National professor association to investigate UI presidential search

'The deviation from sound and due process is striking'

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IOWA CITY — The American Association of University Professors is sending two representatives from its national headquarters in Washington D.C. to Iowa City to launch an inquiry into the search that landed J. Bruce Harreld as the next University of Iowa president.

The inquiry could lead to a full-blown investigation around whether the state Board of Regents breached the association’s values related to shared governance and the selection of administrators.

“Their main interest is the search for the new president,” said Jordan E. Kurland, associate general secretary for the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance. “They are not investigating the qualifications of Mr. Harreld for the job. He doesn’t have traditional qualifications, but that is not our purpose here.”

Although the AAUP is not a regulatory body, they can censure universities or governing bodies — harming their reputation nationally and potentially making it more difficult to recruit faculty and students. Kurland said an AAUP censure comes across as a national warning.

And, he said, although the UI chapter of the AAUP and the UI Faculty Senate have different thoughts on how to move forward with Harreld, the groups are united in their concerns with the search.

“They are aligned in having an awful lot to criticize about the selection process,” Kurland said.

The UI chapter of the AAUP requested the national inquiry, and Kurland said the two national representatives had hoped to meet with faculty, Interim UI President Jean Robillard, and members of the Board of Regents when they’re in Iowa on Oct. 16 and 17.

But both Robillard and Board of Regents President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland — on behalf of the board — sent the AAUP letters declining to meet. Robillard and Mulholland said they can’t talk about the issue due to pending litigation — a UI professor emeritus has filed a lawsuit accusing the UI presidential search committee of violating open meetings laws.

Mulholland also said told the AAUP it would not meet because “your letter fails to identify with any level of specificity the issues or scope of your investigation.”

Many UI faculty have expressed concern with the process that led to Harreld’s hire, citing widespread criticism of his candidacy, previously undisclosed meetings he had with regents during the search, and concerns with inaccuracies on this resume.

“For a major research university of that caliber to have private meetings and things done on the side … the deviation from sound and due process is striking,” Kurland said.

The AAUP’s statement on government of colleges and universities calls for “appropriately shared responsibility and cooperative action among the components of the academic institution,” including governing board members, administrators, faculty members, and students. The organization has a statement specific to faculty participation in the selection of administrators, including presidents.

“The board, with which the legal power of appointment rests, should either select a name from among those submitted by the faculty committee or should agree that no person will be chosen over the objections of the faculty committee,” according to the AAUP statement.

Harreld, who has a largely business background and no academic administrative experience, was one of four finalists recommended by the presidential search committee and introduced to the university campus in September. But, following a contentious public forum, hundreds of faculty, staff, and students voiced concern with his candidacy, and the UI Faculty Senate sent regents a letter warning of a possible vote of no confidence if they hired him.

The UI Faculty Senate, along with undergraduate and graduate student government leaders, followed through on that warning, issuing no-confidence votes days after Harreld’s hire. Harreld’s supporters have praised his work as a top executive at IBM and Boston Market Company, while critics have questioned his lack of experience.

UI Faculty Senate President Christina Bohannan said her group is committed to moving the university forward, and many faculty have met with Harreld independently to discuss their concerns. Faculty Senate officers also have had “a productive conversation with Harreld,” Bohannan said.

But, Bohannan said, the Faculty Senate also has real concerns with the search process, and representatives will meet with the AAUP while they are in town. The hope, she said, is to address the concerns but avoid a sanction against the university.

“It’s unclear how the AAUP role works when it’s a governing body that is alleged to have breached shared governance values, rather than the administration of the university,” she said. “We don’t see that the university itself has done anything to warrant a sanction, but we take it that the AAUP’s focus will mainly be on the Board of Regents’ handling of this process.”

Bohannan said she’s not surprised the AAUP has taken an interest in the UI case “and is concerned with what’s going on.”

“I think there are pretty significant shared governance issues involved in the process,” she said.

The AAUP’s most recent and noteworthy investigations and sanctions include a vote in June to censure the University of Illinois over its decision not to hire a professor who posted anti-Israel messages on Twitter. And, in 2012, the association investigated the University of Virginia’s attempt to remove Teresa Sullivan as president. Following that investigation, Sullivan was reinstated and the university’s governing board changed leadership.

“We used to refer to (censure) as the death penalty for universities,” said UI history professor Katherine Tachau. “It makes it hard to recruit good faculty and good administrators. It’s a signal saying, don’t trust the administration.”

Even if the university avoids censure, and the AAUP instead sanctioned the Board of Regents, Tachau said all three of Iowa’s public universities still could suffer. She hopes to avoid that while also getting to the bottom of “exactly how things went awry.”

“I have no doubt shared governance was subverted,” she said.

Tachau said she doesn’t believe members of the Board of Regents understand shared governance or are prepped in AAUP policies when beginning their terms.

Josh Lehman, spokesman for the Board of Regents, said orientation for each regent covers topics including shared governance. And, he said, although AAUP policies are not binding, “We respect the AAUP organization, their views, and their right to advocate for their members.”

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