Of all the posts I’ve written about the Harreld hire, this one was the most difficult. It’s one thing to feel as if a wrong has been committed against an institution you care about, and another to feel that you have to abandon your feelings of affection for that institution in order to stay in touch with reality.
While Robillard and Rastetter fall silent in the hope that the press won’t notice the missing forest for the dodgy trees they keep propping up, it’s worth taking a step back to look at the damage already done by this disastrous hire. Because whatever Robillard and Rastetter thought they were getting by fraudulently electing J. Bruce Harreld to be the next president of the University of Iowa, what they’ve ended up with is a weak puppet without a shred of personal or professional credibility.
I like feeling romantic about my time at Iowa. I like pretending that the school is good and pure, instead of a morass of conflicting agendas and nutty professors. Yes, it’s easier to view my alma mater through rose colored glasses, but until last Wednesday I also thought it was harmless. While the problem of sexual assault is paramount in my mind — and yet another reason why hiring the incompetent, unqualified and unethical J. Bruce Harreld was a cruel slap across the trembling face of students who have been victimized — I still felt that whatever else was happening it was at most a 1 or a 2 on the Ditchwalk Indignation Scale. Meaning I could enjoy my nostalgia without having to slip into outright denial.
And yet, last Wednesday’s news that the big-name donors were all throwing their support behind Harrled made me sick, and it still makes me sick as I type these words. The news caught me off guard for a variety of reasons, but at root my revulsion sprang from the same source that has fueled my hostility toward the Harreld hire from the beginning. No matter where I turn, I don’t see anybody standing up for the students, and that really bothers me.
Yes, I know I’m being naive. Yes, I know the president of any university has little or nothing to do with students on a daily basis. And yes, I know that no matter how bad Harreld is he’ll be gone in a few years and the institution will survive. But no matter how hard I tried to get my head around all that in the context of the donor support for Harreld, I couldn’t do it. There was just too much cognitive dissonance.
In the end I did work through the problem, and it’s probably helpful in the long term because it made me take off my rose colored glasses and look at the University of Iowa as just another machine. It takes in money at one end and spits out alumni at the other. Later, some of those alumni feed more money in the side door, and the machine coughs up a shiny plaque suitable for framing. Unfortunately, even though I worked through multiple layers of denial in order to understand why the donors made the choices they made, I didn’t like where I ended up. Because where I ended up was with a new president who has no administrative experience in higher education and no ethics. And nobody can explain that away with a checkbook.
I don’t know if you’ve ever engaged twenty-seven separate thoughts in less than five seconds, but I can tell you it’s not fun. Here’s the Gazette’s headline and subhead for the donor story on Wednesay, which triggered my spasmodic cognition:
Big University of Iowa donors back
new president, say support will not falter
‘I can’t imagine that he
would not be a positive influence’
So yeah…just kill me. And here are the tweets that got away before I hit the brakes:
Nothing egregious, but you can see the progression. Initial shock, rebounding to cynicism, then resigned disappointment. All pretty standard stuff when people you thought of one way are revealed to be a bit less than you imagined. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Roy Carver, Jr., John Pappajohn. Older, wiser.
And then I began to read the article in detail….
Shortly after being chosen as the next University of Iowa president, J. Bruce Harreld called Roy J. Carver Jr. to introduce himself to one of the school’s most generous philanthropists.
Carver, chairman of the Carver Charitable Trust that was created through the will of his father and that has given more than $100 million to the UI — said he had a “nice chat” with Harreld.
“He seemed like a nice gentlemen and very thoughtful,” Carver said. “I think he was trying to solidify some support for his selection.”
Now, if you know the Carver family’s history at Iowa, that is actually a hilarious quote, as it might be if a spider said the same thing to a fly caught in its web. Looking for support? Hahaha. Yeah, I’ll bet. And maybe some iodine. And a splint.
Which is when it dawned on me that Iowa would outlast Harreld and his fraudulent appointment by the Board of Regents. And that made me feel a little better.
And then I read this:
Several other major UI donors said they, too, are supportive including John Pappajohn — for whom the Pappajohn Business Building, Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and Pappajohn Pavilion on the medical campus is named — and Jerre Stead — whose giving is honored by the UI Stead Family Department of Pediatrics.
Mary Louise Petersen, a former regent who has given generously to the university and recently was honored for her service in the naming of the new Mary Louise Petersen Residence Hall, said she has concerns about the process of Harreld’s hiring. But, she stressed, her giving will not falter.
“Even though we have reservations, we do have to give this gentleman the opportunity,” she told The Gazette.
Personally, I don’t give anybody a chance after they hijack a university, but it was gratifying to see that Ms. Petersen was aware of the impropriety in Harreld’s hire. Too, in her comments about her continued charitable giving I thought I could see a sensible rationale for making that statement up front, in the same way that you’d want to tamp down wild rumors to prevent a run on a bank.
With this hire the Board of Regents are doing terrible damage to Iowa’s brand, and it really is an insult to the students, faculty and staff. So it makes sense that donors would be in damage-control mode, reassuring everyone that the new president would be a short leash, and precluded from important affairs while luxuriating in his $600,000 annual paycheck, plus the other $200,000 he’s getting in annual benefits.
Still, the support bothered me on the merits because it validated a crime that had been perpetrated against the school. Which is what I was thinking when I read this:
Carver said he had never heard of Harreld before his selection and didn’t talk to him or about him with anyone involved in the search before his hire.
“That was entirely a surprise to me,” he said. “But every once in a while you have to do an alternative selection that measures your progress and where you’re going.”
Carver said he views Harreld’s skill set as one with clear benefits.
“He will probably bring about some change,” he said. “And change is scary for some people.”
While we could quibble about what ‘change’ means, particularly when the new boss doesn’t understand the job he’s been hired to do, and has already demonstrated the ethics of a corrupt politician, still, Carver’s was erecting a pretty obvious firewall and that made me laugh. If Harreld blows up on the launch pad, the Carver Charitable Trust won’t be at fault.
All of which was confirmed by this:
Although Pappajohn said he had never heard of Harreld before his hire and wasn’t consulted in any way, he believes Harreld has a “wonderful background that will allow him to think outside the box.”
“I’m a venture capitalist, and I’ve been involved with more than 100 companies,” he said. “And I think that there comes a time in the life of companies and universities and businesses where sometimes it’s time to think and reflect and get a different perspective.”
Pappajohn said he thinks critics of Harreld have a right to their opinion.
“But I think it’s not fair until they give him an opportunity to perform,” he said.
“I think the future will tell us whether we are going to end up raising more money or less money,” he said. “But I can’t imagine that he would not be a positive influence on the university. I believe that he will, just because of his background.”
And yet, even as John Pappajohn positioned himself to avoid taking a hit if Harreld was a bust, something was busting inside me. Because nowhere was there even a nod to the students, who were being taken for granted. And I couldn’t get past that.
I could see how throwing their support behind the crippled Harreld increased the power of Carver and Pappajohn at the university, but it was still support. And I knew they wouldn’t let anything crazy happen because that would reflect badly on them as well, but it was still support. And in the end that’s what I couldn’t resolve. Those two men were propping up a fraud who was eroding the very concept of the thing they purported to support through their charitable giving, and I didn’t know if they really understood that. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I thought they might still be in the dark about who Harreld was, and how he had been hired, and how he was exactly the wrong person for the University of Iowa.
Which is why this made a big impression on me:
Petersen, who served on the Board of Regents from 1969 to 1981, said she doesn’t foresee any fundraising roadblocks ahead for UI — despite the controversy around Harreld’s hire. She does have concerns about his background and his ability to “take right off” in leading the university to new heights, but Petersen said that won’t affect her giving.
“He has been duly appointed by the appropriate legal authorities, and he has to be given the opportunity to learn,” she said.
But, Petersen said, that’s where many of her concerns lie — in the fact that he has so much to learn.
“I think it will be a steep learning curve for someone who has been a lecturer at an institution but has not spent years on a faculty or an administration of an institution of a higher education,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we can’t take right off with the new president — that the new president will have to have quite a lengthy learning curve to be effective.”
Now, if you’ve been following my ravings you know that’s a point I’ve made many times. This guy Harreld has no idea how to do the job he’s been hired to do. He said as much when his appointment was announced, and that in itself is insane. You don’t hire a brain surgeon and then train them. You don’t hire an airline pilot and then train them. People who take over universities are supposed to know how to do the job, and J. Bruce Harreld doesn’t have a clue. Yet everybody’s talking about this guy like he’s a savior.
And then I read this:
During Petersen’s time as a regent, she was involved in several presidential searches and said she has concerns with reports about how the recent UI search was conducted. Specifically, she expressed concern with meetings Harreld had — while a candidate — with five members of the board.
“It’s very unusual,” she said. “If you could see me, you would see me shaking my head.”
The board, according to Petersen, is supposed to act “as a whole, in public, with input.”
The board was designed to be a buffer between the political powers and the public institutions, Petersen said.
“I think it’s really important that higher education institutions not be politicized — to not be an arm of any one particular party or any one particular point of view,” she said. “And I think we can all read the newspaper. We see reports that make us uneasy about the political influence to the board and through the board.”
Petersen said faculty buy-in on a new president is paramount in his or her success.
“That is not to say it can’t be built with this,” she said. “But it’s going to take more time and more communication and more listening and more talking.”
If you could see me now you would see me nodding, because she nailed it. Yes, that’s what the board is supposed to be, and clearly isn’t. And because it isn’t, the damage that’s been done with this hire will not heal as long as Rastetter, Robillard and Harreld remain in positions of authority.
So while I reject the idea that Harreld was duly appointed because the process was corrupt, and I hope to show how that fraud was perpetrated, you can count me a huge Mary Louise Petersen fan. Finally, somebody in this whole sordid mess who didn’t just sell out. Which is of course when the bubble finally burst and I saw the pass that I’d given to Carver and Pappajohn, and it was a pass they didn’t deserve.
If you’re rich you can do whatever you want with your money. I don’t care. But if you’re going to give to an institution of higher learning then I believe your first allegiance is to the students, faculty and staff who bring that institution to life. Because without those people any school is just an edifice, or a mausoleum.
The romantic in me wants to believe that Carver and Pappajohn have no idea how corrupt the Harreld hire was, because the alternatives are unpalatable. Yet the facts are so blatant that Mary Louise Peterson had no trouble putting the pieces together, so I can’t excuse Carver and Pappajohn. Either they don’t know because they haven’t done their homework, which strikes me as unlikely, and is hardly a testament to their good names, or they don’t know because they don’t want to know, which is worse, or the do know, which is repugnant.
And that’s the real problem with the Harreld hire. In order to make sense of it you have to believe that the fun-house mirror you’re looking into is reality, that up is down, that black is white. And you have to believe what the politicians and the businesspeople are telling you, while ignoring the outcry from the faculty and staff.
Fun-house mirrors aren’t reality. Up isn’t down. Black isn’t white.
On Sunday the Des Moines Register came as close as a newspaper can come to calling the Harreld hire fraud without doing so. Meaning it might be time for Carver and Pappajohn to take a second look at the man they just put their good names behind, and their arms around. Because if someone can make the case that the hire was fraud — and there isn’t much more that needs to be done in that regard — they may not want to be standing so close.
— Mark Barrett