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What happened with that presidential search in Iowa?

by Jason Lee, WISCAPE Outreach Programs Manager | Sep 28, 2015

Governors, cabinet members, and businesspeople with little or no experience in higher education have recently become public university presidents. Is this a trend or an occasional anomaly?

The most recent and probably most controversial selection took place at the University of Iowa (UI) over the summer. There, the regents’ selection of business executive Bruce Harreld, despite strong opposition from faculty and students, amplifie​d divisions between politics and education, business and higher education, and administration and faculty, as well as the struggle to define the future of the public university –- a debate taking place within the narrow frame of declining financial support from states.

The American Council on Education (ACE) reported in 2012 that the majority of college presidents still come from within the academy. In 2011, 54 percent of sitting college presidents were presidents in their previous positon, and more than one-third were chief academic officers. However, the proportion of presidents who came from outside of higher education rose from 13 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2011.

William Funk, who heads a search firm that specializes in higher education, told Inside Higher Ed that, increasingly, boards are requesting non-traditional candidates.

What Happened in Iowa? 

To understand what happened in Iowa, we need to go back at least two years. That’s when the regents refused to renew the contract of President Sally Mason. At the time, the regents downplayed Mason’s “at-will” status. However, they also said they sought improvements in UI’s outreach and relationship with the legislature, and improvement in Mason’s performance. Many thought the move made Mason subservient to the regents’ influence.

Mason announced her retirement in February, and the usual machinery for presidential searches kicked in: a consulting firm was hired (Parker Executive Search for $200,000 plus expenses), a search committee (which included nine faculty) was selected, a timeline was set. The regents explicitly asked the search committee for “non-traditional” candidates.

By late August, four finalists were announced​ and gave public presentations. After 90 minutes of closed-door deliberations, the regents selected Bruce Harreld as President.

Faculty and others have expressed several strong misgivings about the process and selection. Among them:

  • Bruce Harreld was the only finalist with no previous experience in higher education.
  • Less than 2 percent of faculty and less than 3 percent of others t​hought he was qualified to be president. By comparison, over 90 percent supported the qualifications of the other finalists. Additionally, many were concerned that Harreld’s resume included inaccuracies and that he had unusual political access -– including a private call arranged with Governor Branstad.
  • The process was too fast. regents said they weighed all stakeholder input, but the decision was made just two days after the final public presentation and after 90 minutes of closed-door deliberation.
  • Unlike previous presidential searches, the search committee was disbanded after they advanced their list of finalists to the regents.
  • There were no women and no people of color selected as a finalist.

The process and selection led the Iowa chapter of the AAUP and sister chapters at ISU and UNI, as well as the Coalition to Organize Graduate Students, to issue statements of no confidence in the Board of Regents. The Iowa faculty statement states, “Only a pre-conceived determination by the regents to appoint Mr. Harreld regardless of campus reactions to him can explain his hiring.”

Which leads us to Bruce Rastetter, the ​president of the Board of Regents, and three broad themes at play within the search that places this process firmly in the ​realm of the corporate university: Politics, business, and limiting faculty power.

: Like in some other states, the Iowa governor appoints ​members of the Board of Regents; therefore, the process is inherently political to some extent. In Iowa though, the influence of partisan politics appears starker.

The current ​Regent ​Chair, Rastetter, is also the largest financial donor to state and federal ​Republican candidates, the largest contributor to and friend of the sitting governor, and a man Politico called, Iowa’s “real kingmaker.” Rastetter, who made a fortune in agribusiness –- pork, ethanol, and farm real estate​ -- is also a power player in national politics​, having organized an agriculture town hall for ​Republican presidential candidates earlier this year.

Rastetter sat on the search committee and arranged a private phone call between then candidate Harreld and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad. The governor is not involved in the selection process, but no other finalists had the opportunity to speak with the governor during the search process. Was Rastetter simply asserting his prerogative as regent president, or using an unduly political influence to drive the decision? Or is there no difference?

Business: Many higher education leaders have determined that declining state support is not only the current reality, but inevitable. (By one calculation, Iowa is on pace to provide $0 ​ -- zero! -- public money for higher education by 2029.) When operating with this assumption, they quickly speak of alternative (aka: not state) sources of revenues (aka: rising tuition and private sources) and efficiencies (aka: cuts to people or low-enrollment programs). The mantra, that universities should run more like a business in order to efficiently manage cuts, has echoed from Virginia to Texas.

Harreld’s experience turning around organizations was a key selling point for the regents. During ​his public presentation, he touted his background leading turnarounds in the corporate setting, saying, “I am here because I have helped other organizations … go through transformational change.” In other words, universities need a new model and private business is that model. Rastetter and other decision-makers seemed to concur.

On top of this, the pressure to customize higher education for specific workforce and economic needs of particular states has called into question the very purpose of higher education as state support goes down and student loans go up. Iowa is no exception.

Limiting faculty power
: The 1966 Statement on Governance of Colleges and Universities, formulated collectively by a cross section of higher education actors, sets the benchmark of governance in higher education. It states, “The selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested. The president should be equally qualified to serve both as the executive officer of the governing board and as the chief academic officer of the institution and the faculty.”

Faculty, staff, and students’ role in the governance of a university however is seen by many administrators, regents, and politicians as problematic, too slow to adapt, and necessary to circumvent in order to make business-like decisions. Business, after​ all, does not tend to operate collectively, but top-down.

Rastetter, for his part, has said that, “While I respect, certainly, the right [of faculty] to comment, the board is looking forward to working with both the faculty and staff and the students, and we’re going to do that. We very clearly stated that the status quo in our minds is not acceptable at any of the three universities.”

The events in Iowa reflect the closeness public research universities feel, or wish to feel, with their state’s political power apparatus despite inadequate funding from that same political entity. It indicates a pressure to align visions of higher education with the business community –- preparing students for the workforce as well as operating its internal affairs in a more business-like fashion. It indicates an acceptance among higher education leaders about the inevitability –- if not their outright support –- of decreased public funding. 

Instead of fighting to keep universities public, are regents and their presidents preoccupied with aligning their institutions for a future that includes no public assistance? If so, the sway of private industry and funders, ​​and the increased power of public officials who favor efficiencies and tacit reliance on student tuition over state support, could overwhelm faculty, staff, and students in the governance of public colleges and universities.

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