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IOWA CITY - After five roller-coaster years bookended by campus protests and a historic pandemic, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld announced Thursday he will retire before his extended contract expires in 2023.
Harreld, just months shy of his 70th birthday, last week notified the Board of Regents of his intentions to leave his post atop Iowa's oldest public university as the campus is in the midst of coping with huge losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and an extraordinary decline in the share of state budget support.
In a Sept. 22 letter delivered privately the day before the board met virtually for a regularly scheduled meeting, Harreld said that while he wants to retire he also plans to stay on until the 22nd UI president takes over - negating the need for an interim leader but leaving his departure date up in the air.
'Rest assured that until a new president begins, I will continue to work closely with you, my cabinet, our council of deans, and our shared governance groups to advance the key priorities of the campus,” he wrote.
Harreld didn't respond to The Gazette's request for an interview, but said in a statement, 'I believe institutions suffer when they rush the search for a new leader and that a smooth, deliberate process positions the new president and the university for success.”
He said the search 'could take additional time given the pandemic, so I wanted to announce my plans now so the board can begin right away.”
The board will hold a special meeting Monday to officially accept Harreld's retirement and direct regents Executive Director Mark Braun to start looking for a search firm and convening a search committee.
Braun is expected to report on selection of a firm and committee members at the board's November meeting.
Just last year, Harreld agreed to extend his five-year contract past its original expiration date of 2020 - bringing it through 2023 and tacking on an extra $1.33 million in deferred compensation, upping his eventual payout to $2.33 million.
His new contract, though, stipulated that should he retire before the end of the contract, he'd be due only the salary and benefits accrued to that point, and the board would have no obligation to pay additional compensation. But it may not be that simple.
'Determiners of his deferred compensation agreement are that he needs to stay in continuous employment for the board until 2023 in order for him to collect his deferred compensation,” Braun told The Gazette. 'The only way he could collect it is if he did something else for the board after a new president was in place.”
When asked whether Harreld could, under his contract, collect the full $2.33 million in deferred compensation by staying on as a lecturer or adjunct professor to teach a class - like he's doing this semester - Braun said, 'he could.”
'If he would remain in a continuous employment of the board, that would meet the terms of his deferred comp contract,” Braun said. 'None of those details have been worked out in any way shape or form.”
The state paid Harreld $598,400 in fiscal 2019, a state database shows.
Although Harreld didn't spell out his reasoning for wanting to leave early, regents President Mike Richards told The Gazette that Harreld wasn't encouraged by the board to step down.
'I was the one that promoted extending his contract,” he said. 'So the answer is, yes, I wish he would stay longer.”
Acknowledging the current outsize challenges of the job - with the UI, like institutions nationally, suffering soaring costs and mounting losses from COVID-19 - Richards said that all likely played a role in Harreld's decision.
'I believe it certainly did,” he said. 'I think being a university president any place in the country is very difficult right now.”
Richards said Harreld wanted to announce his departure early to give the campus plenty of time to find a replacement without the need for an interim. And while the board would like to have a new leader in place by next fall, Richards said, Harreld is aware the search could take longer.
'He has appropriately said it could take a couple of years,” he said. 'Maybe more, maybe less.”
Although Harreld aims to avoid an interim president, his retirement comes as the campus maintains interim leaders in other key administrative holes - including provost, diversity head and dean of its largest unit, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Harreld's announcement also arrives at a time of seemingly nonstop monumental decisions, like whether to continue with face-to-face instruction in the midst of a deadly pandemic; how to address faculty and student demands for flexibility; and what to do about a university budget beset by soaring costs, depleted income and continued blows in state funding.
Richards said he doesn't worry about Harreld's ability to continue operating in the same vein he has until a new president replaces him.
'President Harreld is still the president of the university and will still be at full capacity as president of the university and will be handling day-to-day operations just as he did before,” Richards said, adding the board began notifying some lawmakers of the news once Harreld's letter came through.
'There will be issues that the university does still deal with, and as the president he still has full authority until we have a replacement,” Richards said.
Ingenuity ‘Brought in a billion dollars'
Harreld, who came to the position as former regents President Bruce Rastetter's top pick and a well-off businessman with no academic administrative experience, was pitched as an outsider who would shake up the norms of higher education - seen as stale and in need of a visionary.
As Harreld vied for the job along with three elite academics, UI faculty, staff and students disparaged his candidacy and called on the regents to choose any finalist but him. A town hall where Harreld spoke with campus community members turned contentious.
Despite the campus demands, Rastetter and his eight regent peers unanimously hired Harreld in September 2015 - prompting votes of no-confidence from the UI Faculty Senate and UI Student Governments.
The American Association of University Professors sanctioned the UI for the regents' disregard of shared governance in its hire of Harreld - a stigma the AAUP later lifted after a board of mostly new regents committed to do better.
Harreld, shortly after arriving at the UI, shook up the campus' budgeting process to give deans and department heads more power over their resources. He was a strong advocate for state resources but wasn't shy about looking elsewhere for funding - noting the Iowa Legislature had proved unreliable.
He for years promoted tuition increases as necessary to make up for state shortcomings, noting other institutions nationally similar to the UI get larger shares of their budgets both from students and their states.
Citing the Legislature's generational disinvestment in Iowa's public higher education, Harreld over the years made tough calls to close programs, eliminate scholarships, freeze faculty pay and put new construction on hiatus.
Nonetheless, he did oversee the addition of several major projects to the Iowa City campus, including a 12-story, 1,049-bed Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall; a new Psychology and Brain Sciences Building; a long-awaited College of Pharmacy Building; and a UI Stanley Museum of Art under construction next to the Main Library.
And then last year, Harreld made arguably his biggest financial move - and the one most closely mirroring his past professional life - by instigating a push for a public-private partnership to operate the university's $1 billion utilities system.
After months of investigating and interviewing potential partners, regents in December unveiled a deal unique in Iowa in which a French company and investors paid the UI $1.165 billion in exchange for 50 years of steady income as operator of the university's massive utility system.
After paying off its debts and contractors, the UI invested most of that upfront lump sum into an endowment it plans to pull from annually to reinvest into the core mission of the campus - although it hasn't done so yet.
Richards' praised Harreld's ingenuity in pursuing that revenue.
'It brought in a billion dollars,” he said. 'That by itself would be a major accomplishment.”
‘Really good replacement'
When March arrived, and with it Iowa's first case of COVID-19, Harreld - like most other university leaders - sent most students, faculty and staff home to finish the semester online rather than in person.
He, like his institutional peers, never wavered in vowing to resume some form of in-person instruction this fall - even as students, faculty and staff over the summer wrote him letters and spoke publicly about their concerns and then their demands he keep instruction online.
Harreld went his own way in deciding not to start the fall semester early, like Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa had. He similarly did not follow suit when ISU and UNI announced plans to end this fall semester entirely the day before Thanksgiving, instead opting to then shift all remaining in-person courses online to avoid students returning after high-risk holiday travel.
He rejected public pushes to do more on-campus coronavirus testing, even as ISU rolled out mandatory move-in testing in August. And when UI students returned for the fall and hit the bars - socializing, in many cases, without masks or distancing - Harreld in an open letter scolded the Iowa City businesses for not enforcing the rules.
Although the UI's campus COVID-19 cases soared to among the highest in the country early in the semester, Harreld's public comments largely have thanked the students for their cooperation and the faculty and staff for their flexibility.
Harreld, like leaders at ISU and UNI, has said Iowa will continue in the spring semester like it has this fall - with hybrid learning, pushing many courses online. He also canceled spring break 2021 and has stood behind department and unit leaders making tough decisions with shrinking budgets.
When UI Athletic Director Gary Barta, for example, made the unpopular decision to cut four fall sports in light of a deficit in the tens of millions, Harreld knocked down criticism or suggestions the UI accept donations and reverse course.
'I'm sorry, I've been there so many times on other facilities and other activities on campus - that if you do this, we'll raise the money. And then we end up with 10 percent of what we need, and now we're on the hook to fund the rest of it,” Harreld told regents last week - the day after giving them his retirement letter.
'We don't have that sort of money anymore,” he said, 'These sports are closed.”
When asked what regents want in the next UI president, Richards - whose six-year term on the board ends next year - said he's leaving that to a soon-to-be-established search committee.
'Everybody knows that he's done a really good job,” Richards said. 'And so we look at the challenge of trying to find a really good replacement. This is saying nothing negative about him, but we hope we get an even better one next time. That's going to be tough.”