Dressing the windows yet again

The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Brand spanking new University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld may become a terrific president, the stuff of legend and song. Or he may prove to be a slash-and-burn corporate raider bent on pulling down the ivory towers of academia to make room for a fertilizer plant.

Perhaps he’ll land somewhere in between.

In any event, what’s done is done. Like the hire, don’t like the hire. I’m willing to give Harreld a shot

But nobody should be comfortable with the way it was done, the way so many decisions get made in “our” government.

Basically, I’m sick to death of the reams of window dressing thrown up to make processes such as this one look as if people beyond the cozy corridors of power actually have a say. It happens over and over again at all levels of government. Big decisions, even small ones. It’s as if our elected officials and loyal appointees have become dodgy interior decorators. The window dressing is so thick, there really are no windows.

And the drapes do not match the democracy.

Of course, the Branstad administration has become masterful at talking transparency while wielding power like a shady generalissimo. You don’t have to connect many dots to figure out Harreld, a former executive at IBM, Boston Chicken and other firms, likely was Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter’s top pick from the beginning. Rastetter is Branstad’s loyal GOP BFF and he even set up a phone call between Harreld and the governor in August, according to an Associated Press report. So Harreld was recruited by the search committee, which included Rastetter, and is the only candidate who spoke to Branstad.

Winner, winner, Boston Chicken dinner.

So it seems the search process, the naming of four finalists, public forums, surveys of students and faculty, interviews, etc., all were, basically, shiny public packaging for hiring the business guy. You let people speak, but there’s no reason to listen. If they’re not your friends or political allies, their voices are simply background noise.

It’s how you hire a university president. It’s how you scrap a rule requiring topsoil to be replaced on building sites when public comments run 10 to one in favor of keeping it. It’s how you quietly stand by while lawmakers struggle to reach deals on education funding and then vaporize them with vetoes. And when it comes to closing a juvenile home, mental health facilities or handing a $4 billion Medicaid program over to private firms, you don’t even dress the windows. You bulldoze ahead.


But this isn’t just a Branstad problem. The Cedar Rapids School Board’s decision to close Polk Elementary in 2012 is a prime example of a call made behind the scenes despite broad public opposition. Cedar Rapids city leaders think filling an “open house” with pretty placards and suits constitutes gathering critical public input. The list goes on.

It’s no wonder so many of us are angry. It’s a natural reaction to realizing we’re powerless. We speak. They don’t listen. And make no mistake, today’s window-dressers will be draped in outrage tomorrow when they’re on the outside of power trying in vain to look in.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com



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