Tim Wolfe resignation: When money talks in higher education

  • Photo

Once upon a time, a Midwest university’s governing board hired a president who was a lifelong business person with no advanced degrees, record of scholarship or political experience. They cited his “business acumen” as sufficient qualification — over faculty protests. He had worked for IBM in sales and ultimately as vice president. He then became a business consultant, and headed a corporation no longer operating under that name.

He froze faculty salaries, except for a favored few (without explanation), and scaled back graduate assistants’ tuition waivers and health insurance subsidies, just hours before fall classes began. He discontinued clinical privileges for a Planned Parenthood physician, and terminated relationships with Planned Parenthood affiliates.

This is not a once-upon-a-time bedtime story. It’s a true tale. But it doesn’t involve Iowa’s Bruce Harreld.

It’s a Missouri story. The state’s multi-campus system is headed by a president, the campuses by chancellors, all governed by a Board of Curators.

The current dust-up is at the university in Columbia, and involves the president’s insensitivity to the grievances of African-American students regarding racial epithets and worse. It wasn’t something he said. It was that he said nothing.

Realizing that nothing gets an administrator’s attention like loss of revenue, especially from sports, the football team announced it would boycott all “football related activities” until President Timothy M. Wolfe resigned or was removed. Serious at any time, it was especially so before the BYU game Nov. 14, to be held in the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium. If the game was forfeited, the university would not only lose ticket and related revenue, it would owe BYU $1 million. The coaches and others on campus supported the team.

A half hour after I began writing this column the Board of Curators called an emergency meeting, and 20 minutes after that Wolfe resigned.

(For a similar story about a business person as president of Iowa’s Parsons College, and its ultimate bankruptcy, see Laura Crossett’s “Parsons College: A Cautionary Tale for UI”)

Since Sept. 1, I have been maintaining a repository of the news, opinion pieces and documents relevant to the Board of Regents’ process, and ultimate selection, of our new president.

These records are important, not only to us, as University of Iowa news for today and as an archive of Harreld’s presidency for tomorrow. What is going on in Iowa this year is but one part, one story, of what is happening in higher education all across America — as illustrated by the news from Missouri. It is far too early for historians’ evaluation of whether the “business person” solution preferred by many boards will turn out to be the salvation of challenged universities, or lead to their demise — or to know how many historians will then remain to tell the tale.

Nor is this story limited to our nations’ major research institutions. It is but a part of trends throughout our society during the past 35 years. Grover Norquist put it succinctly: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can ... drown it in the bathtub.” We’re witnessing public support for outsiders as presidents of the United States as well as its universities.

Privatize prisons and their profits are tied to maintaining the world’s largest prison population. Privatize the military, pay contractors multiples more than soldiers, and we have perpetual wars. Bust unions in the private and public sectors and the middle class disappears and increased wealth goes to the top 1 percent. Repeal Glass-Steagall and taxpayers bail out the banks.

Corporatize the universities and ... what? Watch this space.

• Iowa City native, Nicholas Johnson, was formerly a member of legal teams at a major Washington law firm representing airlines and steel companies, and headed the U.S. Maritime Administration. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.