faculty Senate.

Ms. Bohannan, a professor of law, said that at the time it was not clear if Mr. Harreld was interested in the job and that no one at the lunch even asked him about it.

Other candidates did request and conduct conversations or meetings with Mr. Rastetter as well as Dr. Robillard, said a spokesman for the board, though none of the other three finalists for the presidency asked for or were given that opportunity.

Mr. Rastetter also arranged a phone call in August between Mr. Harreld and Gov. Terry Branstad — another opportunity not afforded to other finalists.

Ms. Bohannan said the latest revelations further undermined faculty confidence in the regents and their decision to appoint Mr. Harreld. Worse, she said, the news will make it even more difficult for Mr. Harreld to lead the institution when he takes office, in November.

"All of this is terribly sad for our university because we really want to move forward," she said. "But it’s really difficult to move forward when you have these additional details about the process coming out. It throws us back into doubt and suspicion."

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.