University of Iowa, Iowa State hired hundreds without searches
'It's just not right'
The handful of former lawmakers whom the University of Iowa and Iowa State University recently brought on to their payrolls without conducting formal job searches are far from alone.
An investigation by The Gazette shows the institutions in the past two years hired a combined 319 faculty and staff members without advertising the positions or conducting searches, as outlined by their policies.
University of Northern Iowa, meanwhile, hired one person using a search waiver in the 2015 and 2016 budget years.
Penn State University, another Big Ten institution, can’t recall granting any waivers in the last year.
Analysts say UI and ISU are not unique nationally in their hiring practices, but they concede that skirting the advertising and search process poses transparency issues at a time when higher education costs and spending are increasingly under the microscope.
“I would argue that any position is probably better served, if at all possible, to go through an affirmative-action, equal-opportunity process,” said John Barnshaw, senior higher education researcher with the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C. “It’s better for the department. It’s better for the institution. It’s better for the individuals that are hired.”
The issue has drawn attention — and raised questions — across Iowa following reports of past and present lawmakers landing university gigs without going through the competitive search process outlined in university policy.
The Gazette reported Iowa State recently hired former Republican lawmakers Kraig Paulsen and Jim Kurtenbach without advertisements or searches, and UI hired former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach to its College of Law without a search in 2013. Newly released documents requested by The Gazette show UI hired Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, in 2015 without a standard search.
UI also hired the state’s former Medicaid Director Jennifer Vermeer in 2014 without a search to the new $210,000-a-year position of assistant vice president of medical affairs for UI Health Care — overseeing the UI Health Alliance.
Other names of executives hired without searches include UI vice presidents Peter Matthes, Rod Lehnertz, Terry Johnson and Mark Braun — Braun since has left to become the Board of Regents’ chief operating officer.
Those individuals were offered their jobs or publicly announced in their new positions on the same day the UI president requested a search waiver — and a day before the waiver document was signed, according to a review of the documents.
Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter in December responded to questions about Paulsen’s hire during an interview with Iowa Public Radio, saying, “There should have been advertising that went on at Iowa State.”
“The universities need to be aware and advertise for those positions,” Rastetter said. “Whether it’s relatives being hired or family members, I think there is an H.R. process set up at the universities that they need to follow.”
Still, UI in the 2015 and 2016 budget years hired 179 people without advertising or searching — about four percent of the total hires. ISU hired 140 people with search waivers — about eight percent of the hires.
Barnshaw said bypassing the standard search process raises the question, “How selective are you in the administration of hiring?” It also potentially dilutes the talent of the person being hired, he said.
Critics might contend, “They didn’t really go through the full search,” according to Barnshaw.
“It maybe unjustifiably creates doubt where there shouldn’t be some if you had gone through a due-diligence search,” he said.
UI search procedures are designed to comply with laws governing equal employment opportunity and affirmative action.
“Deviations from these procedures are therefore strongly discouraged,” according to UI policy. “Exceptions to these procedures will be made only upon careful review by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and the compensation and classification unit of human resources.”
But according to search-waiver documents, several individuals were offered their new jobs on the same day the university president requested a search waiver.
Take March 10, when former UI President Sally Mason sent a letter to the equal opportunity and diversity office asking to waive the search for Braun, who had been Mason’s chief of staff and recently spent more than six months overseeing the Board of Regents’s efficiency review.
Mason, in the letter, asked for a waiver to appoint Braun UI vice president of operational efficiency and regulatory analysis based on his work with the board and “unique skill set that is not replicable.”
That same day, she sent human resources a letter “to inform you that I intend to reassign Mark Braun” and a letter to Braun offering him the job. The waiver request, assigning him a salary of $234,000, was signed the next day.
On April 2, Mason similarly submitted a request to waive the search for Matthes to become vice president of external relations — a post he had held on an interim basis for months.
That same day, Mason extended the offer to Matthes, along with a salary of $225,000. The waiver request was signed the next day.
Iowa State’s “open search” policy, citing a goal to “diversify its employee population,” also charges “the pool of applicants for all positions being filled at the university be as broad as possible.”
The president can grant exceptions based on prior written request endorsed by a vice president and reviewed by the equal opportunity director. But those requests are based on “documented evidence that qualified candidates are unlikely to be available through an open search or that an extended search would risk negating an opportunity to hire a member of an underrepresented group.”
Waiver documents provided to The Gazette shows exact language used for several hires made without advertisement or search.
Michael and Jennifer Lohrbach, who are married, both received director positions in information technology services that weren’t advertised and didn’t involve searches per the unit’s “reorganization plan,” according to ISU documents.
The same language — word for word — was used to justify search waivers for Carol McDonald and Lynn Miller, both of whom also were appointed to ITS director positions.
“The incumbent has been performing these higher level duties since the new CIO of ITS started (12/2014),” according to the documents, which referenced ITS CIO Jim Kurtenbach, who wasn’t appointed interim CIO until January 2015 and was only recently appointed permanent CIO — in July, 2016. He also was hired without a formal search.
“ITS is confident a search for this position would not yield a more qualified applicant(s),” the documents said of both McDonald and Miller.
‘The world is watching’
The universities’ main reasons for bypassing searches include a need to fill a position requiring unique skills and for which the university is unlikely to find a more-qualified candidate; critical circumstances requiring a quick hire; and risk of losing a highly skilled and coveted prospect.
The universities also might waive a search if a prospect is tied to a grant or to accommodate the spouse of a coveted candidate who wouldn’t relocate unless his or her partner had a job.
“To bring that person aboard, they would use the spousal accommodation to assist in encouraging them,” said Margo Foreman, director of equal opportunity for Iowa State. “If you come and bring your talent, we will help find a place for your spouse.”
Iowa State, she said, also might waive a search to address diversity goals or to land a person with notoriety -- as Foreman stressed, policy “should not be the law,” incapable of bending in unique circumstances.
“If it is to increase the benefit of what we do for students or for our staff or faculty, then, yeah, we are going to look at that exception and consider it and then decide if this is a good move,” she said.
Searches, she said, take money and time that could jeopardize coveted hires.
“The higher level position, the more expensive the search, the more time-consuming the search, and the longer you are waiting to start the initiative you want to start,” Foreman said.
And, she said, searches don’t negate risk.
“A search process, too, is a gamble,” Foreman said. “Plenty of people know you’ve gone through a search process and you end up with an individual that you think is grand, and it just doesn’t work out.”
Still, she noted, searches are valuable, conceding, “There is not one perfect person for any position.”
“People go through searches so you can get the person right for the job,” Foreman said.
Deciding when or when not to use that process is a “balance,” she said. And it’s one the institutions have to be prepared to justify.
“You know when you’ve done that the world is watching,” she said. “What I would say to individuals is be able to defend the decisions you make.”
Barnshaw with the AAUP said he thinks job prospects should want to go through a search process — to validate their hire. And Rep. Jacoby told The Gazette he didn’t realize he was hired into his part-time UI position as public relations coordinator for the southeast region STEM hub using a waiver. He would have competed for the job.
“I’m always willing to do that,” Jacoby said. “I’m always willing to compete for a position.”
Barnshaw said the use of search waivers can set a dangerous precedent within an institution. If one person is appointed without a search, another person might expect the same treatment or another director might follow suit in hiring without a search.
And AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan, whose union represents some Iowa State employees, said he worries hiring without searches “creates cronyism.”
It appears, he said, that administrators are “handpicking their friends and political allies and basically saying, ‘Here, the job is yours. But you remember who gave you this job, and don’t you ever be unloyal to me. Because he who giveth can taketh away.’
“And that is not right,” Homan said. “It’s just not right.”
Iowa’s three public universities all have policies outline advertising and search processes for filling jobs. But the institutions can bypass those processes under special circumstances, requiring approved waivers.
University of Iowa
l FY2015: 93 searches waived out of 2,090 hires — or 4.4 percent
l FY2016: 86 searches waived out of 2,563 hires — or 3.4 percent
Iowa State University
l FY2015: 82 searches waived out of 1,224 hires — or 6.7 percent
l FY2016: 58 searches waived out of 539 hires — or 10.8 percent
University of Northern Iowa
l FY2015: 1 search waived of 156 hires
l FY2016: 0 searches waived 134 hires
Source: University of Iowa, Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa