Senators demand regents explain how University of Northern Iowa president search will be different

'What happened there cannot happen here'

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A trio of state lawmakers has sent a letter to the Board of Regents expressing concern with its upcoming search for a new University of Northern Iowa president and calling on the board to provide “specific steps” on how this process will differ from last year’s University of Iowa search.

“The most recent presidential selection process at the University of Iowa did not adhere to the high standards Iowans expect from our Board of Regents,” according to the letter, signed by Democratic senators Jeff Danielson, of Cedar Falls, Brian Schoenjahn, of Arlington, and Rob Hogg, of Cedar Rapids.

Danielson, whose district includes UNI, chairs the Senate State Government Committee; Schoenjahn chairs the Senate Education Budget Committee; and Hogg chairs the Senate Oversight Committee.

“As state senators, we have been contacted by Iowans who are concerned about different issues regarding the Board of Regents,” they wrote in the letter, sent Friday to Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter and Executive Director Robert Donley. “One especially timely concern that has been raised is how the search for a new president at the University of Northern Iowa will be conducted. We share that concern.”

The Board of Regents last fall came under fire from UI faculty, staff, students, and other community members for its hiring of businessman Bruce Harreld as UI president. Harreld, a former IBM executive with no administrative academic experience, was among four finalists — including former Ohio State University Executive Vice President and Provost Joseph Steinmetz, who just months later landed a job as chancellor of the University of Arkansas.

Many faculty, staff, and students voiced concern with Harreld’s candidacy and asked the board to pick anyone but Harreld. Just days later, the board unanimously chose Harreld for the job. And, in the weeks that followed, news reports and investigations revealed Rastetter had aggressively recruited Harreld and afforded him several previously-undisclosed meetings with other regents, search committee members, and interim UI President Jean Robillard.

The UI Faculty Senate and UI Student Government issued votes of no-confidence in the board for its hiring and the process it followed, and the national American Association of University Professors sanctioned the university for the board’s violation of shared governance values.

“What happened there cannot happen here,” Danielson told The Gazette. “I cannot overstate that.”

He stressed the importance of involving a wide array of UNI community members and stating up front the qualities sought in a new president. Danielson suggested someone who would focus on increasing enrollment, upping private investment, ensuring athletics programs make money, improving career placement of graduates, and focusing on diversity.

But, he said, others might want different or additional values in a president.

“The only way to clarify what the board wants is to have them publicly declare up front what their goals are in the process,” he said. “And the board’s search process in my view must align with the strategic goals of the university. If we don’t know the direction the Board of Regents wants to go, how will the next president?”

Danielson said he’s hopeful based on the search’s early stages. For starters, he said, the board chose UNI Provost Jim Wohlpart as interim UNI president — unlike at University of Iowa. The board also chose a different firm to facilitate the search.

The board, he said, is in the process of creating a search committee of UNI constituents — and some of those invited have reached out to him.

“I think it’s a legitimate group, based on its membership,” he said. “I trust everyone on the committee that I’m aware of now.”

But, Danielson said, the purpose of the letter is to make sure the board publicly declares its intentions.

“Please reply to this letter with the specific steps the Board of Regents is taking to ensure a fair and transparent process in the selection of the next president,” according to the letter.

If they don’t and the search falters, the university could lose its chance to continue momentum that former UNI President Bill Ruud started.

“What happened at the University of Iowa was Lucy pulling the football out from Charlie Brown,” Danielson said. “And we can’t have that.”

Sen. Hogg said he worries if the board doesn’t publicly state its intentions, it’s history with the UI search could hamper its ability to get a good pool of candidates for the UNI job.

“I want the regents to have the opportunity to respond and say how they are changing this process to make sure the problems don’t happen again,” Hogg said.

The board had not responded to the letter or the senators as of Monday morning.

Regents President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland, heading the search, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Former UNI President Ruud left the institution in July after three years on the job to lead the small private Marietta College in Ohio.

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