As an alumnus of the University of Iowa, the recent hiring of J. Bruce Harreld to be the new president of my alma mater gives me pause. In the aftermath of that hire there has been an outpouring of frustration about the hiring process and selection, voiced immediately through votes of no-confidence in the Iowa Board of Regents by both the faculty and students. Chief among the complaints seems to be that the hire may have been a backroom deal brokered by a malevolent force on the Board of Regents, who is disinterested in whether the university can meet its core responsibilities as an institution of higher learning.
While I sympathize with anyone’s frustration in trying to get the truth out of a politically appointed bureaucrat, plausible deniability is a cornerstone of all political chicanery, and can at times approach high art. So the idea that a smoking gun might suddenly appear and reveal the entire hiring process to have been deliberate fraud is unlikely at best. In fact, attacking the regents would only play to the board’s strengths given their control of the hiring process, their secrecy, and particularly their institutional ability to deny and delay until everyone just runs out of indignation.
From time to time, however, bureaucrats — and particularly politically appointed bureaucrats — forget that while they’re cooking the books or lying to the people they purportedly serve they’re still obligated to meet a minimum standard of competence. They don’t have to be rocket scientists, or even rock scientists, but they do have to meet basic tests of accountability, particularly when working in government.
In questioning the mechanics of how Harreld was hired, a crime is being alleged. It may be that an actual crime took place, having to do with hiring practices and government regulations and things I know nothing about, or that the crime was metaphorical. It is frustrating that we will probably never have access to the information that would allow us to determine who, specifically, engineered such a crime, but we don’t have to know whodunnit to know that a crime took place.
The Board of Regents unanimously agreed to hire Harreld at a salary of $600,000 for each of five years, plus $1,000,000 in deferred compensation, meaning Harreld will be paid a minimum of $4,000,000 under the current contract. What makes that particularly remarkable, and factors into the outrage at his hiring, is that J. Bruce Harreld is demonstrably unqualified for the job. That the Iowa Board of Regents insisted, unanimously, on hiring him anyway, obviously calls their own competence into question.
The usual bureaucratic dodge is to say that there was ample opportunity to ask questions and raise objections during the hiring process, that the decision has been made, that it will not be reversed, and that it is now incumbent on everyone to move past any sour grapes and work together as professionals to make the University of Iowa great. As a factual matter, the four finalists for the position did each appear in an open forum and answer questions from stakeholders, and those forums did take place before the regents came to their unanimous determination. If people wanted to raise objections so the regents would factor those concerns into their own decision-making process, they should have made their voices heard.
Preliminary results from the AAUP survey show Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz with the most support and J. Bruce Harreld, former IBM, Boston Market Company, and Kraft General Foods executive, with the least support.
Of the more than 440 UI faculty members who responded to the AAUP survey — a voluntary poll conducted online that asked the same 10 questions for each candidate — 98 percent said they believe Steinmetz is qualified to be UI president.
Among faculty, only about 3 percent thought Harreld is qualified. The other two candidates — Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov and Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein — also received high marks from the faculty, with about 94 percent calling Bernstein qualified for the job and 91 percent saying so of Krislov.
Of the 230-plus students, staff, and community members who responded to the AAUP poll, about 95 percent said they thought Steinmetz is qualified for the job, followed by Krislov at 84 percent, Bernstein at 80 percent, and Harreld at 4 percent.
Fair enough. Rather than dwell on the past we will look to the future, and in particular the future graduates of the University of Iowa who are now being led by a man who was not simply the least qualified of the final four candidates vying for president, but unqualified for the position. Because in insisting that they had the right to hire whomever they want, the Board or Regents has not only undercut the very premise of the institution that Harreld now leads, they have eviscerated the criteria by which the students at that institution are judged on a daily basis.