A little over five years ago the corrupt Iowa Board of Regents concluded a rigged search, at a cost to the state of more than $300K, and appointed a complicit J. Bruce Harreld as president of the University of Iowa. A little over ten days ago Harreld announced that he would be retiring from that purloined position, pending the hire of his successor. One week ago the board formally accepted Harreld’s retirement letter and immediately set in motion the next six-figure, state-funded search process by which that individual will be chosen.
Along with initiating the vetting process by which an executive search firm will be hired to facilitate the recruitment of Harreld’s replacement, the board also began the internal process by which the presidential search committee will be constituted and charged with that statutory responsibility. In that context, understandably dubious members of the UI community are already pointing to a 2018 agreement between the UI Faculty Senate and several representatives of the Board of Regents, which purports to establish hard guidelines by which future searches will be conducted at the University of Iowa. (That agreement was negotiated to facilitate removal of UI from a list of sanctioned institutions maintained by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which conducted an investigation and issued a report following the corrupt 2015 presidential search at Iowa.)
The 2018 agreement between the UI Faculty Senate and the Board of Regents is titled, Summary of Best Practice for Faculty Engagement in a UI Presidential Search. It is a robust and thorough document, and if you have not read it I encourage you to do so, not only because it is also a useful repository of information about prior presidential searches at Iowa, but because I will be referencing that information in this post. Whether you read the document or not, the most important thing you must remember is that it has no statutory enforcement mechanism. It is, at best, an aspirational document that was forged with a governmental body that previously showed no compunction about wasting $300K in state funds, merely to give the appearance of legitimacy to a search process that was corrupted from the very start. Having said that, the 2018 agreement is still of considerable value and benefit, because it will tell us, precisely, when the board once again decides to abandon it’s commitment to a fair search process, and reverts to cheating, lying and bullying the UI community into selecting the candidate the board wants.
The Republican Board of Regents
Whatever conception you currently have of the Iowa Board of Regents, that conception is wrong. If you think of the regents as nine citizen volunteers who are deeply committed to the stewardship of public higher education, that is wrong. If you think of the regents as nine grumbling curmudgeons determined to fleece you out of money or keep you from having a good time, that is also wrong. Even in the context of the board’s fundamental fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interest of the citizens of Iowa, the board routinely looks the other way or grants discretionary powers to its subordinate presidents at a cost of millions if not tens of millions of dollars to the state, and yet no one is ever held accountable.
The reason for that forbearance is that despite the clear legislative intent of the act which established the Iowa Board of Regents, following a decade of brazen political appointments that body is now a de facto organ of the Iowa Republican Party. To be clear, not all of the current regents are Republicans, and indeed by law the board cannot have more than five members from any one party (see 262.1 Membership). Starting with the political resurrection of former governor Terry Branstad in 2010, however — which was engineered by Republican Party kingmaker Bruce Rastetter, who then told Branstad to appoint Rastetter to the Board of Regents in 2011 — the Republican Party has circumvented even that statutory stab at bipartisanship by appointing independents, including regents who formerly identified as Republicans but switched party affiliation in advance of their nomination. The end result is that today, as currently constituted, the board contains five Republicans, three ostensible independents, and one Democrat.
If you are under the impression that appointments are made by the governor, but the board itself acts independent of the executive branch in Iowa, that conception is also wrong. We know that because only weeks after appointing Rastetter to the Board of Regents — in a naked act of political patronage — Governor Branstad bulldozed the duly elected leaders of the board out of their leadership positions. That allowed Rastetter to quickly ascend, first as president pro tem, then as president two years later in 2013. And of course Republican kingpin and fixer Bruce Rastetter then went on to serve as the architect of the rigged 2015 presidential search at Iowa.
From that example alone it should be clear that the Iowa Board of Regents has been under explicit and ruthless Republican Party control since 2011, but that is literally only the beginning. One year before Rastetter’s term expired in 2017, another Republican Party stalwart — Mike Richards, who just happened to be a long-time political ally of Rastetter’s — was appointed to the board, and only months after Rastetter’s term ended Richards was voted in as board president, which is the position he still holds today. (To underscore the ruthlessness of the Republican Party machine, when Rastetter departed, and before Richards was named president, interim president Larry McKibben — a long-time Republican Party foot soldier on the board — announced his interest in becoming president. Unfortunately, Larry was outside the loop of the Republican Party powerbrokers, and was subsequently crushed by the top-down directive that Richards, a long-time big-money donor, would take the helm.)
But there’s more. In March of 2019, David Barker — a full-on “Republican Party official” — was also named to the board, and in my view will succeed Richards as president when Richards’ term expires at the end of April. In any event, at the very moment that Regent Barker is now participating in the process by which the next president of the University of Iowa will be chosen, he is also actively working to elect Republicans in Johnson County, as a member of Iowa’s Republican State Central Committee.
What you must never forget as the presidential search unfolds at Iowa, is that the Board of Regent is wholly controlled by the Iowa Republican Party. Whether you interact with the board as a body, with individual regents, or with the board’s professional staff, you are interacting with a governmental organ which is controlled by Republican Governor Kim Reynolds and her high-dollar donors and political operatives, to first and foremost advance the objectives of the Republican Party. If you do not keep that in mind, or if you fall prey to claims of independence or institutional integrity, you will simply end up abetting the Republican Party agenda. Notwithstanding those individuals in the ranks — either on staff or on the board — who have a genuine interest in education, they are there either to give the appearance of fairness, or because their lack of explicit fealty cannot prevent the Republican Party from using the board to its own crony devices. If anyone at the board was an obstacle to Republican Party objectives they would quickly be marginalized and dispensed with.
The Politics of the Presidential Search at UI
The implications of Republican Party control of the search to replace J. Bruce Harreld — who was himself appointed as a result of state-funded corruption by the Republican Party — should be blindingly obvious. Whatever else may take place in the background or transpire in the wings, the search to replace Harreld will, fundamentally, be a political process. And I don’t mean political in the derogatory sense, where people angle for status or attempt to impose their petty vanities on each other. I mean full-on political in the bare-knuckle electoral sense, in a state that has been dominated by a powerful Republican machine for a decade, which is currently headed up by a murderous governor who decided that protecting Iowans from COVID-19 was too expensive, so now she’s protecting Iowa’s hospital infrastructure from sick Iowans instead. But I digress.
The governor is not up for reelection this year, and even if she were, and even if she lost, that wouldn’t change the balance of power on the board. The nine current members will shape the 2020-2021 search process, and even if the search takes a full year the only regents whose terms expire in 2021 are President Richards, as alluded above, and President Pro Tem Patty Cownie, another Republican Party stalwart. (It is possible but unlikely that Richards and/or Cownie will be named to a second term, but that only means two more Republican Party faithful will be appointed to take their places next spring, whether the search is completed or not.)
The political reality of the current search at UI is that whatever you think of the members of the Board of Regents, either individually or collectively, no one is taking over at the University of Iowa if that person does not pass muster with Governor Reynolds. If the candidate you would like to nominate, or the candidate you prefer if you are fortunate enough to be on the committee, is a socialist, liberal, progressive, philosopher, artist or a strong advocate of faculty rights, that candidate is never getting near the University of Iowa presidency. The objective reason for that is that the only merit Kim Reynolds sees in higher education — as was the case with Terry Branstad before her — is as job training for undergraduates and professionals. Making sure there are enough employees in the pipeline for the corporate cronies who donate to Reynolds’ campaign coffers is a big priority for her. Making sure Iowa students can think critically. or appreciate the arts, or that they become better citizens, is not only meaningless to her, it is antithetical to her political future.
By the same token, however, there are plenty of factors that Reynolds — and by extension the board — do not care about, and I believe that includes gender and race. If the search committee nominated a charismatic and photogenic woman of color, who was willing to follow orders from the board, I think the regents would be thrilled to appoint her precisely to diminish the threat of racial unrest on the UI campus, and to signal virtues to which the all-white board may not actually ascribe. (Given J. Bruce Harreld’s demonstrable administrative hostility to diversity, equity and inclusion, it was only by complete chance — because the campus was emptied prior to the arrival of COVID-19 — that there was not more campus unrest following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And I think the board is aware of that, and aware of Harreld’s ongoing liability on the DEI front.)
Old, white, rich and male J. Bruce Harreld was clearly cast to Republican type, but the intent of his appointment was to shift the focus away from education for its own sake, and toward things such as gaming the university’s college rank and increasing the number of students in professional programs like law, medicine and dentistry. To a limited extent Harreld did make those changes, and the board will not appoint anyone who wants to shift the school back toward aspirations to a public good. The board might be willing, however, to hire someone who could restore the school’s badly damaged academic reputation after five years of Harreld blowing up the org chart and destabilizing the school. (Even Iowa’s business and political cronies would prefer a stable university, as opposed to one that is constantly embroiled in public chaos and costly acts of self-inflicted idiocy.)
The governor calls the shots, the regents have all of the power, the board won’t appoint anyone who does not conform to Republican Party priorities, but there is still a conversation to be had. The odds, even now, are that the regents already have the next president picked out, but perhaps not. Or perhaps that person is intrigued, but ultimately decides to pass. Advocating for what is best for the University of Iowa and the UI community may fall on deaf ears, but you never know, so despite the daunting political obstacles it is important not to overlook the fact that the board is willing to at least pretend to listen. Even if the conversation is for show, and the process is rigged, it is infinitely better than the alternative.
Due Credit to the Regents
However frustrating it is to know that you may already be powerless to change the outcome of the 2020-2021 presidential search at UI, bet thankful that at least you have an outside shot. Because at many schools across the country, including major public research universities, you would have no chance. The reason for that is that there are two types of personnel searches in higher-ed, usually described as ‘open’ and ‘closed’. In a closed search a committee is empaneled and the entire selection process takes place in secret, until a sole finalist is then laughably announced as the preferred candidate. At that point the governing board pretends to be thrilled with the integrity of the rigged search, amazed at the caliber of the other applicants that they will never have to disclose, and the done-deal candidate is appointed forthwith — unless you’re the University of Wisconsin and drunk on your own bureaucratic ego. (To see just how wrong a closed search can go, check out the resulting carnage from the train wreck at UW.)
In an open search, which is what the Iowa Board of Regents traditionally uses, three to five finalists are chosen by the search committee during a confidential selection process, then those finalists are revealed one at a time to the campus community. That not only gives the campus a chance to ask questions and evaluate the finalists before the president is chosen, but it makes clear that the search committee did its job of recruiting qualified applicants and sifting through applications. Ideally there will be consensus between the response of the campus and the final vote of the governing board, but there may also be a legitimate difference of opinion. What is uncommon, however, and what tipped off the UI community to the fact that the board rigged the outcome in 2015, was that J. Bruce Harreld’s candidate forum was a disaster, yet he was still appointed over the strident objections of the greater campus community, in brute violation of the norms of shared governance at academic institutions.
From the Request for Qualification that the board sent out to executive search firms last Monday, we know that once again the regents are preparing for an open search at UI. What you may not know, however, even if you paid attention to the corrupt 2015 search process, is that the former president of the board, Bruce Rastetter — along with an assist from the former UI VP for Medical Affairs, who was also the chair of the search committee and interim president during the transition — tried to do away with open searches entirely, after the UI presidency was stolen for Harreld.
From Jeff Charis-Carlson at the Iowa City Press-Citizen, on 10/01/15 — even as revelations about the corrupt search were spilling forth:
After reaffirming his confidence in the incoming University of Iowa president, interim president Jean Robillard said Thursday it might have been less disruptive if the months-long search process had been either fully open or fully closed.
“I would not change the choice,” Robillard told a group of about 200 members of various Iowa City-area service clubs. “I will support (incoming UI President Bruce Harreld) completely. … I will not ‘take a mulligan’ on that.”
Robillard was responding to an audience question concerning what, in hindsight, he would have changed about the search process to avoid the recent backlash on campus.
“The problem is that you have searches that are supposed to be open, and searches that are supposed to be closed, and we were between that,” continued Robillard, who chaired the search committee that recommended Harreld as a finalist. “The regents will have to decide what kind of search they want.”
What Robillard was attempting to do with his disingenuous comments was to both distance himself from an open search that he played a critical role in corrupting, and to advocate for closed searches in the future as a means of avoiding subsequent backlash and negative press. Not only is there no such thing as a partially-open or partially-closed search — and Robillard knew that when he floated that insinuation — but the very aspects of the 2015 search that he was alluding to were in fact the corrupt machinations of himself and others. As I noted in response to Robillard’s comments at the time :
What I find particularly galling about that prospect, however, is that Rastetter — along with the traitor Robillard — has already signaled that he intends to use his own unacknowledged abuses of power, and his trolling of the University of Iowa community subsequent to those abuses, as justification for now conducting entirely closed searches.
Six months after Robillard broached the subject of closed searches, regent president and 2015 co-conspirator Bruce Rastetter advanced the cause. From an interview with the Des Moines Register Editorial Board, on 03/22/16:
The Iowa Board of Regents should consider recruiting and hiring university presidents in secret to improve the pool of applicants, Board President Bruce Rastetter said Tuesday.
“I’m not saying that the system should change and go to private but what I am suggesting is that future boards should look at doing private searches because you want the absolute best outcome,” Rastetter said in a meeting with the Des Moines Register editorial board.
Rastetter said other public universities — including the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois — have used private searches to find new leadership, and that doing so can allow more qualified applicants to compete.
As we know from the recent closed-search disaster at the University of Wisconsin, and a closed-search at the University of Oklahoma in 2018, which led to the sole finalist being appointed and then resigning in less than a year, closed searches are not a panacea. Despite self-interested claims that closed searches allow superior candidates to engage without risking their current employment status, the reality is that the people who prefer closed searches are exactly the kind of chiselers and cheats you would expect — like Robillard and Rastetter, who, among others, rigged the 2015 presidential search at UI.
As we saw in 2015, however, open searches can also be abused, and they do not guarantee that the best candidate will get the job. There are in fact plenty of ways to rig an open search so it looks fair, but still leads to the appointment of the governing board’s preferred candidate, and that includes a recent example at one of the other regent universities. What I do want you to remember, however, is that for whatever reason the Iowa Board of Regents decided not to go over the closed-search cliff with Robillard and Rastetter. They might do so in the future, and I’m sure they thought about it when Harreld announced that the was retiring, but the fact of the matter is that even though they hold all of the cards and have the statutory authority to dictate how presidential searches are conducted at the state schools, the regents continue to conduct open searches.
The Composition of the Search Committee
What the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents need from this search is a collaborative process which produces a mutually agreeable result. I believe both camps are incentivized to achieve that result, I believe it’s possible, and I believe that should be the overarching goal. Having said that, the board will inevitably try to impose its will on the search process, and its powers are considerable. Simply knowing what the red flags (🚩) are, however — and letting the regents know those issues are known to the UI community — will help the board avoid the kind of heavy-handed abuses of power to which it seems perpetually drawn. (For example, immediately upon disclosure of the make-up of the search committee, it will be clear whether the Board of Regents intends to perpetrate one or more of those heavy-handed abuses of power during the 2020-2020 UI presidential search.)
Having already launched the relatively automatic process by which an executive search firm will be chosen — which can, of course, still be rigged to produce whatever result the regents desire — the board is now focused on developing the methodology by which the search committee will be populated. If past searches are any guide the board will announce the size of the committee in the coming days, and the number of slots available to each group that will be granted a literal seat at the table, and included in that list will be one or two seats for the general public. There will then be a nominating and application interval, lasting several weeks, during which interested parties with the requisite qualifications can apply to fill those public seats, while the board and relevant groups fill out the remaining slots on the list.
You can see the slots for the 2015 UI search here, which the board announced about two weeks after Sally Mason’s intent to retire was made public, and about three weeks before the members of the committee were announced. The process for applying for the two slots that were allotted to members of the general public (p. 126) was announced the next day.
If the Board of Regents wanted to conduct a quickie rigged search with impunity, it could put together a small search committee in the single digits — as the University of Wisconsin recently did, with nine members including zero faculty — and call it a crony day. The problem, of course, is that a small search committee not only betrays intent, it squanders the relatively cheap opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to shared governance without having to actually commit to shared governance. Or put another way, a small committee means picking a fight the board doesn’t need to pick.
The total number of voting slots on the UI presidential search committee will probably number between nineteen and twenty-three, an odd number being necessary to avoid tie votes. Among the groups represented in that number will be: two search chairs; several regents; several faculty; one or more members of the public; several representatives from the UI Center for Advancement (formerly the UI Foundation); and the presidents of the four shared-governance groups. In and among those groups, and particularly among the faculty in lily-white Iowa — which also has a nine-member governing board as white as the driven snow — there will be efforts to provide representation with regard to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.
🚩 A Crony Majority
From the board’s point of view it doesn’t really matter who ends up on the committee as long as the board knows, in advance, that it has a majority of the votes before the search even begins. By and large, for most presidential searches in academia — whether open or closed — it is usually possible to go down the list of committee members and pick out the votes that give the governing board a majority. Take the number of regents themselves, add in people who are primarily concerned about money instead of academics or education, add in half of the public slots and all of the local business elders, and that will almost always add up to more than fifty percent regardless of the size of the committee.
In the case of the 2020-2021 UI presidential search, however, the board should — by virtue of its naked corruption and flagrant disregard for shared governance in 2015 — feel obligated to obscure its majority votes, if not also to cut that majority a bit fine for its own tastes. If it does not feel chastened, and instead openly demonstrates its ability to stack the board with cronies, that’s a massive red flag that the current search will be another exercise in administrative theater.
🚩 Unequal Co-Chairs
The corrupt 2015 search at UI was chaired by a single individual, precisely to give him the widest possible latitude in rigging the search for J. Bruce Harreld. That the chair in that case was one of the highest-ranking members of university administration, who, to that point, had an impeccable reputation, made it hard to question that decision until it was too late to realize the brute significance of that bureaucratic move. In the two presidential searches that the board has conducted in the interim — first at the University of Northern Iowa in 2016, then at Iowa State in 2017 — co-chairs were appointed, but that does not mean those co-chairs were equal in power.
For the 2016 search at UNI, the co-chairs were Dan Power, a faculty member active in campus governance and in the dreaded AAUP, and Regent President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland, who was one of the thug regents who facilitated Harreld’s crony hire in 2015. In fact, not only did Mulholland participate in that corrupt search with contemptuous zeal, she spiked the ball in the face of the shared-governance leaders at UI, which was in turn a slap in the face at UNI when she was appointed as co-chair. Compared to the rigged 2015 search at Iowa that was certainly better than having the entire process dictated by a single corrupt insider, but with Mulholland as co-chair it was clear the board was still determined to have iron-fisted control over the process. Having said that, the eventual appointment of Mark Nook seems to have been legitimate, and Nook has done a good job — or at least not a conspicuously bad job — guiding UNI. On the other hand, because UNI is a third the size of UI and ISU, the board probably felt it could appear magnanimous, after having successfully installed crony toad Harreld at the state’s flagship university the year before.
The 2017 search at Iowa State also had two co-chairs in Luis Rico-Gutierrez, Dean of the College of Design. and Dan Houston, President and CEO of Principal Financial Group of Des Moines. Why was a local corporate business leader elevated to the co-chair of a regent search? The general answer is that among the three regent universities in Iowa, the one which crony business and political interests have their hooks in the most is Iowa State, which is dominated by Big Agriculture among other controlling interests. Specifically, however, Dan Houston is in thick with the Iowa Republican Party, including working with Governor Reynolds on her Future Ready Iowa initiative, which views education as indivisible from job training. (Coincidentally, here is Dan Houston on Governor Reynolds’ new business-led economic recovery advisory board, which she created to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which has no faculty members despite the fact that Iowa has two R1/AAU research universities at the state’s disposal.)
All of which is to say is that when the co-chairs of the UI search are announced, we will learn a great deal about the sincerity of the board’s commitment to a balanced search.
🚩 Low Faculty Representation
It should be self-evident that the last thing the Board of Regents wants is a faculty majority on the UI search committee. In fact, the board would probably prefer to keep faculty representation to a third or less, in part because faculty are good at making arguments and using reason, while the regents tend to rely on force of numbers. For context, in 2015 the twenty-one member search committee only had seven faculty, but as originally conceived by the corrupt president of the board, Bruce Rastetter, that number was even lower.
From the AAUP’s final report on the rigged 2015 search (p. 5):
The then faculty senate president, Professor Alexandra Thomas, consulted Professor Katherine Tachau, the chair of the Committee on the Selection of Central Academic Officials. Professor Tachau informed the undersigned that she told Professor Thomas that members of the board of regents should not serve on the search committee. Professor Thomas, she said, replied that the composition of the committee had been discussed with board president Rastetter, who wanted Professor Thomas and her successor as faculty senate president, Professor Christina Bohannan, to be on the committee. The slate of other faculty members recommended to serve was worked out among the board members. Professor Bohannon told us that initially the board had slotted five seats on the committee for faculty members, but Professor Thomas had protested that five was too few, whereupon Mr. Rastetter agreed to increase the number by two.
In any other instance it would be a foregone conclusion that the Board of Regents would minimize UI faculty representation as much as possible. Because of the nakedly corrupt 2015 search, however, and particularly because of the consequent sanction levied by the AAUP, the board must now wrestle with the non-binding 2018 agreement. From p. 1 of the Summary of Best Practice for Faculty Engagement in a UI Presidential Search, here are the relevant stipulations:
1. Faculty representation on search committee
•A faculty member (excluding faculty primarily in administrative roles, e.g., provosts and deans) should chair or co-chair the committee.
•The Faculty chair/co-chair shall consult with constituent campus groups to select faculty members subject to BOR approval.
•At least one-half of the search committee members should be faculty (including faculty in administrative roles, e.g. provosts and deans).
•Faculty should represent multiple disciplines and tracks at the rank of associate professor or professor.
Leaving aside the mushy language (‘should’ instead of ‘must’), there isn’t any wiggle room here for the board. Unfortunately, because politically motivated governing boards in the modern era are antagonistic, thuggish and short-sighted, I expect the regents to fall short of this section of the agreement simply because they are not legally obligated to comply. They board got what it wanted when the AAUP sanction was lifted, they know the faculty has no statutory authority to compel them to follow through, and they now have the chance to appoint another crony toad as president of the University of Iowa.
Still, it is worth noting that out of the past five searches at UI, the two which involved greater than fifty-percent faculty participation on the committee both resulted in good hires. From p. 9 of the 2018 agreement:
Taken in sum with the board’s scandalous abuses of power in 2015 — to say nothing of the board’s determination to commit those abuses to hire a pugnacious brat who is now quitting on the board — one might think the board would see majority faculty representation as a strength. Given that the Iowa Board of Regents is an instrument of the Iowa Republican Party, however, one would almost certainly be wrong.
🚩 Packing the Committee With Regents
If you are not familiar with presidential searches in higher education, it may seem inevitable that members of a governing board would appoint themselves to their own search committees. As indirectly noted in the AAUP quote above, however, that was not always the case at UI. From the 2015 AAUP investigation (p. 12):
First, contrary to the long-standing tradition at the University of Iowa of regental nonparticipation on presidential search committees and despite the “notorious debacle” in its departure from that practice in 2006, the board structured a search process that directly involved the board’s leadership and reduced the faculty’s representation to a minority. The board’s concession to senate president Thomas, increasing the number of faculty representatives by two, was, in practical terms, meaningless.
For the 2015 UI search, the 2016 UNI search, and the 2017 ISU search, the Board of Regents stocked each search committee with four regents. While that was advantageous in itself because it meant four firm votes for the board’s favorite candidate when the cut-down process began, the truth is that any governing board can easily stock a search committee with crony votes. The real advantage in having sitting regents on a search committee is that by virtue of their dual standing they can pierce the veil of confidentiality around the committee process. Where every non-regent committee member is prevented from talking about the work of the search committee — even with regents who are not on the committee — the regents who are members of the committee can not only convey information about candidates to other regents who are not on the committee, they can convey the number of affirmative votes to individual candidates. (Committee members vote on the finalists, but only the nine regents make the final appointment.)
That is of course how the corrupt former president of the regents, Bruce Rastetter, arranged secret meetings between J. Bruce Harreld and four other regents — two of whom were not even on the 2015 search committee. From those meetings Harreld knew that he had five solid votes in his favor on the nine-member board, thus making his appointment a lock before the committee cut-down process even began. In fact, precisely because the president of the board is imbued with statutory powers, while also functioning as an underboss in the political mafia known as the Republican Party, there is no greater red flag than the self-appointment of the regent president to a search committee. Simply by shape-shifting back and forth between super-villain regent president and mild-mannered committee member, the board president can distort and corrupt the entire search process while obscuring their abuses of power behind the confidentiality of the search process.
To the board’s minimal credit, Rastetter did not appoint himself to the UNI committee in 2016, nor did his successor, Mike Richards, appoint himself to the ISU committee in 2017. Likewise, for the current search at the University of Iowa — which will almost certainly feature four regents — the board president should not be a member of the committee.
(If you are wondering why the board has not appointed five or more regents to a search committee, that’s because five regents establishes a quorum for any activity relevant to a matter before the board, and of course appointing the presidents of the state schools is a central obligation of the board’s statutory charter. Once a quorum is established, that triggers other state laws about notifying the public, keeping records and conducting open meetings, which would obliterate the confidentiality of the search process. In fact, were five members of the board appointed to a search committee, that committee would cease to exist and in its place would be a full-blown board meeting featuring a guest speakers.)
🚩 Ex Officio Members
Along with the voting members on the search committee there will be several ex offiicio members who perform administrative and support functions, all of whom will be wholly in the tank for the board, if not actual members of the board’s professional staff. For the 2015 UI search the ex officio members were Bob Donley, executive director of the board, Diana Gonzalez, chief academic officer of the board, and Peter Matthes, interim chief of staff and vice president for external affairs for the UI Office of the President. For the 2016 UNI search the ex-officio members were Bob Donley, Executive Director of the board, and Diana Gonzalez, Chief Academic Officer of the board. For the 2017 ISU search the ex-officio members were Rachel Boon, Interim Chief Academic Officer of the board of Regents, and Mark Braun, Chief Operating Officer of the board.
Looking through all of those names, the one that stands out like a sore middle finger is Peter Matthes during the 2015 UI search, for two reasons. First, he’s the only person who wasn’t on staff at the board. Second, as the interim chief of staff and VP for External Affairs for the UI president, he worked directly for Sally Mason, who was, throughout most of the search process, still the president of the school. As noted in recent and prior posts, however, in reality Mason was effectively absent for most of 2015, and in her place Jean Robillard — chair of the search committee, and later interim UI president — was using Matthes as his own chief of staff in conducting the search, including various meetings with Harreld.
When he wasn’t tagging along with Rastetter and Robillard and others to secret and not-so-secret meetings with Harreld — including a rumored but unconfirmed trip to see fellow search committee member and long-time Harrreld pal Jerre Stead in Arizona in April of that year — Matthes was making himself useful at UI by steering crony contracts between the school and a Republican Party consultant. And of course after Harreld was appointed, Matthes became one of Harreld’s two senior advisors, where he has spent the last five years largely out of the public eye.
All of which is to say that if anyone other than a member of the board staff is appointed to the UI search committee in an ex-officio capacity, that’s a big red flag. And if Peter Matthes is appointed to the search committee in any capacity, whether as a voting member of ex officio, that’s a red flag soaked in gasoline.
🚩 J. Bruce Harreld
Although he is quitting on the school with two and a half years to go on his contract, Harreld still has a vested interest in choosing his successor because that person could undo all of Harreld’s efforts to turn the university into little more than a job-training academy. Fortunately, regent president Mike Richards has already gone on the record in that regard — as reported by the Daily Iowan’s Rylee Wilson, on 10/01/20:
Richards specified that although Harreld will remain president during the search process, he will not have input as to who is chosen as his replacement.
“I’ve had that discussion with him and he will not participate in any manner in the selection of the new president,” Richards said.
While that certainly sounds encouraging, immediately before that passage Harreld himself is quoted as follows:
Harreld said the conversation in the search for the next UI leader should start with the campus community. He told the DI on Tuesday he has confidence in the two leaders who will be named co-chairs of the presidential search committee.
“I think the first thing that needs to happen is the board needs to let the university run this process and define what they are looking for,” he said. “Now, the board should have input in that, that’s understandable. The first draft of that should be at the university level.”
It would be one thing if Harreld said the University of Iowa faculty should run the process, but that’s not what he said. Instead he said, “the board needs to let the university run this process”, and of course Harreld is still the president of the school. In fact, in Wilson’s reporting Harreld makes clear that he already knows who the co-chairs will be, which is problematic for several reasons, one of which we will touch on now and one we will deal with later.
The fact that Harreld has known who the co-chairs of the search committee are since October 1st, at the latest, while the UI community and interested public remain in the dark, means he may already be working those referees to get the outcome he wants. As painful as it is to acknowledge, between the Board of Regents and Harreld and his allies in central administration, I don’t know who poses the greater threat to the long-term health of the school. What I do believe, to a certainty, is that regent president Mike Richards does not want Harreld involved, while Harreld and his lackeys will do everything possible — including throwing funding and job opportunities around — to co-opt the committee itself.
And of course if Peter Matthes is part of the committee, or Harreld’s other senior advisor, Laura McLeran, or Rod Lehnertz, or any of a handful of UI administrators who have been all too happy to work with Harreld over the past five years, that gives Harreld not only direct access to the inner working of the search committee, but a means of exerting his influence through the committee. (If you’re thinking the committee members are obligated to secrecy, they are. But given that the University of Iowa tried to steal $4.2M from thousands of students and families in 2017, when all of the same players were in the same roles, it would be naive to assume that the people with the most to lose wouldn’t break any oath in a flash.)
As for Harreld, he clearly did not get the message from Richards on October 1st, and we know that from comments he made only days later. From the 4:50 mark of the regent meeting last Monday, October 5th, during which Harreld’s retirement letter was formally accepted and the search initiated:
HARRELD: I’m absolutely sure that we can pick a couple of co-chairs and a committee, that is very well respected across the university — great leaders, great, well-respected individuals…and if I had any other advice — and I’ll meet with them when they’re selected and as we form — I’ll would also, I would say look, we’ve got a lot going on, we’ve got an update of our strategic plan, we’ve got the allocation of P3 moneys for the first time here in the next few weeks, uh…we’ve got to really get at some significant long-term issues in our hospital, in terms of capacity and growth, uh…we’ve got some major reinvestment in other parts of the university, we still have gaps in the strategic plan that we put in place several years ago. So I don’t think it’s wise to pause, I think it’s wise to actually start the search process, let it takes its natural time, and if I had any piece of advice — that may be overstated, but sort of recommendations here — let’s find a great leader who has wonderful Midwestern values, who understands the importance of teams, and who collaborates really, really well.
Regent President Richards said Harreld would “not participate in any manner in the selection of the new president”. Four days later, Harreld not only said he would be meeting with the co-chairs, and that the committee would effectively be formed at UI, but he made an extensive pitch for who should be hired and what their priorities should be. Not only does meeting with the committee’s co-chairs constitute participating “in any manner”, but the entire quote above reads like Bro Bruce’s road map to presidential selection.
I would also note that Harreld talking about “great Midwestern values” is a great way to discourage candidates from other parts of the country, which would seem counterproductive when the school is verging on a national search to find his replacement. Unless of course the board plans to make a local or in-house hire, in which case Harreld would be doing what he always does, which is pretend to be psychic about information he’s already aware of. (Harreld’s toxic ego needs will linger over the UI campus for years.) Then again, the board may be eager to conduct a national search, while Harreld is determined to cripple that process, and in so doing promote one of his loyalists into the president’s office.
🚩 Terry Branstad
As you may or may not know, Iowa’s former six-time governor recently stepped down from his day job as Donald Trump’s U.S. Ambassador to China. He did this, apparently, to return home and help keep the Republican Party from having a bad day on Election Day — to say nothing of two years from now, when his protege, Kim Reynolds, is running for reelection on the bodies of thousands of Iowans who were killed by COVID-19. While I think it is unlikely that Iowa’s Republican Board of Regents would be so stupid as to appoint Branstad to the UI search committee, on that off chance that alumnus Branstad is thinking about volunteering himself into the process — whether out of boredom or malice — I would like to remind everyone that Branstad played a part in the corrupt 2015 search that led to Harreld’s rigged appointment.
And if that’s not enough to make clear why Branstad would be completely inappropriate to the task, here is a picture of Terry running around in a MAGA hat this weekend.
A Very Acceptable Search
No matter how long the UI search takes, there will never be a moment when the UI community can trust either the Board of Regents or J. Bruce Harreld not to cheat, even as they may do so for diametrically opposed reasons. If the search goes well then perhaps down the road that will engender more trust from the UI community, because that trust will have been earned. To that end, everyone should work overtime to communicate as clearly as possible, and given the wonders of modern technology that shouldn’t be a problem. At the same time, the UI community is still cognizant of the 2015 betrayal, and as such even well-meaning comments may not have the intended effect.
For example, consider this quote from Mike Richards, as reported by Eleanor Hildebrandt at the Daily Iowan, on October 5th:
“‘I was president with the Iowa State process, which was considered to be very acceptable,’ Richards said last week. ‘I personally would commit that we’ll have the same type of search or better at the University of Iowa.’”
When Richards says he believes the Iowa State search was “very acceptable”, or that others told him it was “very acceptable”, I think he means the board didn’t go dumpster diving for a bitter, broken-down senior business executive and shove that candidate down Iowa State’s throat. And of course that’s true. Following what seemed to be a corruption-free search the board appointed long-time Iowa State faculty member and dean Wendy Wintersteen as the new president of the school, and in the main the campus was happy with that choice. Then again…why wouldn’t it be, after ISU saw the damage the regents did by imposing Harreld on UI only two years earlier?
So yes — when compared to darker alternatives, most people probably considered the ISU search to be “very acceptable”, but that doesn’t mean it was entirely honest. In fact, it’s likely that the search process was manipulated to give Wintersteen’s promotion a veneer of additional validity, because Wintersteen went last during the candidate reveals. Had she gone first, the other three finalists would have instantly known that Wintersteen was the favorite by far, because the board would not allow a long-time, loyal employee to end up with egg on her face when she lost.
Among the other three candidates, it was also the case that only one was a serious threat to Wintersteen in terms of experience and the caliber of her presentation. The first candidate was a throw away, and his open forum felt more like a lounge act than a serious presentation. The second candidate, Pamela Whitten, was impressive, and of the four candidates I would have given her the job. (After losing out on the ISU gig, I was not surprised to learn that Whitten was appointed president at Kennesaw, which is roughly the size of Iowa State.) The third candidate was qualified but a half-step behind Whitten and Wintersteen, and subsequently withdrew from the competition after either striking a new deal with his current employer or realizing he was unlikely to be chosen.
I don’t know if the regents intend to promote someone in-house at the University of Iowa, but after the sales job by Harreld at last week’s board meeting it wouldn’t surprise me. And one way to make sure that happened, even in an open search, would be to protect that internal candidate by making sure no one appreciably better made the final cut. And that in turn is pretty easy to accomplish simply by giving superior candidates on off-the-record courtesy call to inform them, gently and obliquely and falsely, that there is a candidate superior to them who is in the clear lead — so maybe they should drop out early and save themselves the embarrassment of losing.
Point being, there are a lot of ways to rig an open presidential search, and even a “very acceptable” search. Throw in co-chair Dan Houston as the Republican Party’s fixer on that search, and an obvious crony majority when you look through the members, and it was clear the moment Wintersteen’s name was revealed — as the last among purported equals — that her hire was a done-deal from the start. It wasn’t nakedly corrupt, and the board didn’t impose a banana on Iowa State, and the campus probably needed a loyal and stable leader at that point, but still — the board clearly had its thumb on the scale throughout the search. But I do not think the UI community would find that “very acceptable”.
Finding Common Ground
Given the natural tensions between governing boards and faculty, and the additional trauma of the 2015 presidential search, both the board and the UI community — including but not limited to members of the search committee — should place a premium on finding common ground. Everyone will have a dream candidate in mind, but a much better collaborative approach would be to focus on defining the candidate floor. What is absolutely unacceptable to one group or the other, and how can consensus be reached on those points?
During the 2015 search, Harreld’s co-conspirators weakened the qualifications for the UI presidency precisely to allow Harreld to clear that low bar (p. 68):
Education and Experience
• An earned doctorate or terminal degree
• Administrative experience demonstrating the ability to lead a complex academic research institution and medical center
For many presidential searches in higher-ed a PhD is required, as is considerable experience in academic administration. For the 2015 search the board made a PhD or terminal degree preferred, and allowed candidates to claim equivalent experience even if they had never worked in academic administration. Having witnessed Harreld blubbering recently about how he didn’t know what to do for the first full year on the job, hopefully the board has learned its lesson.
For the 2020-2021 search at UI, the board should agree to tighten those requirements to establish a high floor and regain trust at the outset. No more non-traditional candidates, no more unqualified crony pals nominated in secret by big-money donors, and no more candidates who need coaching or mentoring just to do the job. (Not only is that not a big ask after 2015, but the world is full of academic administrators with PhD’s, and plenty of them are perfectly willing to do whatever the board wants in return for a presidential paycheck.)
There seems to be a general consensus that former UI President David Skorton, who was appointed in 2002 (see table above, or p. 9 here), was an exemplary individual who acquitted himself in that office before going on to do great things elsewhere. What people don’t talk about enough, however, is that Skorton was only president at UI for three years. I don’t know how his relatively short tenure factored into the board’s attempt, in 2006, to rig the consequent presidential search, but it seems to me that the question of expected duration should be front and center in the conversation about hiring J. Bruce Harreld’s replacement. (And of course we now have Harreld himself as an example of someone ducking out early, even though he is pretending that quitting is just a responsible and gracious form of succession planning, and not cowardice in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic hardships.)
It is not merely valid to ask how many years the next UI president should serve, but critical. Bluntly, what is the advantage in hiring an ascendant young president if that person leaves after three or four years? Sally Mason served eight, and whatever you think about her tenure that consistency and stability was beneficial in itself. Harreld was also slated to serve for eight years, and in offering him a three-year contract extension in the summer of 2019 the regents specifically noted that continuity of leadership was of value to them.
From Rylee Wilson at the DI, on 06/06/19:
Regents president Michael Richards said the discussions about increased compensation were initiated by the regents.
“I think we’re looking more forward – which is – we want the presidents to stay. We want to give more predictability to the institutions. We think that we have three really good presidents, and we want to incentivize them to stick with it,” he said.
Richards emphasized the importance of leadership continuity in the decision to extend the contracts of the presidents.
“There is a strong feeling that we have the right individuals to lead our public universities and that these people bring a diverse mix of skills. Together they are a very strong team that can help lead the entire state of Iowa regents system, now and into the future, he said. “Stability in the university leadership is conducive to successful implementation of strategic visions in our universities.”
Not only do I think the board is still interested in long-term leadership continuity at each of the state schools, but after the past five years I think the UI community might prefer that as well. Satisfaction would depend on the hire, of course, but if there is a consensus that everyone wants the next president to serve for five or six years minimum, and preferably eight or nine, that means the committee is probably not looking for the next David Skorton. Such a consensus could be problematic in terms of diversity, given the racial and gender demographics of older academic administrators, but the point now is to talk about expectations and find common ground. Ideally, how many years do people want the next president to serve — and I don’t think many members of the board, the search committee or the greater UI community are going to say three.
University presidents wear a lot of hats, and candidates for the open UI presidency will have different strengths. identifying areas of common concern, along with areas of divergent concern, will help avoid a search that works at cross purposes. For example, if the regents are dead-set on hiring a candidate with a proven track record for fundraising, I don’t think that’s something the faculty cares a lot about compared to other concerns, so that could lead to trouble. On the other hand, hiring a new president to improve the ranks of both executive and academic administration — both of which Harreld has weakened appreciably — is probably a priority for the board and faculty alike, and that convergence would benefit the search. (Candidates with a proven record of building stable and effective academic organizations would be of interest to both parties, and as a result divergent priorities would be less likely to lead to an impasse.)
Unfortunately, because the board is first and foremost a political operation, the regents may also underestimate how valuable it would be to the faculty simply to have someone in the president’s office who isn’t a control freak or a horse’s ass. Addition by subtraction is a real thing, and with Harreld subtracting himself it’s possible things will improve simply because he’s gone. Having rock-solid, permanent hires at key positions like provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (the school’s largest college by far) would produce benefits across the organization, regardless of the occupant in the president’s office. At that point, if the faculty’s concerns were being met elsewhere, everyone would be thrilled to have the new president spend lots of time raising money.
Stature and Function
Whoever the board ultimately hires to replace Harreld, that hire will inevitably say something about the future of the school, and about how the board views Harreld’s tenure. It may be that the board and faculty would both like to hire an impressive candidate who brings gravitas and/or prestige back to the school, but that also implies that such an individual would given wide latitude to run the school as they see fit. Conversely, if the board is looking for a paper-pushing tool to implement policies which are dictated by the governor, the board president or the CEO/XD of the board, that’s not going to be of interest to anyone who is an excellent leader in their own right.
In balancing questions of stature and function, the board would do well to remember that when Rastetter, Robillard and Harreld himself conspired to steal the UI presidency in 2015, they concluded their theft loudly, arrogantly and with acid contempt. They didn’t just want to get away with that caper, they wanted credit because they were sure they had cracked the code on what was wrong with higher education. Harreld wasn’t just the next guy at UI, he was the national poster boy for a horde of entrepreneurial barbarians who were determined to show academic administrators that they were out of touch and behind the times.
If the UI faculty feels that the next president should send something of the opposite message — albeit without the juvenile taunting — that doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable. Ideally the next president will also be more of a public face and meet with the national and local press, while at the same time being a bit more circumspect about trash talk and making promises they can’t keep. Real damage has been done to the University of Iowa over the past five years, including but not limited to its reputation, integrity and national brand, and hiring someone who could reestablish the school’s standing would seem to benefit everyone.
Having said that, there are two additional and related issues that should be openly discussed by the search committee. First, there have been fairly obvious indications over the past five years — particularly around and involving the board CEO/XD, Mark Braun — that the regents are moving toward a system model for the state schools, as opposed to allowing each to function autonomously. There are good reasons for doing that, and with UNI roughly a third the size of ISU and UI the process is made even easier by virtue of that difference in scale. (Merging two large, R1/AAU public research universities and a smaller comprehensive university over a long time frame might not even be a concern to the collective faculty if the process took place through routine attrition.)
The problem is not that it’s a bad idea, the problem is that the board has never said that this is an objective — even as, right now, an ad-hoc regent committee is using the pandemic as cover to roam the countryside, looking for targets of efficiency. If that is the unstated case, however, that may also mean the board is not interested in hiring a leader of academic stature at UI, and — meaning no disrespect — it may explain Mark Nook’s hire at UNI in 2016, and Wendy Wintersteen’s hire at ISU in 2017. Meaning those are actually the kind of senior campus administrators that the board wants going forward, who function more like chancellors in a system school run by a single leader at the top.
Again, I don’t know if that’s what the board wants, but if that is where things are headed, now is the time to communicate that to the UI faculty to avoid a clash during the coming search. The second and related issue concerns the fact that the Iowa Board of Regents is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. As such, the board may be reluctant to imagine, or incapable of imagining, what life might be like under a one-term or two-term Democratic governor. While the board membership wouldn’t change much in four years, former Republican strongman Terry Branstad showed how the governor can muscle the board leadership to the sidelines, implementing change sooner than it would happen by statute. (I’m assuming that the professionals in the board office are also at-will employees of the executive branch of Iowa government, and can be terminated at any time.)
If the regents, under Republican rule, are dumbing down the aspirations of the state schools to the level of job training, and attempting to create a de facto system university headed up not by a president, but by the largely invisible CEO/XD of the board, that could all change — and change quickly — under a Democratic administration. And that in turn could mean one or more of the state schools would have the wrong president at the helm, or that the board office might have the wrong personnel on staff. All of which is to say that anticipating the possibility of political change — at a time when the Republican Party has come out strong for corruption, degeneracy, white nationalism and killing as many people as possible with COVID-19 — should perhaps be part of the stewardship obligation of the members of the board, instead of expecting that they can perpetually crush people who get in their way.
A Rocky Start
There is no intrinsic reason why this search cannot be successful for all concerned, but it will require communication which makes all sides feel exposed. My hope is that everyone will keep their eyes on the long-term health of the University of Iowa, instead of the short-term thrill of winning or losing a bureaucratic fight. Although we are now only one week into the search process, however, there are already a few warning signs which make clear more care needs to be taken.
On October 1st — meaning the same day J. Bruce Harreld said he knew who the two co-chairs of the committee would be — the Gazette’s Vanessa Miller reported the following:
Among the best practices outlined in the 2018 agreement is one stressing the board “should consult with the search committee chair or co-chairs on the use of a search firm.”
[Board CEO/XD Mark] Braun told The Gazette, “We will be following the best-practices protocol,” and more specifically said he will identify a chair or co-chairs to consult with before signing any search firm.
The university’s Faculty Senate leadership Thursday also referenced that list of best practices and its expectations it will “serve as the foundation for the search to find President Harreld’s successor.”
So which is it? Have the two co-chairs already been chosen, per Harreld, or is the board still in the process of choosing the co-chairs, per Braun?
Likewise, while Braun is right about the search-firm stipulations in the 2018 agreement, the board launched the process of hiring a firm before the committee is formed. If that hiring process proceeds as outlined in the board’s Request for Qualification (p .2), a short list could be established by the end of this month, which would be problematic if the committee is not announced. (More here on the 2018 agreement and the beginning of the search process, in a Little Village letter-to-the-editor by Lois Cox.)
There has also been a lot of talk over the past two weeks that the search might take a year or two, but when you look at the quotes about that extended timeline they all come from, or are prompted by, comments from J. Bruce Harreld. Whether we’re talking about Mike Richards or Mark Braun, or UI Faculty Senate President Joe Yockey, those individuals don’t seem to come out on their own and announce that the search could take two years, but rather confirm Harreld’s statements after the fact.
The problem with Harreld’s claims, and those of the people who affirm them, is that it’s not possible to ramp up a two-year search. There may be delays because of the pandemic, but if the board is looking for a search firm and populating a search committee, then it is committing to a process that has a timeline defined not by uncertainties, but by inevitabilities. And one of those inevitabilities is that no one is going to apply for a job in six months if they think they aren’t going to be hired for a year and a half. In fact, if you wanted to discourage candidates from applying, you couldn’t do better than to run around squawking about how the search could take a year or two or three or maybe forever.
On the other hand, if the Board of Regents and UI faculty are serious about hiring a new president, then perhaps someone should once again tell J. Bruce Harreld to shut his mouth about the search, or he will be fired for cause for disobeying a direct order from board President Mike Richards. Harreld didn’t have to resign, and he had plenty of opportunities to succeed, but that’s over. He has been told by the president of the regents that “he will not participate in any manner in the selection of the new president”, yet everywhere I turn I find Harreld driving the conversation about the search. Whether he’s doing that because he’s genuinely concerned about the future of the school, or because he’s trying to derail the process and keep his $2.3M in deferred compensation in play — which he will have to give up if the search is completed before his contract expires — I leave for you to decide.