Incoming University of Iowa president addresses critics in campuswide message
'We owe it to our university and ourselves to work together'
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IOWA CITY — Incoming University of Iowa President J. Bruce Harreld — who has faced significant criticism and pushback weeks before even starting the job — sent a message to the UI community Tuesday addressing “misconceptions about my vision and values.”
“Let me suggest this,” he wrote in the email to faculty, staff, and students.
“If you hear something that worries you, simply ask me directly. I'll give you an honest answer.”
In the message, Harreld — a successful businessman with no academic administrative experience who was chosen Sept. 3 to become Iowa's 21st president Nov. 2 — said he's spent the past month speaking with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends.
“I have learned much about the university,” he wrote. “And I know I have much more to discover.”
In addition to hearing concerns and ambitions for the institution, Harreld said, the early conversations have given him the chance to illustrate his leadership style, which he said involves “careful listening, seeing problems through others' eyes, and understanding that the best solutions come when we establish strong teams, exchange ideas, and work together.”
Harreld said he also has been able to address specific concerns that have come up since his appointment, including the issue of faculty tenure.
“I fully support faculty tenure,” he wrote in the message. “It provides the foundation for academic freedom, protects innovative research and scholarship, and ensures that our students can learn from the best in their fields.”
Harreld said he supports shared governance, an issue that has come under the microscope at UI and in the state — with national representatives from the American Association of University Professors launching an inquiry into whether the Board of Regents breached association values related to shared governance in its selection of Harreld.
In his Tuesday message, Harreld said he supports the storied history of shared governance, along with shared responsibility and collaboration that creates opportunities for success.
“This success will require unwavering advocacy on behalf of this great university,” he wrote. “And I will deliver this support unconditionally.”
Harreld, who has been criticized for saying during a public forum that he might support a recent regent proposal to redistribute millions from UI to Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa, advocated in his Tuesday message for investment in “our people” — even in lean times.
He stressed the importance of recruiting “the best” and supporting their learning, teaching, researching, and scholarship endeavors.
“As president,” he wrote, “it's my responsibility to respect and protect the whole.”
Harreld's message addressed the question of “Why the University of Iowa?”
“You may find that I came to the University of Iowa for much the same reason you did,” he wrote, emphasizing his history as a graduate of a public research institution and his belief that such schools are “the foundation of our future.”
He praised the university's commitment to sciences, arts, and humanities; its sincerity in wanting “every student to succeed;” and its deep sense of obligation to the people of Iowa.
“It's unique place with an essential purpose,” he wrote. “This is why I was interested.”
According to interviews and emails made public and reported by The Gazette in recent weeks, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter helped recruit Harreld, who did not immediately decide to apply for the UI presidency, vacated by Sally Mason at the end of July. Before the July 31 application deadline; in fact, Harreld met with five regents, including Rastetter, Interim UI President Jean Robillard, and additional members of a 21-member search committee “to gather as many facts as he could about the position.”
The day after Harreld met with four regents and Iowa State University President Steven Leath in Ames, regent Mary Andringa sent an email to Harreld, urging him to “continue to give us in Iowa a chance to tap into your great skill set, experience, and passion for excellence through strategic change by being open to the presidency of the U of I.”
Andringa told Harreld that higher education, “as you articulated in our meeting, is heading toward crisis.”
“Crisis necessitates change,” she wrote. “It may be the big challenge that can energize you in the next five years!”
Harreld cited that challenge in his message to the UI community Tuesday.
“Our goals are timeless, but our circumstances new,” he wrote. “Higher education stands at the threshold of changes driven by increased competition, diminished federal and state funding, increased tuition, rapid technology shifts, and questions about its value.”
“Our campus and community are ready to meet those challenges with creativity and commitment,” he wrote. “And I want to help us chart our future.”
Harreld from 1993 to 1995 served as president and board member of Boston Market Company, helping to lead the organization from 20 stores in the Boston area to more than 1,100 stores nationally, according to his resume.
From 1995 to 2008, he served as senior vice president for IBM, earning praise for turning around the company and charting its transformation from near bankruptcy. Although Harreld never has been an administrator for an academic institution, he held dual faculty appointments at Harvard Business School from 2008 to 2014.
He most recently was working as an independent business consultant — although he has been sharply criticized for listing Executing Strategy LLC on his resume as his current employer. The Gazette first reported that company is not registered in any state and was dissolved earlier this year in Massachusetts.
In response to Harreld's candidacy, many UI faculty, staff, and students publicly voiced support for the other three finalists and opposition to Harreld. The UI Faculty Senate threatened a no-confidence vote in the Board of Regents if it hired Harreld, and the senate followed through with the vote after he was chosen.
UI student government leaders at the graduate and undergraduate level also issued votes of no-confidence in the board related to Harreld's hire.
Reacting to the Tuesday campuswide email, UI art professor Steve McGuire said he appreciates Harreld's willingness to communicate and takes the message positively.
“I think this is a positive move forward,” McGuire said. “This isn't the usual message that a new president sends for the first time out, but it was the message that needed to be sent. And it was sent with a voice that suggested he's listening.”
Harreld, in the Tuesday email, said he and his wife, Mary, are looking forward to joining the UI community next month and, “We owe it to our university and ourselves to work together.”
“Our success requires consistent, honest communication,” he wrote. “I'm committed to keeping you informed and to hearing what matters most to you and to our university.”