Character will decide UI fate

Green grass grows on the Pentacrest in front of the Old Capitol at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. The east side of the building is one of the few areas on campus that is regularly watered during 2012's dry weather conditions. (Matt Nelson/The Gazette - KCRG-TV9)
Green grass grows on the Pentacrest in front of the Old Capitol at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. The east side of the building is one of the few areas on campus that is regularly watered during 2012's dry weather conditions. (Matt Nelson/The Gazette - KCRG-TV9)

And to think, just days ago, we thought it couldn’t get any worse than a choice between Mr. Older White Guy one, two, three or four.

The University of Iowa presidential search and subsequent selection was about political cronyism, not finding the best leader for a Big Ten institution. Regents President Bruce Rastetter drove that point home Thursday by saying the decision means “the status quo is unacceptable.”

The point also was made less publicly when J. Bruce Harreld was specifically recruited by members of the UI search committee. And again, last month, when, according to the AP, Rastetter arranged for only Harreld to speak with Gov. Terry Branstad.

Branstad’s spokesman was quick to note the governor’s office made no public endorsement.

Before students and faculty learned Harreld’s name, a decision to give him preferential treatment already had been made. No wonder a survey showing most thought Harreld to be unqualified barely registered a Rastetter eye roll.

Also no wonder why so many in academia support keeping candidates a secret until a final, official announcement. Three incredibly qualified people were duped into a dog-and-pony show that I contend they never had a chance of winning. Yes, that’s right, the stage was set. The fix was in. Pick your metaphor.

This decision, whether judged by history to be bitter or sweet, is a political win for the Branstad administration. The administration’s ethics have been questioned before, and there’s no reason to think this is the straw that finally will tip voters’ scales. Big deal if they’ve affronted academics; the administration got exactly what it wanted — a political pawn with a greater reason to align with the regents and governor than the university, and a qualified guess that the new president will support ongoing efforts to run the university like a business.

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The path toward that change was paved under Sally Mason’s tenure, and it hasn’t been largely welcomed in the Iowa City community.

Closed-door policies in athletics and administration are blatant and infamous. High-profile issues such as campus sexual assaults, as well as the university’s anti-free speech response to an unscheduled art display have made clear that integrity can pay the price of image control.

Promises to magically transform students into consumers worthy of satisfactory experiences have either not been implemented or were botched. Devaluing faculty and hiring off tenure tracks has smacked of “Wal-Martism.”

Still, where the story goes from here is entirely dependent on Harreld’s character.

To put it in business terms, the vast majority of UI students, faculty and alumni view the regents’ decision as a hostile takeover. Harreld can point to the survey showing disapproval or use criticism during the candidate forum to make Rastetter’s and Branstad’s wants his own.

Harreld also has the more difficult option of rising above the unfortunate circumstance of his academic birth. He can unequivocally align his loyalties to the university, students and faculty.

We’ll have to wait and see what comes next.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 339-3144, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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