University of Iowa professor sues over presidential search

Hammond warned of possible lawsuit in March

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IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa professor emeritus has filed a lawsuit against the UI presidential search committee, accusing it of violating open meeting laws and asking the court to void its actions.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 14 in Johnson County District Court, is the second filed by UI dentistry professor emeritus Harold Hammond in connection with a UI presidential search. Hammond in 2007 filed a similar lawsuit against the Board of Regents, the presidential search committee and others that resulted in a settlement costing the defendants nearly $66,000.

According to Hammond’s recent lawsuit, the UI’s 21-member presidential search and screen committee violated Iowa law by holding both public and closed meetings at 7:30 a.m., Aug. 11, and 7:15 a.m., Aug. 12, in Rosemont, Ill. Those meetings constituted violations by being “at a location outside the state of Iowa and otherwise at times and locations not reasonably accessible or convenient to the public,” according to the lawsuit.

The search committee closed a large chunk of those meetings to interview nine candidates for the vacant UI presidency, citing the portion of Iowa Code that authorizes closed sessions “to evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered.”

That portion of the code also stipulates closed sessions should be deemed necessary to prevent “needless and irreparable injury” to an individual’s reputation. And it requires that individual to request the closed session.

Hammond’s lawsuit says the committee held closed meetings without following the appropriate procedures and without a proper basis. And it accuses the committee of considering and finalizing matters in closed session that should have been done in the open.

The search process at the heart of the lawsuit led to the selection of businessman J. Bruce Harreld as the 21st UI president. Harreld, who has experience as an IBM and Boston Market executive and a lecturer at Harvard Business School but no academic administrative experience, is set to start Nov. 2 at a salary of $590,000. He also received a five-year deferred compensation package worth $1 million.

Harreld’s appointment has provoked some controversy — starting with a contentious public forum while he was still one of four finalists and followed by faculty and student no-confidence votes in the Board of Regents for its process in hiring Harreld.

When the search process began in March, Hammond’s attorney sent a letter to the search committee emphasizing the need to comply with open meetings and records laws and reminding it of the 2007 lawsuit.

“It is our hope and expectation that no compliance issues with these laws will arise during the search process,” according to the letter.

The warning specifically addressed the potential of holding “airport interviews.”

“It is our view that all public meetings need to be held at reasonably accessible locations, which would not include holding these meeting at airport hotels, especially if out of state,” according to the letter. “Further, it is our view that being considered as a candidate for the position of president of the University of Iowa does not result in damage to a candidate’s reputation.”

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said “airport interviews” have been standard in these types of searches for years, and she said the university does not believe the search committee violated any laws.

“Legal counsel provided open meetings training to the committee in advance of the search and provided counsel about how to comply with the law throughout the search,” Beck said in a statement. “From the outset, the committee strove to provide as much transparency as possible while protecting the confidentiality of the candidates who did not become finalists.”

Christina Bohannan, UI law professor, Faculty Senate president and a member of the search committee who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said she can’t comment on the pending litigation specifically.

But, she said, as far as she can tell, Harreld remains on track to start as UI president Nov. 2, and her hope is to focus the faculty on the future.

“We need to be focused on moving this institution forward and making our voices heard about how we do that,” she said.

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