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IOWA CITY — For years — including a few months ago — Iowa's public universities considered the names and some details of employees they hired onto the state’s payroll by skipping formal job searches to be information available to the public.
But they've changed their mind.
Despite prior practice — including years of providing job search waivers records to The Gazette — the University of Iowa in July said it had erred.
“While we have previously released the search waiver justification, upon further review, and in consultation with the Office of the Board Regents, the Office of General Counsel has determined that search waiver records are confidential personnel records pursuant to Iowa Code Chp. 22.7,” according to the UI Office of Transparency.
In a July 7 email responding to The Gazette’s request for search waiver documents, UI Transparency Officer Ann Goff said administrators sparingly use the waiver process to bypass public searches for applicants that are otherwise required by policy.
“However, the process exists for a reason, because there are times a waiver is appropriate and the best course of action,” Goff wrote. “It’s important to the institution to be able to promote and retain talented people.”
The Gazette has filed a complaint about the new practice against the UI and the Board of Regents with the Iowa Public Information Board. It’s among 18 pending complaints listed for information-gathering purposes in the board’s monthly meeting agenda.
The change came after The Gazette in April requested UI search waiver documents processed since Jan. 1. The newspaper learned earlier the campus had waived job searches in hiring several high-profile positions including provost, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and associate vice president and executive officer for diversity, equity and inclusion.
In denying that request, the UI confirmed it had hired 34 employees without conducting a public search in the four months. That, according to Goff, amounted to only about 2 percent of the campus’ 1,803 hires over that period.
In response to follow-up questions, the UI declined to release names of the 34 employees hired without a search; a breakdown of the departments that did the hiring; and a salary range for those hired through waivers.
“We have no record that shows the salary range of those hired without searches and the total of their annual salaries,” according to the UI Office of Transparency.
Following the UI about-face, The Gazette submitted similar requests with Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Both also denied the requests, citing Board of Regents guidance.
“After consultation with the Office of the Board Regents, the Office of University Counsel has determined that search waiver records are confidential personnel records,” ISU Public Records Officer Ann Lelis replied.
The campus’ search waiver policies fall under affirmative action employment guidelines, which at the UI state: “Faculty and professional and scientific positions that are 50 percent or more time and extend for one year or more require a search.”
“The University of Iowa’s search procedures for faculty and professional and scientific positions are designed to meet applicable federal/state laws, regulations, and university policies regarding equal employment opportunity and affirmative action,” according to UI guidance. “Deviations from these standard search procedures are therefore strongly discouraged.”
According to the UI, affirmative action goals of hiring searches include:
- Attracting a diverse array of qualified applicants;
- Providing applicants an equal opportunity to apply and compete;
- Encouraging promotional opportunities for existing employees, especially women and racial or ethnic minorities;
- And taking steps to address areas of underrepresentation of women or minorities.
UI policy requires many searches to engage a search committee, advertise the opening, develop an applicant pool, screen candidates, conduct campus interviews, check references and produce search summaries — among other things — with oversight from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity.
That office can approve a waiver from the search process, however, if:
- A current employee’s job was eliminated and the university seeks to move the employee to a different job;
- A current employee developed a disability making him or her unable to do the job and the UI is seeking a new opportunity for the employee;
- A federal or state grant or contract requires an appointment;
- The university wants to make a spousal or partner hire;
- A position would exist only if the person — with his or her unique education, training and experience — is available and interested;
- And the applicant’s “unique qualifications and expertise are such that no other applicant would be expected to surpass this individual’s qualifications.”
That last reason, according to public documents previously requested and obtained by The Gazette, recently was used to skip searches to hire UI Provost Keven Kregel; UI associate vice president and executive officer for diversity, equity and inclusion Liz Tovar; and UI College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Dean Sara Sanders, among others.
Administrators additionally justified those waivers by citing former UI President Bruce Harreld’s departure earlier than expected.
Harreld, according to the previously released documents, acknowledged several UI deans “may possess” qualifications sought in a new provost, “although perhaps not as clearly as does Professor Kregel.” But an internal search, he said, “would subject the university unnecessarily to further instability in two respects.”
First, according to waiver documents, Harreld said a search would take months amid a pandemic and “pit sitting leaders against one another at the very time their collaboration is so urgently needed to advance the institution toward its goals.” Second, the strongest internal prospects “are sorely needed in their current roles to maintain stability in the colleges.”
Over the years, The Gazette has reported that former Republican lawmakers Kraig Paulsen and Jim Kurtenbach at ISU and former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach at the UI were hired onto the state’s payroll without conducting public searches.
Other names of UI executives hired without searches include the state’s former Medicaid Director Jennifer Vermeer and vice presidents Peter Matthes, Rod Lehnertz, Terry Johnson and Mark Braun — who since has left the UI to become the Board of Regents’ chief operating officer.
All those university employees did or continue to earn six-figure salaries.
In arguing for continued release of public university search waivers, Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans noted Iowa Code makes public government employment information like a person’s salary, deferred compensation, severance and resume-like information including past employers and information about someone’s termination or demotion.
It balances the public import of access to government information by allowing deeply personal information to remain confidential — like home address, marital status, dependents and medical conditions.
“The Iowa FOI Council believes there should be a similar weighing of the interests of the public in important information about the UI's hiring practices when waivers are submitted to UI administrators,” Evans said in a statement. “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.”
Without access to the search waivers and written justification for hires that bypass affirmative action and equal opportunity policies, “The university invites public distrust of the UI's commitment to diversity and inclusion in its hiring decisions,” he said.
“The UI's own policies say waivers should be granted only with ‘appropriate justification,’” Evans said. “But without access to these documents, the media and the public are deprived of the information that would allow them to assess whether certain hiring decisions do, or do not, meet this ‘appropriate justification’ test.”
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