What is the last post on the hiring of J. Bruce Harreld to be the next president at the University of Iowa was also the first. I originally wrote this post in my head — or rather, it wrote itself — on September 5th, two days after the election. I finally typed it out over this past weekend, after two months of doing my best to understand the pathology that led to his appointment. Over that span I discovered more ugliness than I would have thought possible, most of it in human form. While this post is informed by that ugliness, and my newfound awareness has reinforced my original conviction, it is in spirit unaltered.
Prior to Harreld’s election my only thought about the retirement of Sally Mason was that I hoped the new president would make two pressing cultural issues a priority. Those issues were alcoholism and sexual assault, which are obviously intertwined.
If you’re not familiar with Iowa City it has always been a small town wrapped around a big university, and just off campus there have always been innumerable bars. But drinking is one thing, and routinely ranking among the top ‘party schools’ in the country another, and Iowa has been on those lists far too long. Likewise, while Iowa didn’t invent sexual assault, and it is a problem on campuses nationwide, without addressing the underlying causes, including alcohol use and abuse, and particularly binge drinking, it will be impossible to make lasting gains.
I cannot say that I paid close attention to Sally Mason’s tenure. I know she didn’t cause the floods that took much of her time, and I’m grateful for her efforts in helping the campus recover. What I did not know, and now appreciate, was how virulently and personally hostile the Board of Regents was to her. Between unwarranted condescension and intentional efforts to discredit her, I am surprised she lasted as long as she did. I would not have.
Rape and Responsibility
By pure chance, at the end of August, Chrissie Hynde was hawking her memoir about life with the Pretenders. Either while doing publicity for the book, or in the book itself, Hynde made comments about rape that caused a social media stir, and justifiably so. In reading up on the controversy I thought I could see where everyone had gone of the rails, and while Chrissie could have chosen her words better, I also felt that what she was trying to say was not without merit. Particularly given that the rape she was talking about at the time was her own.
In typical mansplaining splendor I thought I could see how to make the point she was trying to make in a way that could be heard, but I also knew it would take some time. So I started working on a post a few days later, and that continued for several weeks. While I won’t know if I’m right until I publish the post — and being right is not my objective — that’s a measure of where my head was at when news about J. Bruce Harreld’s election first broke.
Unfortunately, in her own way, Sally Mason stepped in the same controversy in 2014 when she said something that was not controversial in context, but which nonetheless seemed to betray a lack of commitment to ending sexual assault:
I’m not pleased that we have sexual assaults, obviously. The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault. That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it and help people get through these difficult situations, not bury it or try to cover it up or pretend it didn’t happen and to get away from that kind of mindset and to get a more educational, proactive mindset to help people understand when they might be at risk, to help people understand that if it happens, there are resources we have that can be helpful and can help you get through this, that you’re not all by yourself, that it wasn’t your fault, and that we have ways we can be helpful.
What bit Mason was when she said, “That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature….” And you can see why. There are a lot of things in life that may be ‘human’, but we fight them tooth and nail even as we know we will never succeed in wiping them out completely. Intolerance, racism, violence, and on and on. So Mason was factually correct, and yet not simply politically tone deaf but uncomfortably actuarial. Some sexual assaults will happen no matter what we do, but the goal is not acknowledging the inevitable, it’s fighting to eliminate as many assaults as possible, ceaselessly. For that reason, zero tolerance cannot simply be a slogan, but must be the active goal that everyone works toward.
To her credit Mason apologized shortly thereafter, but the specter of the gaffe haunted her, and not just on the University of Iowa campus. Again, having had my eyes opened during the two months following the Harreld hire, and in particular reading again and again about the malevolent bureaucratic tactics used by key members of the Board of Regents, it was not surprising to learn that the regents took advantage of Mason’s vulnerability and piled on. Here is the regents’ resident sanctimonious scold, Katie Mulholland, in high dudgeon:
“By failing to respond to us, we were forced to come to you,” Regent President Pro-tem Katie Mulholland told Mason on Friday. “And this board has gone through communication challenges with you in the past.”
Mulholland said the regents and Mason agreed long ago that communication was an area in which she needed to improve. During the special meeting, regents briefly addressed Mason’s “inappropriate” comments – Mason told the Daily Iowan student newspaper that ending sexual violence on campus was “probably not a realistic goal, just given human nature.”
Now, if you’ve followed the Harreld hire at all, you can appreciate the irony of the board insisting that it be kept fully informed, when the board is now in full lockdown, and Mulholland herself is hiding from the AAUP behind a lawsuit that won’t be heard for two years. Which is why it’s hard to take what another of those regents, President Bruce Rastetter, had to say about Mason at the time at face value.
As noted elsewhere, Rastetter seems to enjoy not just winning dirty, but kicking dirt in people’s faces. Witness how Rastetter went out of his way to embarrass Christina Bohannan during and after the search, and more recently how he not only undercut regent Subhash Sahai for speaking out, he could not resist getting in a petty dig:
Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter responded to Sahai’s comments Thursday by saying Sahai received candidate materials a week ahead of time, even if he didn’t review them immediately.
“If you’re going to be a regent, you have to commit the time to do it,” Rastetter said.
This from the man who masterminded secret meetings between J. Bruce Harreld and four regents, two of whom were not actually on the search committee. So no, when I initially read what Rastetter had to say about Mason’s gaffe, my tendency was not to believe that he was speaking honestly, but rather punitively, simply because he sensed an easy opportunity to embarrass or discredit someone:
In response to interview requests from The Gazette on Thursday, Regent President Bruce Rastetter responded with a statement.
“The Board of Regents has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the campuses at the highest level,” he said in the statement. “The Board appreciates that President Mason took responsibility and we believe our conversations in both the public and private sessions were productive. We will continue our discussion internally, and we will have no further comment.”
And yet, as much as it pains me, I have to agree with the man. The Iowa Board of Regents does have the responsibility to ensure the safety of the campuses at the highest level. Zero tolerance — no excuses.
When it comes to preventing rape and sexual assault, the perpetrators are responsible for their actions, but the victims are no longer left to stand alone in opposition. That obligation now starts at the top of our society — and on a state-college campus in Iowa the top of academic society is the Iowa Board of Regents. As a result, when the regents appoint a president for any of the schools under their control, every Iowan and every student at that school has the right to expect that experience combating sexual assault and related cultural issues will not simply be on the list of requisite qualifications, it will be high on the list for any candidate.
We Take Action
As you might imagine, when I first learned that J. Bruce Harreld had been elected, and that he had no background in academic administration, and I later learned that he lied on his resume in two different ways, I was more than a little uneasy about his awareness of the twin cultural problems of alcohol abuse and sexual assault on campuses across the country, to say nothing of his plans for fighting both at Iowa. Still, I decided to reserve judgment until I was more fully informed, and in less than two days I had my answer from the man himself.
The information I was looking for appeared in a piece posted to the KCRG website, in the afternoon on September 4th, one day after the announcement of Harreld’s victory. The first part of the piece focused on Jerre Stead, a member of the search committee who lived in Harreld’s home town at the time, and knew Harreld from way back, but who was shocked — shocked — to see Harreld’s name on a candidate list.
While the bulk of the piece focused on Stead alternately gushing about Harreld, then somberly shaking his head that anyone might oppose a man who lied on his resume, or who had no experience in academic administration, toward the end of the article there was a brief vignette from Harreld’s first day as president-elect.
But Harreld on Friday was already making the rounds on campus and around town, including visits to a Hawkeye football practice and the annual FRY Fest in Coralville. He rubbed elbows with Hawkeye legend Hayden Fry and told those he met to cut out the formalities.
“I’m Bruce, she’s Mary, let’s just be friends,” he said, referencing his wife, during his stop at the morning football practice.
Okay, so far so good. Rubbing elbows with a Hawkeye legend, putting people at ease, what’s not to like? But then comes this:
In addressing the athletes, Harreld praised them for balancing academics, athletics, and their responsibility as UI community members. He also asked for their help.
“I’ve been going around the campus the last 48 hours and there is a firestorm of issues around sexual abuse,” he said.
Even if J. Bruce Harreld did no research about Iowa prior to being miraculously elected, and even if he was living under a rock in Colorado for two years — which would explain how he and Jerre Stead never crossed paths in Denver — the idea that any candidate for president at a major university could, in 2015, be surprised by “a firestorm of issues around sexual assault” was more than a little distressing. That it seemed to be news to Harreld after he was elected was alarming.
But again, Harreld was high on his victory and trying to get the lay of the land. Which may be why — as the new big-man-on-campus, who happened to be visiting a football practice, with at least one reporter in tow — he sensed an opportunity to lead on the subject of sexual assault. Which prompted this:
“And here’s the deal, you guys are leaders on this campus. If you see something, do something. Please.”
Even now, as I’m typing these words, I don’t know what to say. Only a day after being elected president of a campus with 30,000 students, the president-elect of the University of Iowa was asking the members of the football team to be vigilant and “do something”. Should J. Bruce Harreld have known that one of the most infamous campus rapists at Iowa was a member of the basketball team, who was protected by a coach who had so little interest in sexual assault that he not only made sure his star player kept his scholarship after pleading guilty to a lesser charge, he vouched for the player’s innocence? Maybe, but again, since it was his first day as president-elect we’ll give J. Bruce Harreld a break.
More concerning was the idea that, in 2015 — after the NFL had been rocked by scandal after scandal involving violence against women, including a player punching his fiance in the face and knocking her unconscious, which suddenly prompted the NFL to get over it’s institutional amnesia about such crimes (though Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, remains a spectacular holdout) — here was the newly elected leader of a university campus attempting to deputize the members of a football team to combat sexual assault. And to be clear, that is not an indictment of the players in that or any sport. I’m sure there were plenty of athletes at Iowa who wanted to beat Pierre Pierce to a pulp, or Steve Alford for that matter, and there are plenty of Iowa football players today who would do something if they saw anyone being sexually assaulted.
The problem is not asking everyone to be aware, it’s that in formulating a plan that involves football players doing “something” when they see “something”, you’re exposing the fact that you quite literally do not know what the hell you’re talking about. And given that you just became the leader of a college campus full of 30,000 students, I can only describe that as inexcusable both with regard to the person uttering such idiocy and the people who hired that idiot. Speaking of which, in the previous post I said the following ten people were responsible for Harreld’s election:
- Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue
- Terry Branstad, governor of Iowa
- Bruce Rastetter, regents president
- Katie Mulholland, regents president pro tem
- Milt Dakovich, regent
- Larry McKibben, regent
- Mary Andringa, regent
- Jean Robillard, search committee chair
- Jerre Stead, search committee member
- J. Bruce Harreld, president of Iowa
As you can see, one of the people on that list is Regents President Bruce Rastetter, who stated quite clearly that “the Board of Regents has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the campuses at the highest level.” As you can also see on that list, there are four other regents who were critical to making sure that a man whose plan to combat the scourge of campus sexual assault included the football team doing “something” was elected to the highest office on campus.
Okay — admittedly that doesn’t look good, but again, we’re basing our smoldering fury on a few offhand comments the day after the election. Harreld is feeling his victory, it’s been years since anyone had to bow to him, he’s eager to take the reins, yet even though what comes out of his mouth is idiocomic in the extreme, it sounds like he’s a zero-tolerance kind of guy. And it’s not like he’s really suggesting that crime-fighting football players should be school policy, or that what’s been missing all these years in the fight against campus sexual assault, or sexual assault in all corners of society, is a phalanx of male athletes standing guard.
Except that really is what he was saying, and that really is what he meant:
Harreld offered to provide help, if any of them need it.
“You are the sort of people who could [really] begin to make a difference in this whole issue,” he said. “The men that are here need to send the message that it’s not right, and we take action.”
At which point the lightbulb finally goes on and you can see Harreld’s plan for what it is. It’s not a plan, it’s a movie moment. It’s a scene playing out on flickering celluloid, in which the earnest new president of the university, F. Bruce Fitzharreld, takes time away from the glee club and the pep rally to remind the boys that while the big game is important, nothing is more important that protecting the cheerleaders from cads and bounders. Because in 2015 there is literally no other way for a grown man to think like that unless he has had a psychotic break.
And again, that is not an indictment of football players past, present or future, or of any athletes, or of men. It is an indictment of a anachronistic mindset that is shockingly out of step with modern society, and has no place at the ‘top level’ of a university campus. And yet there F. Bruce Fitzharreld is, poised tomorrow morning to begin saving coeds from sexual assault, one football player at a time.
As noted, we have nine other people to thank for electing a president who not only had no experience in academic administration, but who was so culturally ignorant of the most pressing cultural issue in higher education that he saw young men at a football practice as “the sort of people who could [really] begin to make a difference in this whole issue.” If football players or any other campus group were all that was needed to solve the problem of campus sexual assault, it would have been solved a long time ago. And anyone who had even the slightest awareness of sexual assault as a cultural problem — not just on college campuses, but throughout history — would already know that. Which means J. Bruce Harreld was not just having a bad idea at the wrong time, J. Bruce Harreld was, in that moment, putting forward the only idea he’s ever had about combating sexual assault.
Failure at the Highest Level
As distressing as all that is, for the moment we’re going to assume, as a best-case scenario, that J. Bruce Harreld is simply clueless about sexual assault. He got caught up in his own moment of glory, then out popped a pep talk for a film that would have been made fifty years ago, or maybe seventy-five. Because regardless of the reason for J. Bruce Harreld’s complete lack of competence on the subject of sexual assault, we now have a much bigger problem to deal with.
It’s clear that the nine other people on the list above conspired to elect J. Bruce Harreld over anyone else. They gave him preferential treatment, they denied other candidates the same opportunities by administrative nonfeasance, they defrauded the taxpayers of Iowa by running a sham search, and five members of the Board of Regents actually lied to the other four members in order to fix the final vote.
With all that, not once did any of the other nine people on that list ask J. Bruce Harreld for his opinions about campus sexual assault, or even offer to give him those opinions. And we know that because if anyone had prepped Harreld about sexual assault even briefly, let alone broached the history of sexual assault on the Iowa campus, Harreld would not have, indeed could not have, seized the moment during a football practice and revealed his utter ignorance.
So not only wasn’t expertise in dealing with sexual assault at the top of the list of qualifications that Harreld’s nine co-conspirators deemed important in a candidate, and not only wasn’t it at the bottom of the list, it wasn’t on the list at all. Mitch Daniels, the current president of Purdue, in “recommending” Harreld for the job, cannot have spent a single second considering how Harreld’s lack of cultural knowledge and qualifications would affect the safety of the students on the Iowa campus. The same goes for Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa, who had the opportunity to bring the issue up during a secret phone call with Harreld that no other candidate received. And of course there’s Jerre Stead, who showed grave concern about whether people would be nice to Harreld, and no concern about electing a president who knew nothing about sexual assault.
And what about Jean Robillard, chair of the search committee, but also a physician and the vice president for medical affairs? In his time Robillard has not only dealt with sexual assault cases administratively, he has almost certainly treated victims. There may be no one on the above list who is more well-informed about sexual assault generally and campus sexual assault specifically, yet even after hobnobbing with Harreld on July 8th (under false pretenses), Harreld ends up enlisting the football team to solve the problem.
And then of course we have the five members of the Iowa Board of Regents. Regents Mulholland, Dakovich, McKibben and Andringa, the four dishonest regents who participated in secret meetings with Harreld on July 30th, who may have had more uninterrupted face time with Harreld than any other people on the list, cannot have spent a single moment talking about sexual assault or the safety of the students on the Iowa campus. They cannot have urged Harreld to read up on sexual assault, or to check the headlines over the past year, because the day after his election he’s going off the deep end with the football team. By their own standard J. Bruce Harreld had no business even being considered for the position, yet they all went out of their way to elect him over three fully qualified candidates who had long experience with campus sexual assault.
Which brings us, finally, to the noble protector of the student, regents President Bruce Rastetter, who famously said, “The Board of Regents has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the campuses at the highest level.” Because whatever other questions Bruce Rastetter doesn’t want to answer right now, at the top of the list is how he spent months rigging an election for a man who was utterly unqualified to ensure the safety of any campus. Which not only means Rastetter really was just being an opportunistic bully in bashing Sally Mason for her remarks — which otherwise took place in a rational and informed discussion about sexual assault — but in doing so Rastetter had no problem using the real pain of other human beings to score a cheap political point. After which he turned around and abandoned his faux convictions in order to give J. Bruce Harreld the Iowa presidency.
When you’re hiring someone to lead a campus with 30,000 students, 1,400 faculty and untold staff, you’re hiring the leader of a culture. And we know this. It’s why our police chiefs have walked a beat or been on patrol, and our fire chiefs have spent years fighting fires. Yes, those highest-level jobs are primarily administrative, but at root they’re still about maintaining law and order and fighting fires, and it matters greatly that the people in those positions have that experience.
Nobody would propose taking a carpetbagging dilettante off the Harvard MBA rack and making them a police chief or fire chief. And it’s not just about getting buy-in from the underlings, who can always be cowed with punitive action. It’s about being legitimate, about having expertise in your formative DNA — about knowing things that can’t be coached or mentored. You have to earn those stripes, and the three candidates that the Iowa Board of Regents turned down earned their stripes with regard to sexual assault and campus security. Not so J. Bruce Harreld.
Sexual assault not only isn’t a new problem, cultural awareness of that problem in society overall and on college campuses in particular has never been higher. Nobody in higher education is unaware of the problem, which of course gets to the heart of the problem with J. Bruce Harreld, who has no experience in academic administration. He taught a few courses, yes, but that only makes his lack of any awareness all the more incredible. Almost as incredible as how nine apparently functional adults — the majority of them obligated by membership on the Board of Regents to put campus safety at the top of their candidate wishlists — concluded that J. Bruce Harreld was the right man for the presidency at Iowa.
If you’re thinking I’m making too much of this, you could be right. I know when I first read about Harreld’s comments to the football team a region of my brain seized up for a few hours. So maybe I haven’t fully recovered from the shock.
What would obviously be helpful would be having J. Bruce Harreld speak about sexual assault directly, in context. And as it happens we have that, courtesy of the open forum that Harreld appeared in two days before the election. Unfortunately, not only does J. Bruce Harreld’s rambling response raise more questions than it answers, it may short out your brain because the question he was asked seems to have had no impact on his awareness of the problem at all [56:18 – 59:25]:
The question concerns Title IX, and allegations by a woman at Florida State, who said her complaint that she was raped by a football player was inadequately investigated. And you can see the problem. Here Harreld is, two days before urging the members of the Iowa football team to take the lead in fighting sexual assault, and he’s being asked about an alleged sexual assault by a football player.
Toward the end of the question Harreld is specifically asked “what major universities need to do to protect women from sexual assault.” Plain enough. While Harreld’s answer wanders — which isn’t really surprising since he knows nothing about the subject — the magnitude of what he doesn’t know is shocking. First, he mentions asking his daughter if sexual assault is a problem on college campuses, then he explains that instead of a six-step plan that he can’t remember, he has a better idea. A two-letter plan: N-O. And no, I am not joking.
Harreld responds to another well-informed cultural question at the 1:14 mark. To his credit he is smart enough to acknowledge that he doesn’t have the slightest idea what the questioner is talking about, but he recognizes that she can undoubtedly help him paper over that incompetence. Which only calls attention to how much more could be done by someone who actually knew the subject matter, as you would reasonably expect they would. (If you’re a glutton for punishment, don’t miss Harreld’s tough talk on transparency at the 1:28 mark — a commitment that went right out the window as soon as his own fraudulent hire came under scrutiny.)
Leaving aside how someone so completely unqualified managed to get that far in the search process, what do we say about someone who asks his daughter to enlighten him about campus sexual assault, spouts kindergarten-grade, zero-tolerance tough talk before a roomful of faculty and staff, then two days later turns around and asks the football team to be his boots on the ground? What would you say? Because I would say that’s completely insane. And yet there J. Bruce Harreld is, scheduled to start work bright and early Monday morning.
By his very election, J. Bruce Harreld makes the students on campus less safe because of his global ignorance of that culture. And even if he never realized that, everyone else on the list of infamy above should have known — particularly the key player who not only orchestrated the fraud necessary to elect Harreld to office, but who shot his mouth off about the regents being responsible for ensuring the safety of each campus at the highest level.
There is no possible conception of a zero-tolerance policy against sexual assault that includes appointing someone at the highest level who knows nothing about sexual assault. You don’t need to know anything more to know that’s true. Zero tolerance isn’t just zero tolerance against sexual assault, it’s zero tolerance against the bureaucratic hypocrisy that defines every person on the list above.
The reason zero tolerance has to be policy from the top down is that sexual assault does life-long damage. It’s not a bad grade or a bad break-up, it’s trauma. It may be hard to fight, it may be hard to track, but because it’s one of the most damaging things that can happen to any person, let alone someone on their own for the first time in their adult life, it has to go to the top of the list of priorities. It’s not enough to talk the zero-tolerance talk, you have to have to walk the walk. N-O is just talk.
Zero tolerance. No excuses. A responsibility to ensure the safety of the campuses at the highest level. And that’s why my brain shorted out when I first heard about the Harreld hire. Which brings me to the most important question in this post.
Where is the outrage? And I’m not talking about the kind of lazy social media outrage that makes everyone feel good about themselves. I’m talking about real outrage — that in 2015 a major research university with a long history of cultural problems including sexual assault just had an incompetent president imposed on it by a cabal of corrupt individuals who care nothing about the safety of the students. This is the moment when people who have fought to make sexual assault, and particularly campus sexual assault, relevant — to speak for victims who were ignored for decades — should be apoplectic, yet all I hear are crickets.
If what just happened at the University of Iowa, in 2015, in full view of everyone, does not raise your ire, then we can all stop pretending that we care about the victims of sexual assault, past, present and future. Instead, we can get on board with Regents President Bruce Rastetter, and only bring up the very real and life-long pain of sexual assault when it can be used to score a cheap political point.
If that’s not the case — if people do want change — then there are ten individuals listed above who need to explain their thought process while they were breaking every rule in the book to make sure J. Bruce Harreld became the president of the University of Iowa. And I don’t mean they need to be called out in public. I mean people who are serious about campus sexual assault need to take the time to schedule meetings with those people and press them for answers, and engage in the kind of fact finding about the Harreld hire that will paint the complete picture. (And that includes finding out where Harreld and the Board of Regents are on the victim-hating Safe Campus Act.)
This didn’t just happen. In 2015, when the issue of sexual assault could not be more prominent in public consciousness, to say nothing about the issue of violence against women, ten individuals who were charged with ensuring the safety of the students at the University of Iowa at the highest level did not give that responsibility a second thought. And we now that by virtue of the candidate they elected.
— Mark Barrett