Outbursts, interruptions dominate first Bruce Harreld forum

Hundreds turned out to town hall meeting, coming in the wake of new president's contentious hiring last year

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Even before University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld started speaking Tuesday during his first town hall meeting since taking office Nov. 2, critics had peppered the campus and community with fliers mocking Harreld and the regents who hired him and urging people to attend the forum.

Hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and community members did attend, and several there articulated — loudly at times — their criticism and concern about the hiring process by interrupting the president during his presentation on the university’s potential for improvement, even using expletives to get their message across.

Protesters scattered throughout the Pomerantz Center classroom Tuesday afternoon held signs that read, “Resign” and “The search was rigged.”

“Answer our freaking questions,” Melyssa Jo Kelly, of Iowa City, said after Harreld had been presenting for 30 minutes. “A town-hall meeting is not a monologue.”

Some in the crowd chanted “questions, questions,” at that point, while Harreld tried to persist in his presentation.

“Isn’t he incredibly responsive to his audience?” Kelly said, to a mix of both applause and loud boos and hushes from other audience members wanting to hear Harreld’s presentation.

Harreld, a former IBM businessman who was hired in the fall amid controversy for his lack of academic administrative experience, pointed out during his presentation losses the university has experienced in national rankings, federal funding, and faculty members.

He posed questions to the audience about the way forward, including whether the university should look for new and innovative revenue sources. He asked whether the university was spreading its limited funds too evenly and how it could better prioritize.

He suggested the campus also could choose to maintain its current trajectory.

“I don’t like that latter option,” Harreld said. “I think we should say, there’s got to be another way.”

Harreld’s presentation included numbers indicating UI declines in faculty compensation, resources, and class sizes. He challenged the public to think creatively about solutions, even suggesting tuition freezes have hurt the university’s ability to keep pace with its peers.

“We do have the variable of tuition,” he said, conceding the Board of Regents decides tuition, not the campuses. “I think there’s an optic in the state that makes it difficult for that. On the other hand, I think it’s a variable that needs to be on the table and open for discussion.”

Once Harreld began fielding questions, most took a harsh and critical tone. At one point, a member of the UI community took the podium, ignoring Harreld and addressing the audience.

“Friends, we have been duped. And we’re being duped, even now,” Venson Curington said. “How can we expect anything fruitful to come from such a rotten tree? Harreld is a mere branch on this rotten tree. The roots are systems designed to disenfranchise, silence, marginalize, and exclude.”

Curington, like others during the forum, asked Harreld to resign. Harreld responded by saying he would resign in 2020, which he later clarified for The Gazette is when his current contract ends.

“If people want me to stay and ask me to stay, then I’m open to that,” he said. “But between now and 2020, I’m not resigning.”

To Harreld’s rejection of the resignation request, Curington announced the launch of “operation fire Harreld” and challenged audience members to pick a side. When someone criticized Curington for cutting ahead of others with his speech, cursing erupted, and two subsequent speakers asked Harreld to “keep an open mind about stepping aside for the good of the state for another who might unite and not divide us.”

When some audience members posed vision and issue questions, Harreld occasionally bounced back the rhetoric and asked for their thoughts — including when one black student asked Harreld what he plans to do about racism on campus.

“I think we need to do a ton of things about that,” Harreld said. “So please come. Please get involved. Engage us. Help us work this out.”

UI economics professor John Solow was among those in attendance who questioned that approach. And he expressed disappointment with Tuesday’s town hall.

“We are looking for the vision thing,” Solow said. “And what I heard was, ‘Things are pretty bad. We need to start cutting stuff. Let’s start figuring out who’s getting on the life boats and who’s not.”

Harreld repeatedly challenged the community to get involved in the visioning process, meeting with him and his staff and offering suggestions and thoughts. Some people shot back that they’re not making half a million dollars and have busy lives.

“You can’t be a leader without followers, and as you know morale is pretty crappy around here right now,” Solow told Harreld. “People are very concerned about what exactly they’re following.”

One staff member challenged Harreld to address ways he will help promote, retain, and support staff. Harreld said he believes staff members play an important role and he, perhaps, has been overly focused on faculty retention and compensation.

But, Harreld continued, he is looking to address faculty issues first.

“I’m sorry, but let’s actually deal with it in the appropriate order,” he said.

Despite the outbursts and interruptions, Harreld maintained his composure — although he once engaged with Kelly after she said, “I don’t work here.”

“I’m not surprised,” he shot back.

Harreld, at one point, also expressed frustration with the nature of the questions.

“I think there are some very significant issues to deal with here in this state and at this institution,” he said.

Following the forum, Harreld said he wasn’t surprised by the tone of some of those in attendance, and he plans to continue holding at least three town hall meetings a year. Although he said the university will take feedback to shape them going forward.

Two specific topics Harreld said he might address at the next forum are diversity and sexual assault on campus.

“This is a critical part of the process, which is to get people engaged,” he said.

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