Non-traditional presidents must 'have a thick skin'
New UI president set to take office Monday
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IOWA CITY - In February 2008, the University of Colorado-Boulder Faculty Assembly voted 40-4 against a motion to support Bruce D. Benson as the university system’s 22nd president.
The campus’ student government also voted in opposition of Benson, whom the Board of Regents had just named sole finalist for the job. In the end, even three of the nine regent board members voted not to hire the multimillionaire oil and gas executive.
Benson was a non-traditional candidate in that he didn’t rise to prominence from academia but rather from oil fields and boardrooms.
So when businessman J. Bruce Harreld in September was named 21st president of the University of Iowa to a campus response that included votes of no confidence from faculty and student leaders, Benson could relate.
And he knew Harreld as an acquaintance, having crossed paths with him in past business dealings. Benson contacted the UI president-elect — who was living 120 miles west of Boulder near Vail, Colo. — to offer support.
“I asked him what I could do to be helpful,” Benson told The Gazette, adding that he gave some general advice about how to disprove doubters and create campus accord. “We had a good conversation.”
A few weeks later — about a month ago — Harreld and his wife attended a dinner with Benson and his wife, and they talked again about overcoming the hurdles of being a non-traditional newcomer to academic administration.
“They are really nice people, and Iowa is really fortunate to have them,” Benson said of Harreld, who officially takes the UI helm Monday. “He has better credentials than I do.”
Before becoming the university’s president in 2008, Benson founded Benson Mineral Group in 1965 — serving as owner and chairman of the oil and gas exploration and production company. His highest degree was a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Colorado, and his business career had touched on the banking, real estate, cable television and restaurant industries.
He had been involved in educational, civic, and political endeavors — including running as the Republican nominee for Colorado governor in 1994 and serving on a bipartisan task force on Government Regulation of Higher Education in Colorado.
Harreld, likewise, spent most of his career in the business sector — helping turn around IBM as a top executive and leading Boston Market Company through significant expansion in its early years. Harreld has a master’s degree from Harvard Business School and taught there from 2008 to 2014.
But immediately after learning of his candidacy, UI faculty, staff and students raised questions about Harreld’s ability to lead the institution and about the regents-led search that landed him. Some accused the regents of choosing Harreld before introducing him as one of four finalists and of ignoring community feedback opposing his candidacy.
“People trump up everything,” Benson said. “You have to have a thick skin.”
When Benson was hired in 2008, one former University of Colorado regent wrote in an opinion piece for The Denver Post that the university “can do better.”
“It was a whole combination of things,” Benson said. “I was a conservative oilman with a bachelor’s degree.”
Approaching eight years later, Benson is the longest-serving University of Colorado president in more than half a century. Under his leadership, the university’s research funding has reached record levels, and the system has seen its six best fundraising years — including a record year in 2014-2015 with $375.4 million.
Among his accomplishments, Benson boasts instituting operational efficiencies, cutting bureaucracy and improving business practices. Even regents who voted against him have said Benson proved them wrong.
‘I’m not going to do it’
But — as members of the UI search committee have said about efforts to recruit Harreld — Benson wasn’t initially convinced he should apply for the job.
“I am not going to do it” is what Benson said he told those who urged him to consider it before they pointed out ways in which his expertise could benefit the University of Colorado.
Once he got the job, Benson said, his first point of order was to meet with faculty and campus groups and listen to their concerns and visions for the institution.
“Just be straightforward,” he said, offering advice for Harreld. “Don’t b-s people. Tell them exactly what you’re thinking.”
Complicating Benson’s start as University of Colorado president was a previously planned trip to Antarctica. Benson said he rushed through meetings with faculty and campus groups to accommodate his travel plans. Then one faculty member said, “I think you’re crazy to take that trip.”
Benson said he listened and ditched the trip — leaving the money on the table.
“We did the process all over again,” he said, “and took more time doing it.”
Benson said he went into every meeting with an attitude of, “We are going to be friends and get along.” He laid out his vision for the system and listened to ideas about how to make improvements, and email feedback following the meetings was almost entirely positive, Benson said.
“Just work with them,” he said. “I have a high regard for the faculty. Faculty are the heart of the place, and everyone has to remember that.”
Benson said higher education “needs a hard look,” and he thinks Harreld has the credentials to do that. But he stressed the importance of working collaboratively.
“I just think that working with them is a big thing,” Benson said. “Don’t pull any punches.”
‘Run this place like a business’
Benson and Harreld are hardly the first presidents of major research universities or systems to come from non-traditional backgrounds. Although the majority still have strong academic pedigrees and many still graduate to president from provost, Benson and other industry experts say there’s a reason a business background might come in handy today.
“All of us need to be looking carefully at how can we operate more efficiently and cut costs and make it more affordable to students,” Benson said. “You need to get rid of the stuff that is not working and figure out how you can have a leaner business.”
He cited nationwide cuts in state support for higher education, rising tuition rates, and mounting student debt.
“The business here is providing high-quality education and research,” Benson said. “I think they understand you have to run this place like a business.”
Merrill Schwartz, a vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, seconded the idea that business prowess is invaluable in today’s hotly competitive higher education landscape.
With declining government support, presidents and boards need to do more in the area of philanthropy and improving public opinion about value, Schwartz said.
“I think that having run a large business enterprise can be very helpful background, provided the person can translate that leadership to the culture of the academy,” she said.
Successful management skills are essential, according to Schwartz.
“Being grounded in business and looking for new opportunities and ways to lower costs and use technology … are wonderful and necessary,” she said.
But not everyone likes the idea of running a university like a business, and some UI faculty have real concerns about academic values and traditions that might get lost in translation.
“Of course a ‘business background’ would be useful to have in someone connected with a major research university’s administration,” said UI law professor Nicholas Johnson. “But that person does not need to be, and should not be, that university’s president.”
Johnson said the regents did Harreld no favors by failing to prepare the campus community for a leader with experience “transitioning other large enterprises through change.”
“As every Iowa farmer knows, if you want your corn yield to go ‘from great to greater’ you first have to prepare the soil,” Johnson said, quoting Harreld’s vision for the university. “In effect, the regents dug a 30-foot hole, with mud at its base, and threw Harreld in it with nothing but a shovel. At least he had the good sense not to try to dig his way out by making the hole deeper.”
‘He hasn’t taken office yet’
Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. is in the non-official club of non-traditional university presidents — having taken the reins at Purdue University in January 2013 after finishing his second term as governor of the state of Indiana.
His background includes a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a law degree from Georgetown University, and he served as chief executive officer of the Hudson Institute think tank from 1987 to 1990. He was president of Eli Lilly and Co.’s North American pharmaceutical operations after that.
Without much academic experience, Daniels faced significant faculty pushback upon taking the job at Purdue.
Although Daniels’s staff said he was not available for an interview, Brian Zink, associate director of Purdue News Service, said Daniels spent six months before starting the job preparing. He made 13 trips to campus, held meetings with each college, had dozens of meals with faculty and staff, and met every member of the University Senate, Zink said.
“Since his arrival on campus, he has hosted regular no-agenda faculty breakfasts, has an open-door policy for any faculty who want to visit and hosts faculty colloquia at Westwood, the president’s on-campus residence,” Zink said.
AGB’s Schwartz said she thinks Harreld, likewise, has been taking advantage of the time between his Sept. 3 hire and Nov. 2 start date to bridge divides with faculty and build campus report.
“I think he’s taken the need very seriously to build campus relations before taking on the leadership as president,” she said. “He has made very good use of the time and opportunities, and I expect he will do quite a bit of listening, communicating, and meeting with important campus constituencies — including the faculty — once he’s in office.”
And, she said, that last part is key.
“He hasn’t taken office yet,” she said. “I think he has to have a chance to show himself and his leadership as president and develop relationships and report with the campus community.”
In many instances, according to Schwartz, time itself helps appease fear.
“I understand he does have great talents, and people expect great things of him,” she said.
And the University of Colorado’s President Benson said Harreld has one more advantage.
“He’s starting off with a good football record,” Benson said. “I didn’t get to start with that.”