Unpopular Pick

Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously votes to appoint former IBM senior vice president Bruce Harreld as Iowa’s next president -- despite outspoken criticism by professors.

September 4, 2015
University of Iowa
Bruce Harreld will be the University of Iowa's next president.

Come November, the University of Iowa will have a businessman with little experience in academe at its helm -- and many faculty members and others in Iowa City aren’t happy about it.

The Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously appointed former IBM senior vice president Bruce Harreld as Iowa’s next president, despite outspoken criticism of Harreld as lacking the necessary qualifications to lead a university.

Harreld was one of four publicly announced finalists for the position and the only one without experience in higher education administration. He is a consultant who formerly worked as an executive at IBM, Kraft General Foods and Boston Market Company restaurants. His higher education experience is limited to eight years as an adjunct business professor at Harvard University and Northwestern University.

Faculty members have expressed concerns that Harreld lacks the knowledge and skills to work under a shared governance model and understand the complexities of leading a multibillion-dollar academic and research organization. Many worry that he will view the institution with a corporate mind-set, and that he will allow the regents to make the wrong changes to the university.

“Bruce Harreld is taking on the presidency under an enormous cloud and it's going to take a lot of work to begin to make his presidency work effectively and to gain the trust of the community,” said Ed Folsom, an English professor who served on the presidential search that produced Sally Mason, whose retirement in August created the vacancy that the board is filling. “The fear of a good part of the university community is that he is assuming a presidency that … looks to the Board of Regents for guidance and approval, rather than looking to the university community for guidance and approval.”

Iowa as a state has long been proud of its commitment to all levels of education, and that pride has historically extended to the University of Iowa. But during Mason's presidency, the university has been frequently on the defensive against the regents and politicians, who have questioned why the university admits out-of-state students, why the University of Iowa uses some tuition revenue to help low-income students afford college and even why the university would want to hold on to a significant Jackson Pollock mural. To many faculty members, these controversies have illustrated why they need someone who understands academic values leading the university.

Harreld won the job over three other finalists with experience in higher education administration: Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College; Michael Bernstein, provost of Tulane University; and Joseph Steinmetz, provost at Ohio State University.

On Tuesday, Harreld participated in a forum with professors, students and others that was at times contentious. He was questioned about his background in business and his knowledge of Iowa and higher education and asked point-blank why he wanted to be Iowa’s president.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, and I think appropriate discussion, about my background,” he said, adding that he’s led “transformational” turnarounds in the corporate sector and wants to usher Iowa through an era of challenges.

“My experience is that organizations don't actually maintain themselves. They either go up or they go down …. Winners can very quickly become losers. Great institutions have an ability to fall very quickly,” he continued. “As good as you are, you need to prepare yourself for what's coming ahead.”

It was, in part, Harreld's experience in organizational turnarounds that led the regents to offer him the job. "What we ended up with is someone who has spent his life providing leadership in organizations that he has been a part of, in terms of collaboration, in terms of team building, in terms of reaching out to disparate groups and involving them and developing a strategic plan on how you can get better," Bruce Rastetter, president of the Board of Regents, said during a press conference Thursday. "The board saw in that leadership skills which was exhibited after being in the private sector."

Yet in an American Association of University Professors survey released Wednesday of 164 Iowa faculty and 122 students and others, fewer than 5 percent of respondents felt Harreld would make a good president. Other groups that collected faculty comments -- including the search firm Parker Executive Search and the Iowa’s Faculty Senate -- have not publicly shared summaries of that feedback.

“His own philosophy, the philosophy he promised to bring to the university, is that he knows how to change organizations and he does it by building consensus,” said Bob McMurray, a professor of psychological and brain sciences. “I don’t see how he can possibly achieve that being hired the way he did and under the circumstances in which he was hired.”

He continued, “He'll have a much more challenging time then one of the other candidates would have. It seems if you want to make changes to an organization you have to get buy-in.”

Many at Iowa have criticized Harreld for saying, during the public forum, that he looked up information about the University of Iowa on Wikipedia. Faculty members have also expressed concern over Harreld’s résumé, which states that he’s the managing principal for Colorado-based Executing Strategy LLC, a firm with an expired registration in Massachusetts. Harreld admits that the firm no longer exists and that he neglected to update his résumé.

Many faculty members were also concerned when Harreld said he could imagine a scenario in which he would support forfeiting some of the university's state funding to support the state’s other public universities. The topic is a contentious one, after Iowa’s Board of Regents -- which also governs Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa -- reluctantly scrapped a plan earlier this year to shift $47 million of Iowa’s funding to its fellow state universities. And the issue is not theoretical, as the Board of Regents is considering a plan to ask for more money from the state for Iowa State and Northern Iowa, but not the University of Iowa.

“Faculty, staff, students, alumni and other community members were all of one mind that this man was not competent to run any university,” said Katherine Tachau, a history professor and president of Iowa’s AAUP chapter. Tachau served as the co-chair of a failed 2006 presidential search.

“[Regents] may think that a CEO can run a university without any support on the ground and they are mistaken,” she continued, adding later, “There’s no scenario in which he can be successful in the eyes of the campus community. Maybe he'll be successful in the eyes of regents, those regents who want to destroy the university.”

Tachau worries that the appointment of Harreld, who touts his experience revamping companies, is a sign that Iowa might undergo faculty and staff cuts or outsource a greater number of activities.

Jean Robillard, Iowa's interim president and chair of the search committee, said earlier this week that from the onset of the search, regents were interested in interviewing nontraditional candidates as well as academics.

Regents asked the search committee -- which included three regents, including the board’s president -- to “present them a group of candidates that are different” from one another. They wanted to hear different approaches to the “challenges of higher education today,” such as tuition and student accessibility, he said.

“It was very clear that was the mandate we got,” he said. “They want a choice and they want a different group of people and that’s what happened.”

McMurray pointed out that, in the case of Harreld, his entire career has been spent in business. Unlike other nontraditional presidents, he hasn’t served as a politician or at the helm of a nonprofit organization

“What is clear to me is he doesn't understand the University of Iowa and how higher education works,” he said. “It’s more than just a lack of academic background, he doesn't have a background in public service … I’m not sure he's ever worked for an organization whose goal isn't to make money.”


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