In trying to comprehend why the Iowa Board of Regents chose a completely unqualified candidate to be the next president of the University of Iowa, as opposed to one of three eminently qualified finalists, we have turned over a lot of rocks and exposed a great deal of deceit. To date, the most plausible explanation for the regents’ otherwise inexplicable decision is that they elected the candidate that would give them the least possible resistance when implementing their plans, regardless of the damage that selection did to the university itself. While I think that’s still the most likely explanation, we are now compelled by the facts to consider a motive other than politics or rank ego.
For the record, this is not something I wanted to write about or even consider, but the only alternative was to remain silent out of discomfort, and that’s obviously not an option. Intolerance does exist in many guises, and people do have unspoken motives, which they do not utter because they know those motives are culturally indefensible. I am not interested in anyone’s religious affiliation, and I think everyone has a right to their own religious views. However, I also believe in the separation of church and state, and I believe that the University of Iowa is a state institution.
Harreld the Elder
If you have ever looked at J. Bruce Harreld’s resume you may have noticed, toward the end, in the ‘Personal’ section, that he is an “Ordained Elder, Presbyterian Church”. When I first read that many weeks ago my only reaction was that I had no idea what an Ordained Elder was, but it seemed to signify a degree of commitment that I respected. I didn’t know which branch Presbyterianism occupied on the great tree of religion, I didn’t know how many Presbyterians there were in the United States or the world, and I did not think inclusion of that fact on Harreld’s resume meant anything except that faith was important to him.
In a comment to the previous post about Jerre Stead, however, it was noted that Stead is also a Presbyterian Elder. (Here is a separate link establishing that fact.) So okay. The first two Presbyterian Elders I encounter in my life turn out to be closely associated with J. Bruce Harreld’s election as the next Iowa president. A little odd, maybe, but I figured the coincidence was statistically benign.
Also, just after putting up the Stead post, I received a timely tweet from Eric Kelderman at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the Stead post I again lamented the fact that Harreld seemed to appear out of nowhere. One minute he doesn’t exist, then suddenly Regents President Bruce Rastetter and acting president and Search Committee Chair Jean Robillard are breaking every rule in the book to make sure Harreld is one of the final four candidates who will be voted on by the regents.
Kelderman noted that both Robillard and University of Purdue President Mitchell Daniels had acknowledged that Daniels “recommended” Harreld to the committee. While interesting in itself, one obvious question was why Daniels suddenly decided that J. Bruce Harreld needed to be nominated or “recommended” for the open presidency at Iowa. What was the basis for that impetus?
“We moved to Indianapolis when I was 10 and joined the church that I’m still a member of. I’m a 50-year member of the same church (Tabernacle PCUSA; Daniels is an Elder) — now you would call it an inner-city church, as the town has grown.”
In his new book, Keeping the Republic (Sentinel HC), Indiana governor Mitch Daniels argues that the United States thrives most when the government cuts taxes and empowers people.
On a more private level, Daniels, who serves as an elder at Tabernacle Presbyterian (USA) Church in Indianapolis, acknowledges that his faith is quieter.
So. The guy who recommended Harreld for the job at Iowa, and one of the members of the search committee vetting candidates for that job, and Harreld himself, who was a candidate for the job, were all Presbyterian Elders. Improbably, the only three Presbyterian Elders I had ever heard of in my life were all intimately involved in Harreld’s candidacy to be the next president at the University of Iowa. I didn’t know what that meant, if it meant anything, but as a circumstance it seemed odd.
I did not think there was a conspiracy behind that convergence of Presbyterian Elders. As a possible explanation for why Daniels felt called to recommend Harreld for the presidency at Iowa, however, their common religious connection made sense. Unfortunately, that also meant that religion needed to be globally considered as a dynamic in the debacle that was the election of J. Bruce Harreld, and that presented two problems. One problem was relatively benign, and the other was culturally radioactive. Because the culturally radioactive topic has the potential to drive everyone to impassioned distraction, we’ll tackle the benign problem first.
Mitch Daniels and Purdue
Since the number of completely unqualified university presidents is, as you might expect, quite small, both Harreld’s supporters and fair-minded members of the press have searched far and wide to find parallels at other schools. And one of the people who keeps coming up in that regard is Mitch Daniels, the current president at Purdue University, who also happens to be a former two-term governor of Indiana. As Harreld’s advocates are quick to point out, Daniels, like Harreld, had no prior experience in academic administration, yet his tenure at Purdue has not yet resulted in the cultural collapse of that institution. True enough.
The problem with comparing Daniels to Harreld, however, is that there is no comparison — or wasn’t until Presbyterian Eldership entered the picture. While neither Daniels nor Harreld had any experience in academic administration prior to being elected to head a university, and both did have considerable executive and leadership experience prior to being elected, Daniels’ ascension at Purdue was legitimized by his ability to check two important boxes that Harreld cannot check.
J. Bruce Harreld spent his life working in the private sector, with the exception of several teaching gigs. He has no administrative experience in the public sector, yet the University of Iowa as a state institution of higher learning is clearly in the public sector. Daniels, as a two-term governor of Indiana, and former director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, checked that critical box.
The second box that Daniels checked, which Harreld cannot, is that whatever you want to say about Daniels’ politics, he was and is an Indianan. That state is the center of his very existence. As for Harreld, he has no ties to the University of Iowa and no ties to the state. As far as I can tell, the first time he entered Iowa was on July 8th, when he did so under false pretenses. The second time, on July 30th, he did so to participate in secret meetings arranged by Regents President Rastetter.
Again, whatever you think about Mitch Daniels, he is not an idiot. He knew when he recommended Harreld for the Iowa job that Harreld had no background in public policy or government, and no ties to Iowa. And yet we now know, on the record, that Daniels still made that recommendation. On what basis? How does a man who spent his life in Indiana, and much of his life working in government, decide that J. Bruce Harreld, carpetbagging dilettante, is the right man for the Iowa job?
Until a couple of days ago I could not see any justification for Daniels himself putting Harreld’s name in play, so I assumed someone asked him to do so. And that may still be the most likely scenario. I do not believe that Harreld’s association with Purdue, as an alum, and Daniels’ current position there as president, provides a plausible motive, because there must be hundreds of Purdue graduates who are more qualified for the job than Harreld, and of those at least a dozen or more who have legitimate long-standing ties to Iowa as a state, if not to the university. Harreld, is out of left field in both regards, yet Daniels still thought of him. Why?
For the first time, the confluence of Presbyterian Elders at key points in the selection process meant that religious affiliation had to be, at the very least, considered as a possible motive. And that raised three additional questions that I did not want to grapple with. The first was the degree to which religion may have played a covert role in any part of the selection and election process. The second was the degree to which Harreld’s tenure as president might be affected by his personal faith, including the possibility that his faith was the unstated motivation for his candidacy in the first place. Third, because Daniels would have known that Harreld was an incredible long-shot, yet Daniels recommended him anyway, it was possible that Daniels knew the fix was in at Iowa. And honestly, I wish that was the worst of it.
The Final Four
The moment when I realized that there were three Presbyterian Elders at the heart of the election debacle — meaning religion had to at least be considered as a dynamic — I also remembered something that ran through my mind soon after the election. It was a thought I followed briefly, then discounted because it seemed unthinkable. With the presence of Presbyterianism suddenly factoring into the election of J. Bruce Harreld in ways that I did not understand, however, let alone never imagined, my fleeting prior concern resurfaced.
After the election I read the excellent profiles that the Gazette’s Vanessa Miller wrote following each finalist’s appearance in an open forum shortly before the vote. And it was while familiarizing myself with the three qualified candidates who were not picked that I noticed something that seemed a little odd. You may have had the same thought, or maybe not, but in order to frame the context of that moment, I want you to look at the names of the four finalists.
Now, honestly, I think pretty much everyone reading this post realizes what I’m getting at, and even at that I don’t want to talk about it. But not talking about it isn’t an option, so we’re going to plow ahead like adults and stick with the facts.
What I noticed was that two of the names seemed to be of Jewish descent, with the possibility that a third was as well. Because I know as much about Jewish culture as I know about Presbyterian culture I thought I might be wrong, so I looked up Steinmetz and Bernstein and Krislov, and in very short order though I had confirmed that all three men were Jewish. (I tried to do that again for this post, but was unable to find the Ohio State page for Steinmetz, who was just hired as the new Arkansas chancellor. Update 10/23: shortly after posting I received an email that Joseph Steinmetz is not Jewish. I have updated the post to reflect that information.)
At the time all I did was sit with that information for about thirty seconds, until the very idea that antisemitism might have played a part in the election became so ugly that it seemed inconceivable. And that’s where I left it. Behind me.
Now that religion is back in the conversation, here are the facts. Of the four finalists, one was exceedingly unqualified for the position by every conventional measure. The exceedingly unqualified candidate won. Of the four finalists, two of the candidates were not Jewish, and one of the two non-Jewish candidates won. Without drawing any conclusions from those facts, I think it’s obvious that at the very least a raised eyebrow is warranted.
I am not saying antisemitism played a part in the election, and I am not saying it didn’t. What I am saying is that until Presbyterian Elders started popping out of the woodwork I did not believe that religion had anything to do with Harreld’s election, and now I’m not so sure. And I think there is a reasonable basis for my uncertainty.
Unfortunately, nobody is going to stand up and admit they’re antisemitic. And nobody is going to admit to some sinister Presbyterian plan to take over institutions of higher learning and…well, I don’t know enough about Presbyterianism to hazard a guess. I am curious whether there were more Presbyterian Elders on the search committee, or whether any members of the Iowa Board of Regents are Presbyterian Elders, but I’m not sure that’s a valid concern. And even if it is, how would we distinguish between a chance cluster of Presbyterian Elders and something malign?
As you can see, despite trying to stick to the facts we are now completely off the rails. And yet it’s not because we want to be. We’re off the rails because nothing about the election of J. Bruce Harreld makes sense, and the more we dig into the facts surrounding his election the more chaos Harreld’s hire produces. Still, because we do have a responsibility to keep ourselves from careening off into conspiracy theories and b-grade movie plots, we’re not only going to pump the brakes, we’re now going to stand on the pedal with both feet.
Articles of Faith
When J. Bruce Harreld stood before the University of Iowa community and revealed this as his truth, what did you think?
“Great institutions don’t stay where they are; they either go up or down,” Harreld, 64, said Thursday.
Is that what Harreld, as an Ordained Elder, thinks of the Presbyterian church? Is that what Jerre Stead believes as a Presbyterian Elder? Is that what Presbyterian Elder Mitch Daniels thinks? Is that a basic tenet or belief in the Presbyterian church?
To my ear that sounds antithetical to the things that most people believe are truly important in life. Isn’t there something to be said for steadiness? To not piling on the latest fad, or giving way to vanity and ego? Do we want our friends or teachers or even our own family to chase nebulous concepts like success or greaterness, or give their lives over to cold hard cash? After fifty years in the same church, what would Mitch Daniels say if J. Bruce Harreld made the same comment about Daniels’ place of worship? Would he think Harreld was a visionary or a false prophet?
We know that Daniels floated Harreld’s name. We don’t know why he did that, but we can establish two endpoints in the continuum of possible motives, then give those endpoints weight. For example, the darkest scenario I can think of involves Daniels in league with other Presbyterian Elders, plotting to overthrow the world, or at least the Big Ten, one university at a time. I put exactly zero stock in that possibility.
The simplest and most likely scenario, on the other hand, is exactly what I described in a comment about Daniels three days ago:
With Daniels it could all just boil down to a favor owed. “Hey, will you nominate this guy?” “Yeah, sure, whatevs…”
So the question would be, who talked to Daniels about making a nomination — if indeed Daniels is the person who made the nomination? Because there is no way Daniels just woke up one day and thought, “I must do this.”
We know Daniels wears a lot of hats. Not only is he the president of Purdue, he’s also a Presbyterian Elder and a former two-term governor and federal executive, and I’m sure he’s on various boards and involved with charities and on and on. All of which means Daniels gets more requests in an hour than I get in a year. Requests for money, for time, for his two cents — and requests for job recommendations.
Until Presbyterian Elders became a thing I assumed that the context for such a request would be political or ideological, or just a favor owed, but religious affiliation could also be the reason. And to state the obvious, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If another Presbyterian Elder called Daniels up and asked him to put Harreld’s name in play — perhaps because that elder had a preexisting relationship with Harreld, and might be compromised by that relationship during the selection and election process — I still don’t see anything wrong. It’s a nomination or a “recommendation”, not willful participation in a conspiracy.
At most Daniels could probably only tell us who asked him to float Harreld’s name, which would be useful in terms of getting at the heart of the resulting fraud, but I don’t think Daniels is part of any grand Presbyterian plot. In fact, like everyone else, I think Daniels is probably wondering what the hell is going on with the Harreld hire.
Which leaves us with the specter of antisemitism. Am I making a charge of antisemitism? No, I am not. Am I taking antisemitism off the table? No, I am not.
What I do have is one eyebrow that is now higher than the other, and that bothers me. Until Wednesday I only had one fleeting thought about religion as a dynamic in this election, and that thought only lasted thirty seconds. Now, however, that thought is back, and it has friends. And the only reason it’s back is because of facts that I do not know how to interpret or put into context.
It is a measure of how much damage the Harreld hire has done that in proposing any scenario in which antisemitism is not a factor we will still be left with rampant fraud. Yet it may be that the fix for Harreld was in so deeply that it didn’t matter who the other candidates were in terms of religion, race, gender, or any other criteria. The point was not to hate on anyone else, but to elect Harreld over anyone else, by any means necessary. And yes, as crazy as it is, and given the ramifications of antisemitism, that is now the best-case scenario for the election of J. Bruce Harreld.
This is what happens when you decide to ignore longstanding qualifications and traditions in preference of a get-successful-quick scheme. Instead of going from great to greater you shatter the communal reality that everyone believes in. You undermine not just confidence, but faith in the idea that hard work and expertise means something, to say nothing of veracity and personal integrity.
Wondering about Presbyterian Elders and antisemitism comes not from paranoia but from the very real damage that was done by electing J. Bruce Harreld. Damage that was inflicted by the regents when they spit on shared governance and ignored 97% of the people who would be affected by their decision.
Whatever you thought and felt while reading this post — whether you found yourself wondering about murky motives or feeling a little nutty — that’s what happens to any mind when its beliefs are threatened. People who give their lives to higher education may be less religious in some sense than other congregations, but they still have their articles of faith. If you shake that faith to its foundations — even at a state institution — you will not just prompt pushback, you will provoke wrath.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
— Mark Barrett