IOWA CITY — University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld has not scheduled a town hall forum on campus for this fall — as originally promised — and it doesn’t appear he plans to after the first and only forum last winter was overrun with protests and disruptions.
The university did not respond to direct questions about whether Harreld intends to hold any more forums or whether he’s changing course on a vow he made earlier this year to hold three town hall-style meetings per academic year.
“President Harreld heard from many students, faculty and staff who felt that the town-hall format was not conducive to the work we need to accomplish as a campus,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck wrote in an email.
“He continues to meet frequently with faculty, staff, student organizations, community members, alumni and congressional and legislative representatives to answer questions, discuss the needs of the university and examine the best way to make progress,” Beck wrote.
Harreld, a former IBM executive who was hired amid controversy in September 2015 and arrived on campus to protests, was berated during a town-hall in February.
Criticism of Harreld stemmed from his lack of academic administrative experience, initially-undisclosed meetings he had with members of the Board of Regents during the search process and the board’s unanimous decision to hire him despite widespread criticism of his candidacy.
Several UI faculty and students said Tuesday his decision to not schedule a town hall this fall — after also skipping one promised in the spring — leaves a bad taste.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said Landon Elkind, president of the UI graduate student union. “But it’s not surprising at all.”
Elkind said he other graduate students would like the chance to ask Harreld questions one year into his presidency.
“I’m sure the justification would be something like it was too raucous and didn’t help move the public discourse,” Elkind said. But avoiding public discourse won’t make that any better, he said.
UI biology professor John Logsdon, a critic of Harreld who has met with him one-on-one, questioned the assertion that Harreld heard from many students, faculty and staff that the town hall format didn’t work.
“He certainly hasn’t consulted me and hasn’t consulted a lot of people I know,” Logsdon said.
Katherine Tachau, a history professor and chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, said Harreld’s first forum might have failed to produce constructive dialogue because he came to it with an agenda that included presentations from administrators.
“If that’s his idea of a town hall, it’s not likely to be conducive,” she said. “He doesn’t realize that he’s accountable to a lot of people, not just the regents.”
UI law professor Nicholas Johnson said Harreld had every right to reel in out-of-bounds comments. “You can impose some kind of limit on how long they can continue to throw shoes at you before you insist they sit down and put their shoes back on,” Johnson said.
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But, he said, public leaders shouldn’t surround themselves with only people “who are always going to tell you how great you are.”