New University of Iowa president met with four search committee members in July
'I thought it was an interesting opportunity,' one committee member says
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IOWA CITY — When University of Iowa President-elect J. Bruce Harreld visited campus in July — while the institution was in the midst of its search for a new president, but before Harreld’s name was officially on the list — he had lunch with UI Interim President Jean Robillard, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, and two members of the presidential search committee.
Robillard, who also is vice president of medical affairs for UIHC and was head of the search committee, invited Harreld to campus to speak to a group of about 40 mostly UIHC administrators and physicians to share his perspective on transformational change.
During that July 8 visit, for which Harreld was not paid or reimbursed, Robillard invited the former IBM executive to lunch, along with Rastetter and search committee members Christina Bohannan and Sarah Gardial, both of whom are UI faculty members.
Gardial, dean of the UI Henry B. Tippie College of Business, said she assumed Harreld was a presidential prospect, even though neither she nor Bohannan had seen his name on any official candidate list. The application deadline was July 31.
“There was no other reason for me to be there,” Gardial said. “It was an opportunity to not just see a potential candidate, but to see him in action. I thought it was an interesting opportunity.”
Harreld’s wife, Mary, also requested to come to campus and attended that July visit, according to UI officials. She did not participate in the lunch, but she toured the new Hancher building. She was the only candidate spouse to visit the campus.
Members of the search committee had been told to recruit and vet potential candidates, and officials have said the July meeting aligned with those orders. But some have asked whether Harreld received preferential treatment, considering he was among nine candidates brought to Chicago for “airport interviews” in August and one of four finalists brought to campus in early September.
“We do not do this on searches,” said UI history professor Katherine Tachau. “It is incompatible with affirmative action/equal opportunity policies and practices, by which we try to give each candidate exactly the same treatment.”
Tachau said Bohannan herself referenced the need for fairness in a separate email related to scheduling of the on-campus public forums.
“We need to have the same schedule for all of the candidates to avoid unfairness,” Bohannan wrote in the email provided to The Gazette.
Bohannan told The Gazette she doesn’t know whether other members of the search committee knew of Harreld’s visit in July. She reported telling some of them after she returned from a trip overseas.
And Bohannan said she can’t comment about whether Harreld’s visit was explicitly addressed during the committee’s discussion around who to recommend as finalists.
But Gardial and Bohannan said they do not view Harreld’s campus visit and lunch as preferential treatment.
“This was our duty as members of the search committee,” they said in a statement provided to The Gazette. “The search committee was told to be aggressive in identifying, recruiting and vetting as many candidates as we could to get the biggest and best possible pool.
“When the chair of the search committee invited us to come and hear someone talk, we made it a point to be there.”
Harreld — who eventually would be chosen as the university’s 21st president despite dismal support from faculty, staff and students — spoke during the July visit about best practices for organizations that were successful and wanted to continue on that path, according to Gardial and Bohannan.
None of his talk to the larger group addressed the UI campus specifically, Gardial said, and his candidacy wasn’t expressly addressed during the lunch that followed.
“We did talk about the presidential search and the opportunities we saw on the campus for the next president,” Gardial said.
But leaving that lunch, Gardial said, she recalls not knowing which way Harreld was leaning or whether he had any interest in the job.
Bohannan said her context for Harreld’s visit and invitation to see him was even more clouded. She said Robillard simply called her and asked if she could come see a man invited to speak at UIHC.
“Given he’s chair of the search, I assumed maybe they were thinking he would be a candidate,” Bohannan said. “But I’m not sure anyone knew at the time exactly what this was about.”
She also said Harreld’s candidacy was never discussed during the lunch.
“I left that meeting not knowing what that was really about or if he was interested or anything,” she said.
UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said Robillard invited Harreld to campus because of his experience and published articles. Harreld is a former IBM and Boston Market executive with teaching experience at Harvard Business School, but no academic administrative experience.
And, Beck said, several other potential candidates asked to meet in person and discuss the position. Robillard and Rastetter met one eventual candidate in Des Moines, and that person received a tour of the hospital, although he did not speak.
The UI College of Public Health also hosted an eventual candidate.
Neither of those candidates became finalists, so the university is not revealing their identities, Beck said.
On Sept. 3, Harreld was hired to become the next UI president, despite a contentious public forum that left many faculty, staff, and students concerned about his candidacy. Public feedback from those constituents showed dismal support for Harreld’s qualifications, and on the eve of Harreld’s appointment to the UI presidency, Bohannan warned Rastetter of a possible no-confidence vote if he was chosen.
The faculty followed through with that warning, casting a no-confidence vote in the board days later. Undergraduate and graduate student governments also cast no-confidence votes regarding the board’s search process and hiring of Harreld, and the UI Staff Council issued a letter of disappointment.
Bohannan told The Gazette on Wednesday she severed communication with the board after it blatantly ignored the faculty’s feedback on Harreld. And, she said, Rastetter has not reached out since the no-confidence vote.
Many faculty members have raised questions around Harreld’s resume, citing the LLC he listed as his current employer — a corporation that is not registered with any state — and the fact that he didn’t properly source some of his publications.
Josh Lehman, spokesman for the Board of Regents, said Rastetter is unavailable to comment about Harreld’s visit to campus or his resume. Board Executive Director Robert Donley declined to comment.
Bohannan said although Harreld’s visit to campus might appear suspicious in retrospect, she believes procedure was followed.
“We are very disappointed about how, in the end, it seems like faculty voices and other student and staff voices were not valued,” she said. “But, at the time, I have to say this all felt like part of recruiting to me.”
She said she doesn’t know how Harreld ended up on campus in July or who vetted him as a candidate.
“I don’t know exactly how this visit came about,” she said. “But our view was that once any potential candidate came on the radar screen, we were going to do everything we could to vet that person.”