Application for U. of Iowa Presidency

Wick Sloane, already a nominee for the Harvard job, explains what he'd do if tapped for the still open position at one of America's great public universities.

November 22, 2006

Wick Sloane filed this application for the Iowa presidency two days before the Iowa Board of Regents announced the collapse of the search. The original column, which we run here, holds up, though. Wick, still a reluctant nominee for the Harvard presidency, said he'd only add, "Compensation and country club memberships for presidents are not the point. Courage is the issue -- by regents and presidents -- courage to face the atrocious mess we've all made of public higher education."


I hereby apply for the presidency of the sensational University of Iowa. The cornerstone of my offer is that I apply as a low bidder. Qualified bidder, of course.

When, oh when, will a public Board of Regents write the accurate ad?

"Help! Public higher ed in peril! Low-income students screwed. Medicaid and prisons chewing up all the money. U.I. annual in-state tuition is $6,135, with federal Pell grants frozen at $4,050. No, we can't balance the budget with more research and out-of-state tuitions because the other 49 states have that same plan. Only candidates willing to lead with concrete ideas apply."

The great University of Iowa is within a few bushels of corn and soybeans of catastrophe. Press coverage has been handwringing that the current presidential pay of $300,000 or so and a house will never attract talent. All of us unlucky enough to live on the U.S. coasts count on the integrity of Iowa to keep the nation grounded with common sense and sane values. After all, the President of the United States settles for $400,000 and a house. That’s a big job, too.

The Iowa job specifications, which anyone could find from the university’s Web site, might as well be from Massachusetts or Oregon. The tone reiterates the U.S. party line: Public higher education is a fund drive and a few fat paychecks away from eternal bliss. “Our state university will be fine if… if it’s the ones across the state line that are cursed.” (Question: why do candidates who won’t return calls for posts paying less than $500,000 need the job spelled out in these tedious specifications?)

Every public search for a public university president strolls toward the same gallows: Higher and higher salaries, for faculty and administrators, to attract top talent; raise more money; more research funding; collect vast new revenues by attracting students paying out-of-state tuition. No mention of the colliding federal polices that guarantee state-to-state cannibalization by colleges and universities. In the Iowa specs, no requirement to respond to the three-alarm-fire report in September from the U.S. Department of Education Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

Ten candidates for the U.I. $500k-and-a-house presidency allegedly spent a weekend this month in furtive conversations in or around Chicago with or without members of the search committee. I write in empathy and exhortation. I can’t think of many jobs with more overwhelming responsibilities and difficult tradeoffs than public university regent or senior administrator. Isn’t, though, The Point of great education having the skills to frame the impossible and find some answers?

My offer:

  • I’ll take the Iowa job for the lower of $250,000 and a house or half whatever compensation package is now on the table. No raises, no bonuses, no country club memberships. I do want the difference, though, for staff development, for faculty travel and research, and for scholarships. Check out the rules for service contracting for the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. Shouldn’t these low-cost principles apply for the U.I. presidency? Of course executive recruiters say high pay is the answer. Recruiters’ pay is a percentage of total compensation. As U.I. president, I’ll also propose eliminating federal tax benefits for any university or college paying a president more than $250,000 plus a house. The job is public service, a privilege, not a hedge fund. The cheers from families every graduation are the incentive pay.
  • I’ll ask to have ready, prior to arrival, a thorough, statistically sound survey of faculty, students and staff. What’s working? What’s not? Issues and aspirations. U.I. is huge. I’ll need to know quickly what really is on everyone’s minds. We’ll meet once a week and knock off as many concerns as we can each week.
  • I will sit down with my colleagues at the other Iowa universities and request that we create a plan for fair sharing of scarce state resources to ensure every Iowan has the skills for a successful 21st Century career, preferably in Iowa. Put penalties in my pay for joint accountability for educational accomplishment for every Iowa public university student. Flagships cannot just grab the easy stuff. I’ve seen too many social and political forces incent state flagships to work in their own interests, not for the total state. We will identify by name those Iowans who lack a solid education, and we will make measurable progress for them semester by semester. Dock my pay for failure here.
  • Funding, funding and funding is the president’s job. My second day, I’ll invite the Iowa Congressional delegation and state legislators to campus. What’s their thinking on federal Medicaid cutbacks to the states and their devastating effect on public higher education nationwide? I will duct tape my mouth shut and listen. No state university, let alone state university president, will survive without addressing the dysfunctional federal policies eroding access to higher education. I’ll send ahead the Web links to my credos on this issue. I am sure these Iowans will have better ideas than mine. 
  • I will continue to exhort Midwestern higher education to be the voice for the nation. I was lucky enough in 2005 to work with the Midwestern provosts of the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (CIC). I was a Fellow for Higher Education Finance for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. My nudge to the weary then was to ask these fine provosts from the CIC universities to remember their home state, not just their home campus. Iowa. Illinois. Indiana. Ohio. Michigan. Pennsylvania. Wisconsin. The Congressional delegations that can rule the land, if someone will give the delegations a plan. A unified, consistent demand for federal education funding by all states is the strongest strategy. Cannibalism is the name for the current individual campus lobbying and earmarking.
  • The 2008 Iowa Caucuses? And the U.S. presidential primaries in CIC states that follow? The Iowa university presidents must lead off with the demand for a consistent, fair federal education policy to create a solid economy for this century. Yes, the great rustbelt industries of the G.I. Bill are struggling. But G.I. Bill education funding created the skills that set off the greatest economic boom in history. What plan will begin that boom for this century? The CIC and neighboring states are 117 electoral votes. (Tony New England has some fine colleges but only 34 electoral votes.) Who better than the next U.I. president to lead this discussion? Any public university presidents without a plan for the nation on the table are already well past the first act of their own Greek tragedy. Doomed. The chorus has spoken.
  • The Des Moines Register reported earlier this year on U.I. regent concerns about keeping candidate names secret and about whether finalists would even have on-campus interviews. A worry is that good candidates don’t want their current employer to know is one reason cited. Guys, anyway, in these lofty pay grades always crow. Be assured that some of the Chicago Ten are already using these Iowa caucuses for a pay raise at home.
  • Far from lurking in closed meetings, every candidate must address the campus and the state legislature and describe the terrifying facts facing U.S. public higher education. And how Iowa has to put the issues on the table, yesterday, and lead. Iowa would serve the nation by launching this discussion.
  • U.I. is a research university. Before the end of my first week, I’ll ask all the principal investigators if they’ll give me a day to answer a simple mystery no one will face down: Does U.S. higher education need another building? We have no idea what the total classroom capacity of the U.S. is period, let alone in relation to students already born. Classrooms are dark weekends and most evenings. The research situation is worse. Individual university studies show projections of growth in research funding. But the universities are all looking at the same data. How does current lab space and space under construction relate to new funding scenarios? We have no idea. I’d rather improve faculty salaries and student financial aid.
  • College athletics is an oxymoron and a resource sinkhole. On my third day, I will show how Iowa, without losing any fun, pride or entertainment, can turn collegiate athletics over to a national NGO. (As an NGO, the Federal Reserve System, with NCAA-like regions, is right there.) My plan is for all the same teams, conferences and bowl games. The university and college role, though, will just be collecting tuition and teaching classes for the athletes. The current national situation makes no more sense than the New York Yankees taking over New York City schools. That Iowans know this is obvious: The bow-tied Iowa Regent Chair Michael Gartner is principal owner of the Iowa Cubs. Is he proposing that the Cubs take over the Des Moines schools?
  • Searches are too solemn. As part of my interviews, I challenge Regent Gartner to a blindfolded, bow-tie tying contest during halftime of any Hawkeye game he chooses. Perhaps while the crowd serenades with the Iowa fight song.
  • What an ideal time for an Iowa-led education century in the United States. Harvard is history. I’m a nominee for that presidency, and Iowa is the better job. Harvard has a $29-billion endowment and no common sense. My favorite evidence: Harvard Yard is 31 feet above sea level. The university sits on the Charles River, an estuary, and all that brainpower has no plan for global warming.
  • On compensation, though, I do have my price. May I move the president’s office over to the sensational UI Iowa Writers’ Workshop?


Wick Sloane's Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil's Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of a higher education.


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