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Speakers at University of Iowa hearing criticize 'troubling' regent communication process

'Step up or, in fact, step down'

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Most of the 10 people who spoke Thursday during a Board of Regents public hearing at the University of Iowa did not address issues on the board’s meeting agenda for next week but instead criticized the board for its management “failures” and the impersonal public hearing process it uses.

“It’s troubling that this is the extent of the dialogue that I get, is speaking into a webcam,” said UI graduate student and teaching assistant Hodna Nuernberg. “I really would call on you the regents to step up or, in fact, step down and resign. Because I don’t think that this is a legitimate process.”

The regents in 2013 began holding public hearings on each campus it oversees in conjunction with its regular meetings. The move came in response to recommendations from a Transparency Task Force, which was convened to assess best methods for improving public access.

The hearings occur the week before the board meetings, last one hour, and are staffed by institutional transparency officers. No regents attend the hearings in person, and speakers must talk into a video camera. Their messages are recorded, posted online, and reviewed by staff members to determine if any issues presented should be brought to the board or raised at a board meeting.

No one verifies board members watch the videos. Following the last public hearing on the UI campus in November, the videotaped comments were viewed 52 times, according to UI transparency officer Ann Goff.

The eight individuals who spoke at the UI hearing in November set a record after The Gazette in October reported that — despite significant turmoil among faculty, students and staff around the hiring of a new president — no one had attended any of the UI hearings to date in 2015.

Only three people across the three regent universities, two special schools, and board office had attended the 47 hearings through that period in 2015. When reviewing the more than 100 public hearings that had been held across the campuses since their inception in 2013, only 34 comments had been logged, according to board officials.

Speakers at the UI hearing on Thursday criticized the format of the hearings as a “show” of transparency.

“Having to talk to a camera and not to a human being and knowing that whatever I say is going to be posted on a website and having no confidence that anyone who I’m actually directing these comments to is actually going to listen to them, all those things contribute to an extremely intimidating mode of interacting with people,” said UI English professor Judith Pasco.

“The fact that even anybody would show up under these circumstances and talk to a camera in a room and allow themselves to be recorded speaks very loudly about the strength of feeling there is on campus,” Pasco said.

UI associate professor Matthew Brown said he’s been appalled by the regents’ apparent disregard for the state’s tradition in transparency and academia.

“This entire set up of so called public hearings, which are really one-way video tapes with no obligation on your end to engage with our contributions, speaks volumes about this disregard,” he said.

John Logsdon, a UI biology professor, spoke at length during the last UI public hearing about his concerns with the regents, and he said Thursday he never received any feedback.

“I have not received a single reply from any of the regents, nor an acknowledgment of those comments,” he said. “So that leads me to wonder whether this particular venue and this particular mechanism of providing comments to the regents is actually effective. Makes me wonder whether you might have even listened to them.”

Aside from the public hearing criticism, speakers on Thursday reiterated concerns with the board’s decision to hire businessman Bruce Harreld to succeed former UI President Sally Mason, citing his lack of academic administrative experience, inaccuracies on his resume, and minimal support for his candidacy among faculty, staff, and students.

Some addressed issues that have come up since Harreld’s hire, including controversial comments he made during a Staff Council meeting that implied unprepared teachers “should be shot.” And several of Thursday’s speakers referenced a town hall planned with Harreld for Tuesday — the first communitywide forum since he started on the job Nov. 2.

More details of that town hall made public Monday indicate the 4 to 6 p.m. event also will involve Provost Barry Butler, Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz, and Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin, who will lead a discussion on student housing.

Logsdon said UI community members are concerned with the additions, and he hopes everyone gets the chance to ask their questions. Through a news release this week, the advocacy group Iowans Defending Our Universities demanded such.

“We expect that the 2-hour forum be comprised of a minimum of 1.5 hours of direct dialogue between President Harreld and the UI community,” according to the statement. “As this is a public forum, we expect that questions will not be preselected or vetted in any way.”

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