Model university leadership on city managers and mayors

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The Regents’ appointment of Bruce Harreld as the UI President has clearly ignited a firestorm of criticism. Critics maintain that since the regents were aware at the time they appointed Harreld that approximately 97 percent of the faculty and staff judged him to be unqualified for the job and that faculty and staff evaluations of the qualifications of the other three finalists were overwhelmingly positive (ranging from 85 percent to 90 percent), the Regents’ decision to choose Harreld was a direct and deliberate slap in the face of the long standing tradition of shared governance and an act of disrespect for the UI faculty and staff. They are correct about that.

Critics also maintain that the search process had a fishy smell before the Regents’ decision to appoint Harreld. They wonder how the search committee could have included in the group of four finalists someone who would be viewed by the overwhelming majority of the faculty and staff as unqualified for the job of president. Shouldn’t that committee of 21, with its academic contingent, been able to foresee that? Again, the critics have a legitimate point.

Harreld’s defenders have argued that there is a great need for world-class managerial skills in leading an organization as complicated and multifaceted as a large modern university and that much of what a university president does is not academic in nature — for example, fundraising and meeting with alumni and political leaders. This is true but, as I show later, it is not a convincing argument for appointing a businessman as president.

Another argument for bringing in a president with a record of success in the business world is the supposed need to address “the crisis in higher public education.” What is this “crisis”? It is the constantly rising tuition that is causing students to graduate with large amounts of debt. What is the cause of this? The cause is decreasing per student funding by state legislatures, in Iowa and in many other states. When the state cuts back on its support, the university is forced to increase tuition to meet its obligations. Analysis by economists shows that the cost of education per student has remained essentially constant since 1988. There has been no spiraling cost of education. Tuition has gone up solely because of reduced per-student state appropriations. This same point was made by Gary Fethke, a former UI Interim President, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 1, 2012).

The idea that this problem can be solved by telling the university that it must look for additional “efficiencies” is dishonest. U.S. higher education is the envy of the world. This is why so many foreign students flock to U.S. universities for their education. According to one recent study, 75 percent of the top universities of the world are in one country: the U.S. Obviously, this is not a system in crisis or one that is failing. It is a system to be proud of.

The main reason we have heard from those who believe that Harreld is not qualified to be president is his complete lack of any experience in academic administration. Indeed, this is telling deficit on his part. But it is not the whole story and it misses an important consideration.

First and foremost, the UI is an organization that represents the values of scholarship, research, and the advancement of human knowledge. The president represents (and symbolizes) the university and these values to the rest of the world — to the legislature, to the federal government, to donors, to the people of Iowa, to general U.S. public, to other universities, to other countries, and to the world in general. In representing the university, the president must represent and embody these values. How can someone like Herreld represent these values? You can’t represent values you have never practiced and clearly do not embody. This is analogous to the Catholic Church electing a successful businessman as Pope on grounds that the Church needs a leader with high level management skills. Having someone like Herreld represent the university to the world sends the message that the University of Iowa is just another complex organization that needs to be managed in the name of efficiency. The values of the university are lost in this message. No matter how good a job Herreld does or does not do in his internal management of the UI, there will still be this serious problem. There is no way around it.

So what is the solution? A university like the UI needs high level general managerial skills and it needs someone as president who represents the values of the university to the world. I believe the appropriate model is that of the mayor and the city manager. Someone like Herreld should be hired to the “city manager” of the university, with his management moves to be given due deference by the president and his/her “board”, while still reserving the power of final approval on major proposed changes. This model provides the advanced technocratic management skills the university needs while still having a university president who successfully represents the values of the university to the rest of the world, thus preserving the important notion that the university is a special institution and not just another complex organization (like Wal-Mart) in need of management in the name of efficiency. Another advantage is that this model frees up more of the time of the president, so that he/she can devote more time to representing the university and its values to the world.

• Frank Schmidt is an industrial and organizational psychologist and professor emeritus of the Department of Management and Organizations in the U.I. Henry B. Tippie College of Business. Comments:

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