The search for a new president at the University of Iowa has proven tumultuous this fall, as many continue to wonder why the Iowa Board of Regents rejected a search committee's list of candidates to replace David J. Skorton.
Three separate groups, including the Faculty Senate and Student Government, appeared on the verge earlier this week of registering no confidence votes in the board, which has come under fire for its handling of the search process. But after a meeting with Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, Monday night, group leaders said they would postpone any votes and await further discussion.
After Skorton left Iowa for Cornell University earlier this year, regents named a presidential search committee, which included four board members. The committee considered more than 100 candidates, interviewed seven people and presented the board with a list of four finalists: Michael Hogan, Iowa's provost; two provosts of other large universities; and a president of a mid-sized institution.
Less than two weeks ago, however, regents voted 6-2 to turn down the final list and disband the search committee, effectively deciding to start the process anew. In a message explaining the action, Michael G. Gartner, the board's chairman, said that regents became concerned that the finalists lacked experience to manage the university's health sciences campus, a prominent wing of the institution.
The board's critics say it isn't being forthright about its objection to the finalists, and that by creating new criteria late in the search, it effectively wasted the time of campus leaders and may have damaged the university's chance of landing a top candidate. Some who believe the board is sincere in saying that the top candidates lacked hospital and health sciences management experience wonder whether that doesn't give enough recognition to the breadth of Iowa's programs.
Regent Robert Downer, who cast one of the two dissenting board votes, said he would have been comfortable with any of the finalists and did not understand the other board members' objections.
"There is no question that Iowa hospitals and clinics are extremely important, and that they've assumed increasing importance over the years,” said Downer, who chairs the board's hospital committee. "But the greater good is getting the best possible president for the university. If we are too specific of the background, we won't necessarily get the best person overall.
"It seems to me having someone who is an experienced senior leader in a major university is first and foremost."
Added Sheldon Kurtz, a professor in the College of Law and president of the Faculty Senate: "Health sciences is just one aspect of a very complicated, comprehensive university. We aren't hiring the head of a health care enterprise, we're hiring the head of a university."
Downer, who was not on the search committee, said regents who weren't on the committee were repeatedly told that they were getting good candidates. All four board members on the committee voted for the four candidates as committee members, but each voted against them when it came time for the regent vote.
Downer said he was taken aback when the health sciences qualifications were raised, because he hadn't heard that mentioned before the board's final discussion. Mary Greer, president of Iowa's Staff Council, which represents staff members who aren’t represented by unions, said during her time on the search committee, she didn't hear the oversight issue mentioned, either.
"We were not specifically looking for people with strong health science experience, because it was never made clear to us -- the chair didn't given us that direction," Greer said.
Both Greer and Downer said they are skeptical of the official board explanation for the rejection of finalists. Downer said it appears that one candidate who was a favorite of some of the board members wasn't included in the final four.
Teresa Wahlert, a regent who was chair of the search committee, said the vote was a result of unsatisfactory committee procedure.
"There was no change of heart," she said. "The board members on the committee wanted to move six candidates forward to the board of regents, and six candidates were not moved forward. We were looking to have a discussion about all of them, and absent that, the vote was taken."
Amir Arbisser, a committee member and one of six regents who voted against the finalists, said it didn't become apparent to him that all four presidential hopefuls, whom he called "good candidates," lacked health sciences experience until the board vote.
"It wasn’t a fatal flaw," he said. "[The board's committee members] were distracted by other parts of the process, and didn’t realize it until it ended up on our desks."
Arbisser said the four finalists had close to unanimous support from the committee, while two others who some regents favored had considerably less support overall.
Meanwhile, Hogan, the provost who was a presidential finalist at Iowa, is reportedly a finalist for the presidency at the University of Delaware. Hogan said he was not in a position to comment about the opening.
Iowa's Board of Regents is set to discuss the presidential search at its next meeting. In the meantime, Vilsack's closed-door meeting seems to have calmed down the campus. He has proposed to fill a vice president position that would help oversee health sciences on the Iowa City campus, and wants regents to reconsider the finalists recommended by the search committee.
Downer and Wahlert, both board members, said they support the hiring of at vice president for health sciences. Kurtz, the Faculty Senate chair, said he is "delighted that the governor has stepped in" and hopes this marks the end of the controversy.
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