Iowa regent says he's 'angry' about University of Iowa presidential search process

Sahai says he asked Rastetter if selection was predetermined

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IOWA CITY — One day after hundreds of University of Iowa faculty, staff, students and community members packed the Board of Regents meeting waving signs and shouting “resign” at board members, Regent Subhash Sahai said certain aspects of the presidential search process made him “angry” and “mad.”

Sahai, who made his comments during the second day of a two-day board meeting on the UI campus, said he wanted to address the protesters and the concerns that have been raised around the board’s appointment of J. Bruce Harreld as the university’s 21st president.

Sahai stood by the selection of the businessman, who has no academic administrative experience, but also said he didn’t know about previously-undisclosed meetings Harreld had with five other regents before the application deadline and was “sad about this revelation.”

His exact words to board staff were, “I am pissed,” he said Thursday.

“I am being strong in these words because I love this place,” said Sahai, a physician in Webster City and a graduate of UI and University of Northern Iowa who was appointed to the board in 2013 by Gov. Terry Branstad.

The board is designed to make decisions during full board meetings — not ahead of time — for a reason, he said. And, Sahai stressed, the regents did have a heated discussion about the presidential selection when they met in closed session Sept. 3 to make a decision.

“I want the people at this university to know that we had impassioned, intentioned, and rigorous debate,” he said.

Sahai said a decision of this magnitude, the selection of a new president, requires unanimous support. And, he said, “right or wrong, I stick by it.”

But, after learning about the early meetings between Harreld and other regents, Sahai said he met with Rastetter and regent President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland to ask if the presidential selection was predetermined.

“They assured me no decision was made prior to this,” he said, adding that he has no reason to doubt them.

Still, he said the meetings created the perception of favoritism — even if they were not a violation of law or code. And, Sahai said, he has talked to the board’s executive director about giving board members more time to scrutinize presidential candidates in the future.

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.

The board president also disputed Sahai’s suggestion that Harreld’s pre-application meetings with regents, search committee members, and Interim UI President Jean Robillard suggested favoritism.

“Harreld wanted to do additional diligence work beyond what some of the other candidates did, which I would view as good,” Rastetter said, praising the initiative Harreld took to call Gov. Terry Branstad before he was named president.

“When he wanted to talk to Gov. Branstad to find out if there would continue to be increased funding for the University of Iowa, that’s a good sign,” Rastetter said. “When he wanted to meet with the other regents to find out more about the universities prior to applying, I think it’s a good sign.”

Rastetter stressed that all members of the 21-person search committee were charged with actively and aggressively recruiting candidates – calling them, meeting with them, inviting them to dinner, and bringing them to campus.

He said he personally recruited six candidates, four of whom were among the top prospects brought in for initial interviews in Chicago. Only Harreld, of those Rastetter recruited, became a finalist.

Rastetter said he’s “more than a little bit surprised that people think that’s a novel idea that you would actually recruit somebody to be the president of a great university. That’s what we did.”

He said Sahai can speak for himself, but added, “I think some of the pressure of the negativity that’s gone on has troubled him, and it’s troubled all of us, because it’s not close to the reality of what happened.”

Although Rastetter said he probably won’t be a regent the next time a university is looking for a new president, he seemed to suggest the board consider keeping the process closed.

“I have said publically that I think, nationally, searches are going to more confidential searches where trustees and regents do the search,” he said.

Regent Larry McKibben on Thursday also addressed Wednesday’s protests, saying he has received much feedback from constituents across the state on the selection of Harreld, and the critics are in the minority.

“We have a great opportunity to make a great institution greater,” McKibben said.

He praised Wednesday’s protesters for the peaceful nature of their rally, but he stressed that most of the campus community did not participate in the demonstration.

“We had more than 30,000 students, faculty and staff out and about doing their teaching and research and doing their learning while that was going on,” he said. “That’s the number that’s important to me.”

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