Pennies, pounds and University of Iowa leadership

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Given the recent news of money squandering at the University of Iowa, I am now more than ever grateful to learn from Benjamin Franklin, whose writings I have the good fortune to teach at the University. What strikes me is how little the Iowa Board of Regents and Bruce Harreld have learned from this quintessential American.

Franklin is famous for his industry and thrift. The lessons about economy and accounting come to us, of course, from his proverbs, which themselves are so concise and thrifty: “A stitch in time saves nine,” “Penny wise, pound-foolish.” His business acumen would seem to match that of the Iowa Board of Regents and their appointee.

Yet the Board’s waste of taxpayer money would give Franklin pause. The Board spent $308,000 on a preordained presidential search--$200,000 of it to a private search firm. $5.4 million has gone to an efficiency review whose opportunity costs, much less savings, have yet to be reckoned. The Deloitte consultants did, however, tell the Regents that their plan to have the three state universities compete for Iowa students, did tell the Regents after sixteen months of Board advocacy for the plan, for the plan and over and against ordinary Iowans and state legislators, did tell the Regents that the plan is — wait for it — bad economics. Such is the Board’s “efficiency.”

Especially galling is the board’s initiative to require an undergraduate course in “financial literacy.” This is classic victim-blaming, wherein the loss of state appropriations — which would help make higher education affordable — is masked with discussion of how ignorant students and families are about loans and debt. (The bullying masks as well a $500-million-per-year loss in state revenues, due to the governor’s tax cut of June 2013, that has deprived Iowans of support at all levels of public education.) Franklin would likely require the pound-foolish Regents to take their proposed course.

Recent revelations put point to this broad pattern. Peter Matthes, an operative for the Board in the UI president’s office, allows $321,900 to a media and polling company with state GOP ties. Wastefully, no competitive bids were entertained — which also violates university policy. Jean Robillard — interim UI president, UI Hospitals vice president, and facilitator of the Harreld hire — spends $10,747 on a private jet-ride that carries him to the donor behind the hire, a week before the presidential appointment.

It has gotten so bad that Bruce Harreld spends his own money on an image consultant to avoid the look of impropriety. This money is going to an ally of the Board. And ominously, the media figure specializes in managing crisis. (Including, presumably, the look of impropriety.) This is pennyweight leadership.

Had these figures only listened to Benjamin Franklin! If anything, the Board and its abettors resemble the great antagonist of Franklin’s generation: monarchy. Using the public wealth for private gain, King Louis XIV, for example, believed that “L’etat, c’est moi” — meaning “The State, it’s me.” It was usually an undemocratic hierarchy of royal court favoritism. I’m looking at you, Terry Branstad. And you two, Bruce Rastetter and Jerre Stead.

Franklin’s generation proposed a republic instead, where power would emanate from the people first. State universities are analogous to this ideal community: they are public trusts, run by shared governance in order to develop citizens, empower learners, and produce knowledge through non-profit measures.

I love reading Franklin with my students. Three of them come to mind as advancing Franklin’s republican values. One, an artist, is sharing her knowledge of book craft internationally as a Fulbright fellow, representing the University of Iowa in Korea. Another recent grad is electric in the new media world, working as an assistant editor at BuzzFeed in New York. A third interns with prestigious literary publishers off and on campus. Each came to their destinies through their own merits. But each takes seriously a public culture of accountability. In contrast to the Regents and their appointee, Franklin and these dedicated students model a true ethic of higher education.

• Matthew P. Brown is an associate professor in the English department and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. Comments: matthew-p-brown@uiowa.edu

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