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IOWA CITY — Iowa’s public universities last year used a waiver process to bypass open searches to fill jobs — designed to attract a diverse pool of qualified candidates and ensure applicants have an equal opportunity to compete for positions — in more than 150 hires, most of which involved the University of Iowa.
The UI processed 106 search waivers in 2021, according to records the university provided The Gazette after being compelled to do so by the Iowa Public Information Board — which weighed in after the newspaper filed a complaint over the UI’s initial refusal.
Although the university has been forced to release some search waiver information, it continues to shroud its waiver process in secrecy — withholding its justifications for skipped searches, even after indicating to The Gazette and the Public Information Board officials it would disclose that information.
The UI’s 106 waivers in 2021 were up 23 percent from five years earlier, when the campus used 86 search waivers in 2016, according to previous records the university provided The Gazette.
Between the 2017 and 2021 budget years, the UI made 458 hires using search waivers — about 5.3 percent of the 8,712 faculty and staff appointments over that time where waivers were allowed.
Like the UI, the University of Northern Iowa saw an uptick in search waiver use last year with 30, compared with zero in 2016 and one in 2015. Iowa State University reported using fewer search waivers last year at 18 — down 69 percent from 58 in 2016.
Although the university policies mandating open searches aim to support diversity, equity and inclusion in their hiring processes by compelling campuses to consider an array of applicants, the institutions in some cases report the waiver process can promote diversity. too — including at ISU, which cited “diverse candidate” as a reason for skipping am open search three times last year.
Other reasons campuses use waivers to skirt their open search policies include “dual career appointments” — like when a university recruits a new faculty member and provides a job for the person’s spouse or partner, and to promote existing employees or hire postdoctoral students.
Less procedural waiver justifications include “opportunity” hires or appointments of “uniquely qualified” candidates deemed to have such “unique qualifications and expertise” that “no other applicant would be expected to surpass this individual’s qualifications.”
The UI used that justification to make more than 20 search-less hires last year and at least five more this year — including UI Associate Vice President and Executive Officer for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Liz Tovar in January 2021 and UI Provost Kevin Kregel in February 2021.
Although search wavier documents for UI College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Dean Sara Sanders cited “uniquely qualified candidate” as the reason she was appointed without a search, a spreadsheet UI provided documenting search-less hires did not characterize it as such. Rather, it labeled Sanders’ selection as an “extended temporary appointment” given she served as interim dean first.
Many of UI’s search-less hires for jobs earning six-figure salaries were characterized as “uniquely qualified candidates,” including Athletics’ Strength and Condition Coach Raimond Braithwaite, promoted in March 2021 after stepping in as interim when former strength coach Chris Doyle left in June 2020 with a separation agreement paying him $1.1 million.
At 16, athletics hires account for the majority of ISU’s 24 search waivers between Jan. 1, 2021, and April 8, 2022 — all of which are justified as “uniquely qualified” candidates. The ISU athletics hires and appointments made without conducting searches include:
- Head basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger, hired three days after ISU announced former head coach Steve Prohm was out. Otzelberger is earning a base pay of $300,000, but with $700,000 more in his contract for general media availability;
- Assistant basketball coach JR Blount, who Otzelberger brought in from Colorado State just weeks after his hire. Blount is earning $275,000;
- Assistant basketball coach Kyle Green, who Otzelberger brought in from UNI weeks after his appointment. Green is making $300,000;
- Football safeties coach Deon Broomfield, making a base pay of $315,000;
- Football tight ends coach Taylor Mouser, earning a starting salary of $175,000;
- And director for student-athlete development Justus Jones, making $120,000.
ISU did not provide The Gazette additional waiver documents in time for publication of this article.
Although university athletic directors nationally typically have candidates in mind when facing vacancies in their coaching posts, many still launch searches, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Chronicle as of Friday was advertising 788 campus athletic positions — including an assistant men’s basketball coach at Texas A&M; head wrestling and lacrosse coaches at State University of New York; and head women’s soccer coach at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Inside Higher Ed as of Friday was advertising 990 athletics jobs, including a head women’s soccer, head men’s and women’s swimming and diving; and assistant women’s basketball coaches at Coe College in Cedar Rapids; assistant baseball and football coaches at Cornell College in Mount Vernon; a women’s volleyball coach at Duke University; and a women’s swimming coach at Tulane University.
Of the 30 search waivers UNI executed in 2021, four involved athletics hires. Of its 36 search waivers processed between Jan. 1, 2021, and April 11, 2022, nearly all were characterized as internal promotions, demotions, or lateral moves — with just two falling under UNI’s “opportunity hire policy.”
UNI approved that policy — meant to enable appointments “that require rapid response to exceptional persons with competing career options” — in February 2015. UNI has used it only twice since its inception.
Potential hires under that policy include individuals in historically underrepresented areas or those with “a unique or different perspective because of their professional or personal backgrounds, interests, or expertise.”
UNI’s Opportunity Hire Policy includes a search waiver process similar to those at the UI and ISU, although spokesman Andrew Morse said waivers rarely are used in that vein.
“Career paths, with pre-identified performance and service indicators, make up the largest percentage of our internal promotions via search waiver and serve as a critical retention tool for the university,” he said. “External hiring through a search waiver is the rare exception and only represented two of the thirty search waivers resulting in calendar year 2021.”
In sum, since Oct. 1, 2016, UNI has used search waivers for just four external hires and 97 internal hires — about 10 percent of its total 1,048 appointments, UNI officials told lawmakers last fall.
Given the mission of the campuses’ open search procedures, which are designed to comply with federal and state equal employment laws and regulations, the UI’s policy warns against using waivers.
“Deviations from these standard search procedures are therefore strongly discouraged,” according to UI policy.
In response to questions about its search waiver use, UI officials said, “The search waiver process is intended to be used sparingly, and it is.”
“However, the process exists for a reason, because there are times a waiver is appropriate and the best course of action. It is important to the institution to be able to promote and retain talented people.”
‘Upon further review’
Full search waiver documents — which the institutions had for years made public — have shed light on what compelled Iowa’s public universities to skip open searches, revealing in specific circumstances what “uniquely qualified” meant.
When former speaker of the Iowa House Kraig Paulsen in 2015 landed an unadvertised position paying $135,000 at ISU to lead its new “supply chain initiative,” the rationale for skipping a search said an open process “would not get anyone of the caliber as Kraig.”
“Through this role and his professional experiences, he has developed strong relationships with corporate partners across the state,” according to the search wavier.
When ISU the following year hired former state lawmaker Jim Kurtenbach as its vice president and chief information officer without conducting a search, officials said the campus valued his previous information-technology work and didn’t want to lose momentum implementing a new cloud-based system on campus.
UI provided search waiver documents — including justification letters — last year for its unadvertised provost, diversity head and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean positions. But when The Gazette in April 2021 asked to see all search waivers the UI had processed so far that year, officials said they had erred in ever releasing what they now called “confidential personnel records.”
“While we have previously released the search waiver justification, upon further review, and in consultation with the Office of the Board of Regents, the Office of General Counsel has determined that search waiver records are confidential,” according to the UI denial.
The university went further, denying to release even the names of the employees it hired without a search, the departments that did the hiring and their annual salaries — prompting The Gazette’s complaint to the Iowa Public Information Board in August.
After many delays, including missed deadlines set by the state board, the university agreed to a settlement requiring it to adopt a “search waiver release policy” making public search waiver request forms, package comments and position requirements.
That policy has been posted to its website. But the university, in responding to The Gazette’s inquiries, did not provide justification letters for the waivers it sought — despite indications it would.
Withholding such information creates barriers in public accountability, Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans has said.
“It is only through access to these waivers that the public is able to learn when and why administrators deviate from the UI's affirmative action employment guidelines,” Evans said in response to the UI’s records rejection in August. Without access to the documents, he said, “The university invites public distrust of the UI's commitment to diversity and inclusion in its hiring decisions.”
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