One of the things I continually forget in life is that there really are people who cannot be embarrassed. I think everyone believes they feel some level of embarrassment, but objectively, when you look at what people do as opposed to what the say, it’s clear that some people do not register the kind of mortification you or I would experience if we did something wrong and were caught red-handed.
An obvious case in point, of course, would be the new president of the University of Iowa, J. Bruce Harreld. Not only was Harreld’s resume insufficiently proofed, but he was caught lying about himself in two entirely different ways. One of those ethical breaches was so antithetical to higher education that the Iowa faculty censured him before he took office. Yet in the aftermath of that rebuke it never occurred to Harreld that his personal failings disqualified him from a job he had lied his way into.
A normal human being would never get over that. They would go on, but they would remember the sting of that public unmasking for years. J. Bruce Harreld is still scheduled to take office on November 2nd, and by his own press-release is determined to fight any slurs against his plastic values.
On Monday I was again reminded that some people do not have the capacity to experience normal human embarrassment when Iowa Governor Terry Branstad took time out of his busy day to dismiss recent revelations by regent Subhash Sahai. While it was known that five members of the Board of Regents, led by President Bruce Rastetter, conducted secret meetings with J. Bruce Harreld, what was not known is that the other four members knew nothing about those meetings until after the final vote. Like the wind-up governor he has apparently become, after Rastetter threw Sahai under the bus late last week, for the third time the governor came to Rastetter’s defense over what is clearly a fraudulent hire.
Branstad was asked about Sahai’s concerns this morning during the governor’s weekly news conference.
“I would point out the last time the Regents went through this, choosing a president of the University of Iowa, they had similar controversy,” Branstad said.
As the governor knows, there is no equivalence between what happened with the fraudulent Harreld hire and what happened in 2006, except that in both cases a politically connected and heavy-handed regents president decided that the board was his to do with as he pleased with. Yet even if there was some equivalence, you don’t simply overlook accusations of criminal or malfeasant behavior because those accusations sound like something that happened in the past. The police respond to each call in order to determine whether a crime was committed. The fire department responds to each call in order to determine whether there’s a fire. And the governor should respond to each report of malfeasance or criminality in his own government, in order to determine the facts of each case.
When a sitting member of the Board of Regents points out — not suspects, but actually reveals — that a majority of the Board of Regents kept him in the dark about secret meetings with the winning candidate, that’s not something that should be summarily dismissed with a flimsy political lie. Which is why — and again, I know this is naive — I was momentarily shocked by the governor’s brazen disregard for Subhash Sahai personally, but also his ongoing disregard for education, which is a sacred trust that all Iowans hold dear. From a few week ago:
So how can the governor square his claim that he played no part in the hiring process, even as he only spoke to one candidate, and that candidate was J. Bruce Harreld? Well obviously he can’t, but he doesn’t care about that. Politically, the governor has to insist that he played no part in the hiring process in order to establish plausible deniability, so that’s why he said what he said, even as that claim is in direct conflict with what he actually did. Unless there’s a federal investigation and the governor is put under oath, however, he knows there’s no price to pay for appearing incoherent in the eyes of the citizens that he technically serves.
Like I said, I forget there are people like that, and that quite often the very thing that allows them to take to the political stage is an inherent incapacity for empathy or self-awareness. If, as a politician, you have no problem defending pink slime against a non-existent conspiracy, you’re probably capable of doing or saying anything, particularly in defense of the people who bankroll your campaigns. Even if that means stomping on a sacred trust, or on a good and loyal Iowan that you yourself appointed to protect that trust.
As I said elsewhere, until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Bruce Rastetter. While politicians have always had wealthy benefactors, and money is constantly traded for influence, the way that Rastetter and Branstad have moved in lockstep with regard to the Harreld hire led me to do a little reading in order to understand the dynamic between them. From the Des Moines Register on March 2nd:
It was the summer of 2009. Terry Branstad was a decade removed from a record 16 years as governor.
In a gathering of movers and shakers at Rastetter’s home, he asked Branstad to run again.
“I kept thinking, there’s got to be somebody else,” Branstad said. “But the more I thought about it … Bruce was one of those people who encouraged and supported me.” And, he backed up his request with large contributions.
So — just as Rastetter was critical to imposing J. Bruce Harreld on the university of Iowa, he turns out to be the guy who convinced Governor Branstad that the people of Iowa, or at least one of those people, would be really well-served if Branstad became governor again. But what did the governor get out of the deal?
Just how much pull does Rastetter have? After all, one year he allowed Branstad to take his private jet from a governor’s conference in Milwaukee to his summer party, held on his $537,440 country estate near Hubbard. The party has become a well-heeled annual event.
“I suggested,” Rastetter told this reporter later that day, “that the governor speak with you.”
Rastetter’s staff soon called to confirm the appointment with the governor.
“Bruce does a good job of staying in touch, at least once a week. It has nothing to do with whether he supported me,” Branstad said. “Bruce is a brilliant guy. He’s somebody whose opinions I value greatly.”
Well — I guess that couldn’t be any clearer. Branstad does what Rastetter tells him to do, in return for which Rastetter gives Branstad a ride in his plane. And yet, except for the part about the plane, we already knew that because it was Rastetter who arranged for Governor Branstad to place a call to J. Bruce Harreld during the search — an opportunity that neither Rastetter nor the governor made available to any other candidate. So obviously that must be some plane.
The problem with being a kept politician is that the citizens you duped into voting for you still have an expectation that you’ll do your job. In some states — and you know the ones I’m talking about — it’s generally assumed that the governor is dirty because that’s the only way a governor can get elected. While Iowa obviously seems to be trending that way, I think most Iowans are probably still convinced that the governor should be a fair and honest man who works for the common good. Again, yes, horribly naive, but still — I think a majority of Iowans have that expectation.
Which is why I believe that Governor Branstad just crossed a line in dismissing Sahai’s clear report that the election of J. Bruce Harreld was corrupted by Regents President Bruce Rastetter. Because in doing so he’s undermining both the spirit and the letter of the law which established the Board of Regents to begin with. I don’t believe the governor knows that’s what he just did, and I don’t think most Iowas have made that connection either, but one group of Iowans did just make that connection, and they’re clearly none too happy about it.
Before we get to that, however, let’s look at what regent Subhash Sahai said last week, and why he too may be missing the bigger picture. Here’s the charge Sahai leveled, which Branstad just dismissed:
Sahai stood by the selection of the businessman, who has no academic administrative experience, but also said he didn’t know about previously-undisclosed meetings Harreld had with five other regents before the application deadline and was “sad about this revelation.”
His exact words to board staff were, “I am pissed,” he said Thursday.
“I am being strong in these words because I love this place,” said Sahai, a physician in Webster City and a graduate of UI and University of Northern Iowa who was appointed to the board in 2013 by Gov. Terry Branstad.
The board is designed to make decisions during full board meetings — not ahead of time — for a reason, he said. And, Sahai stressed, the regents did have a heated discussion about the presidential selection when they met in closed session Sept. 3 to make a decision.
Sahai also said, however, that he believed Rastetter and President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland when they said the secret meetings did not influence their votes.
But, after learning about the early meetings between Harreld and other regents, Sahai said he met with Rastetter and regent President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland to ask if the presidential selection was predetermined.
“They assured me no decision was made prior to this,” he said, adding that he has no reason to doubt them.
Still, he said the meetings created the perception of favoritism — even if they were not a violation of law or code.
What Sahai may not yet know is there are very good reasons to doubt anything that Rastetter or Mulholland say. In fact, Mulholland destroyed her own credibility over the issue of shared governance, and I’m not sure Rastetter ever had any credibility to begin with. And yes, that’s not a very nice thing to say, but Rastetter’s treatment of Sahai was not simply abusive or deceptive, it was perfectly in keeping with how he conducted himself throughout the entirety of the search and selection process.
Rastetter’s Modus Operandi
Today, as you read this, it’s entirely possible that Subhash Sahai knows less about the Harreld hire than you do. First, Sahai is a physician, meaning his life is wall-to-wall commitments, even apart from his duties as a regent. Second, until this past September, I’m guessing that neither Rastetter, Mulholland nor any of the other three regents who secretly met with Harreld on July 30th, had ever sunk a bureaucratic blade into his back, let alone conspired to do so collectively.
So when Sahai says he takes Rastetter and Mulholland at their word, not only am I not surprised, I don’t think he’s engaging in the kind of faux civility that Harreld’s supporters are always clamoring for as a means of invalidating both legitimate outrage and tough questions in the aftermath of Harreld’s hire. (If your covert machinations on the Board of Regents actually anger one of your fellow regents, it’s probably a given that a few citizens will become angry as well.)
As we discussed at length with regard to the fraud that was committed against multiple groups by search chair Jean Robillard and committee member Rastetter, and abetted by Harreld himself, Rastetter repeated the same deceptive gambit over and over. It was hard to see the repetition because of considerable variations in scale, but at root Rastetter repeatedly employed the same deceptive tactic.
At the smallest scale we have the July 8th presentation and “VIP lunch”, when J. Bruce Harreld appeared in Iowa City under false pretenses, at the invitation of search chair Jean Robillard — a gathering which Rastetter attended, along with committee members Sarah Gardial, the dean of the business college, and Christina Bohannan, president of the faculty senate:
Although Jeneane Beck will have to correct Robillard’s lie in only a few weeks, on July 8th it clearly seems as if Gardial and Bohannan both believe that Harreld is not there as a candidate and not doing due diligence. Which means Robillard didn’t just tell a lie to the press after the fact, he was telling a lie to members of his own committee on July 8th. And because this is a long post and your eyes might be a little tired, let me repeat that. On July 8th, Jean Robillard, the chair of the search committee, was lying to at least two members of his own search committee.
Having Bohannan at the table was of enormous value to Rastetter when the “VIP lunch” was revealed to the greater university community in mid-September, because it made the gathering seem above-board when it was exactly the opposite.
At the middle scale we have the twenty-one person search committee, which gave the entire search the appearance of consensus. And yet all the while Robillard, Rastetter and even Governor Branstad were giving Harreld preferential treatment, which they also then conspired to administratively deny to other candidates.
And of course at the largest scale there is the search itself, which was elective, and again conferred the appearance of consensus and shared governance on the entire rigged election. A faux validation that would have been absent had the five corrupt regents simply hired Harreld outright, as they were legally entitled to do.
From the ‘Mulholland’ post:
Looking at what the regents did during the presidential search that resulted in J. Bruce Harreld’s hire, it’s now clear that the regents didn’t just perpetrate one fraud, they perpetrated two frauds — one inside the other. The first fraud was the rigging of the election of J. Bruce Harreld, the candidate they wanted all along. That was accomplished by giving Harreld special access to the regents themselves, special opportunities to present himself to the university community, and by ignoring his impossibly derelict resume, which should have disqualified him on the spot.
The second fraud was the entire search process, which was initiated by Regents President Bruce Rastetter, and headed by acting University of Iowa President Jean Robillard. That fraud was perpetrated not to help find the best candidate, but to legitimize the fraud perpetrated in hiring Harreld.
Again, again and again Rastetter maneuvers unwitting people into groups that provide the appearance of an open and honest search, yet each time he’s there in the shadows, manipulating the outcome. Even on July 8th, when he is for all appearances a passive observer, he’s still there.
Now here’s Subhash Sahai, not wanting to think the worst of anyone, yet Sahai is simply the new Bohannan. And the other three honest regents who knew nothing about the July 30th meetings are simply analogues to the other faculty members on the search committee who also got played. They all did their duty, yet unbeknownst to them Rastetter made sure that nothing they did or said had any effect on the outcome. Even better, when suspicion began to fall on Rastetter, all of those people gave him plausible deniability. It wasn’t Rastetter running amok, or a small, treacherous cabal, it was the entire search committee, or the entire board of regents.
At the Board of Regents in particular, Rastetter distributed complicity in two ways. First by meeting in closed session, and second via the board’s unofficial rule granting unanimous consent to the winner. Meaning Rastetter, Mulholland, Dakovich, Andringa and McKibben didn’t just deceive the other four regents, they also hung them out to dry. Until last week, from the outside it looked like the whole board was thinking with one corrupt mind. And yet when Sahai pulled back the curtain there Rastetter was, not simply summoning four regents to his place of business in Ames, to meet secretly with J. Bruce Harreld, but making sure that he and his co-conspirators kept the four honest regents in the dark until after the vote.
If, like the search committee, the Board of Regents disbanded after the election, we could just stop there in terms of our concern for Sahai and the three honest regents who had nothing to do with the secret meetings with Harreld. But the Board doesn’t disband. It does business all year around, and a term on the board lasts six years.
Both Rastetter and Mulholland have the shortest hitches left, yet they still have two years remaining on their terms. Assuming of course that Rastetter doesn’t just tell Branstad to reappoint them in two years, maybe in exchange for another plane ride. Point being, whatever fallout takes place inside the board after five dishonest members completely screw over four honest members, that fallout is going to last a while — during which time Sahai and the other three honest regents will learn more and more about how Rastetter manipulated the entire search process.
Unfortunately, the four honest regents will still be in the minority, and Rastetter will still be president. And given that Rastetter had no problem discrediting Sahai in the press, and Branstad just stepped up and did the same on Rastetter’s behalf, those four honest regents now also know they don’t have anyone watching their backs. If Rastetter can rig the election of a university president with impunity, he can do whatever he wants. And that raises important questions about the work environment that Sahai and the other three honest regents are now exposed to.
If you look at the pictures of the nine members of the board you’ll see that of the four regents who did not rip off the taxpayers of Iowa on July 30th, Sahai is the only male. While it’s always dangerous to psychoanalyze people, even based on a repeated pattern of malfeasant behavior, we’re fortunate that the Des Moines Register has already given us an unbiased and recent glimpse into Rastetter’s manner and demeanor, in the piece mentioned above. Here’s the headline:
Bruce Rastetter: The quiet, fierce man behind ag summit
Now, again, it would be very easy to run that headline through the psychobabble translator and turn ‘quiet’ and ‘fierce’ into ‘barely-repressed hostility’, but we want to be fair. So here are the first three paragraphs in the piece:
Bruce Rastetter is not amused by the “kingmaker” label often thrown around by the press.
The agribusiness entrepreneur and president of the Iowa Board of Regents, who has given more than $1.1 million in state political contributions since 2003, is not the sort to chuckle.
“Bruce is like I am. He is always ready for a good fight,” said Craig Lang, his friend, fellow agribusinessman and former regents president.
Okay. So Bruce Rastetter is quiet, fierce, not amused, doesn’t like to chuckle, and is always ready for a good fight. Now here is the fifth paragraph:
The svelte and piercingly blue-eyed Rastetter can be enigmatic. He is quiet but fierce. He both shuns the spotlight and seeks it. He is blunt but can be prickly at perceived slights.
So that’s svelte, piercing, enigmatic, quiet, fierce, not amused, blunt, anti-chuckle, always ready for a good fight, and prickly at perceived slights. Sounds like a fun guy. Also sounds like the kind of guy who shouldn’t be on the Board of Regents, let alone in charge of the place after he just colluded with four other regents to deny four other regents their voting rights. And then of course there’s the possibility that he may interpret any resentment or calls for justice as perceived slights, and become even more prickly — particularly to the four honest regents on the board.
Which leads to a distressing quandary. How can we know whether any of the four honest regents feel intimidated? We can’t ask them on the record, because that will only prompt Rastetter and Branstad to blame the victims. Or worse, to trot any or all of the four honest regents out for a press conference in which everybody swears there’s no intimidation going on.
So how do we make sure? The three honest women regents have just seen what Sahai went through, and how Rastetter responded, and how the governor responded, so how comfortable would they be speaking out about any concerns — even behind the scenes? What obligation does Dr. Bob Donley, the executive director and CEO of the board, have to make sure that the work environment at the board is safe? Clearly Sahai wasn’t speaking only for himself, so what repercussions might those four now face, even though they were the ones who were abused by the other five members of the board? And how completely insane is it that all of these questions seem reasonable in the aftermath of the election of J. Bruce Harreld?
The Ultimate Betrayal
If you looked at the pictures of the current regents, you noticed that one of them is considerably younger than the others. That regent is often called the ‘student regent’, but that label is misleading. By law one of the regents must be a student at one of the state’s three institutions of higher learning, but the position is not ceremonial. The student regent is a full regent and has full voting rights. If there’s a 4-4 vote among the non-student regents, and the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance, the student regent decides the issue.
While I don’t know the origin of the student regent, if you make it a legal requirement that one member of the Board of Regents must be a full-time student, I don’t think it’s hard to guess why the requirement exists. When you get a bunch of old people together there’s a tendency for old people to care about old-people things like money, prestige and political power, and to forget that the universities they govern have a purpose that is generally of greatest benefit to young people. In fact, without a student regent the other regents might not only forget about the young people at the universities, they might start thinking of them as obstacles to their grand designs. One good way to prevent that is to make sure that the other eight regents have to work with a student who is their full peer — provided of course that they don’t simply disenfranchise the student regent through a premeditated conspiracy.
Speaking of which, let’s look at how much respect Regents President Bruce Rastetter and the four dishonest regents just showed to the student regent role during the election of J. Bruce Harreld. In one colossal orchestrated con, the regents president and a few others on both the board and the search committee showed preferential treatment to one candidate, froze out all of the other candidates, rigged the final vote, then left four honest regents — including the student regent — holding a bag of fertilizer that they had nothing to do with.
And now Governor Branstad is on the record as being just fine with all of that.
I said above that one group of Iowans just made the connection between Rastetter’s abuses during the Harreld election and their impact not only on the board and the state’s schools, but on education as a sacred trust. That group is the University of Norther Iowa Faculty Senate, which on Monday passed the following resolution:
WHEREAS, the University of Iowa Faculty Senate found that the Iowa Board of Regents failed in its duty of care to the University of Iowa and the citizens of Iowa and showed blatant disregard for the shared nature of university governance, and
WHEREAS the University of Iowa Faculty Senate found the Regents to have failed to act according to their own strategic plan’s core values, namely ethical behavior, honesty, open and effective communication, public accountability, stewardship and service, and transparency, and
WHEREAS oversight of UNI and the University of Iowa are by the same Board of Regents and our different institutions stand together rather than be divided,
BE IT RESOLVED that the University of Northern Iowa Faculty Senate fully supports the University of Iowa Faculty Senate regarding the Iowa Board of Regents.
As of this week, then, all three state schools which the Board of Regents oversees have passed such resolutions. Yet while the faculty senates at Iowa and Iowa State did so soon after Harreld’s election, until this past week UNI had not been so moved. What changed? Well, the only newsworthy event this past week was Sahai’s revelation that he and three other regents were cheated out of a fair vote by five of their boardmates. Other than that, the only thing I can think of is that the student regent currently on the board is enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa.
The Adults in the Room
Until a few days ago I didn’t have a firm opinion about term limits. What I have come to realize, however, is that all politics is corruption, and the Harreld hire is symptomatic of what happens when a governor serves six terms in office. At some point everyone gets used to having power, and to cementing relationships that have nothing to do with the citizenry, and the next thing you know a svelte, fierce, blunt man with piercing blue eyes is telling you that as a government official he was compelled to give a job applicant secret meetings with four other regents at his own private place of business, and also to conspire with those four regents to withhold that information from the other four regents on the board.
With regard to Governor Branstad there are really only two options. Either he’s in this up to his own neck or he’s getting a lot of bad advice. Turning a deaf ear to Sahai and the other three honest regents — including particularly the student regent — on the core issue of education is a genuinely ominous sign, because it means Governor Branstad has stopped being the governor of the state and become the governor of Bruce Rastetter. And yes, you can read that two ways.
I don’t know why the obvious facts of the Harreld hire have not yet prompted an investigation. I think, on some level, that the scale of what happened still hasn’t sunk in for a lot of people. I have a faint hope that the wheels of justice are grinding away behind the scenes, yet no real expectation that that’s the case. Even a cursory attempt to produce the answers to ten simple questions would show that Rastetter and Robillard systematically administered an unfair search predicated on nonfeasance — or crimes of administrative omission. Yet no one in government seems to have the will to ask those questions. Then again, if you give any man six terms in office, corruption tends to become part of the very fabric of government.
It would be wrong, however, to think that there are no voices standing in opposition. Not only have the faculties on all three state campuses spoken out against the board — which must at least tie the record — but three of the state’s major newspapers were on the record weeks ago regarding the failings of the sham search that Rastetter authorized at taxpayer expense. On the subject of fairness, the Des Moines Register was clear at the beginning of October that the search was unfair:
The five board members’ ex parte meetings with one candidate also were within the board’s prerogative, but they were unfair to the other finalists, who were led to believe they would be treated equally. They were also a slap in the face to the members of the faculty and staff, who were led to believe their opinions mattered.
And, while there may have been nothing illegal about the private meetings, since none involved a quorum of the nine-member board, they were improper. All finalists should have been treated the same: If one finalist gets to meet one on one with individual members of the board, all should have had the same opportunity.
Given regent Sahai’s disclosures on Thursday, regarding the limited time that he and the three other honest regents had to interview the finalists, it’s clear now that the vote itself was compromised. While Sahai’s disclosures should have prompted the governor to investigate further, almost exactly a month ago the Quad City Times was already calling for the regents to come clean:
All of this occurred before Harreld’s candidacy was announced publicly on Aug. 30 and when he was introduced to the university at a forum the next day. At that forum, professor John Scott asked whether Harreld had prior “business or financial dealings” with search committee members or had been promised the job. Harreld said no.
That may well be true, but the way the Regents handled the hiring and the aftermath creates tremendous doubts, which are demonstrated by no-confidence votes in the Regents by both the Faculty Senate and the university’s student group. And Wednesday, faculty leaders of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences censured Harreld for a “failure of professional ethics” for inaccuracies on the resume he submitted during the search, The Associated Press reported. Harreld had listed his job as being the managing principal of a consulting firm, but the firm no longer exists.
Again, if it does turn out that Harreld did any work for Stead, even gratis — perhaps giving a speech at IHS, similar to the one he gave at UIHC on July 8th — then his credibility is destroyed. And yet over a month ago the Cedar Rapids Gazette was already urging the search committee and the regents to “show their work” — something the regents have not only resisted at every step, but a demand that Rastetter turned inside out when he complained that people don’t know the real story of the vote. Instead of providing proof of a fair search, however, Rastetter continues to refuse to answer even the most basic questions:
Rastetter and others insist Harreld’s hiring was not a done deal masquerading as a true search process. But the troubling signs and public perceptions of a behind-the-scenes push persist.
One way those perceptions can be countered is through transparency.
In the previous post I showed that the legal criteria by which the governor can remove the five dishonest regents from the board has been met. I also believe the adults in the room now understand that the crimes of the Harreld hire constitute a conspiracy, and only the extent of that conspiracy remains to be determined.
As should also be clear by now, there is no greater obstacle to understanding what actually happened during the election of J. Bruce Harreld than Regents President Rastetter himself. But as long as the governor is willing to give Rastetter cover no answers will be forthcoming. What’s not clear is whether Branstad is doing that out of complicity, loyalty, or ignorance.
I don’t believe Governor Branstad is a bad person. He is a politician, which means he can’t be trusted, but that doesn’t mean he harbors malice. Anyone can get lost from time to time, and need a gentle reminder, but in Branstad’s case three papers sounded the alarm about the regents weeks ago, and now all three university campuses have come out against the regents as well. Which means we’re past the point of gentler reminders, and at the point when someone the governor respects needs to remind him that the press can get a whole lot worse.
— Mark Barrett