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IOWA CITY — Outgoing University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld’s looming retirement — plus other churning in the UI administration — played a role in forgoing searches for applicants in making several hires recently, including for the high-profile posts of provost, vice president for student life and leader of diversity efforts.
Harreld himself referred to this “period of university transition” in asking to skip a required applicant search for a new provost — just months after he announced Oct. 1, 2020, his plan to retire.
In January documents outlining his request to waive the provost search and appoint Interim Provost Kevin Kregel permanently, Harreld acknowledged several other deans “may possess” qualifications sought in a new provost, “although perhaps not as clearly as does Professor Kregel.”
But, Harreld argued, “Pursuing an internal search to evaluate that question, as well as the extent of their desirable qualifications, would subject the university unnecessarily to further instability in two respects.”
First, he said, a search would take months amid a pandemic. “The process itself would pit sitting leaders against one another at the very time their collaboration is so urgently needed to advance the institution toward its goals,” he wrote.
Second, the strongest internal prospects “are sorely needed in their current roles to maintain stability in the colleges,” he argued. “They should be neither diverted nor distracted from their current roles.”
In his rationale for skipping not just an external candidate search but an internal one, Harreld did not name the deans he thought might be strong candidates for provost, although UI College of Education Dean Daniel Clay last month was unveiled as one of four finalists for Harreld’s job.
But the Board of Regents instead chose Barbara Wilson from the University of Illinois System, who had support from 80 percent of respondents to a campus survey. She starts July 15.
After the university’s last long-running Provost Barry Butler left in 2017, UI College of Public Health Dean Sue Curry spent two years as interim, during which the campus launched a nationwide search for a permanent successor.
A search committee chose Montserrat Fuentes from a pool of “very strong candidates” and three finalists. But Fuentes — who started June 28, 2019 — resigned last summer after just a year on the job. And she recently was named president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Fuentes begins that new role July 1 and until then remains on the UI payroll as a “special assistant to the president” and has continued to earn her $439,000 salary since her resignation, according to a settlement with the regents.
Details of why Fuentes resigned and why a settlement was necessary have not been made public.
UI policy requires searches for faculty posts along with professional and scientific staff positions that are at least half-time and extend at least one year, according to affirmative action employment guidelines.
Those search mandates are meant to keep the university in compliance with federal and state laws, along with UI equal employment and affirmative action policies.
“Deviations from these standard search procedures are therefore strongly discouraged,” according to UI Human Resources, which notes search waivers can be granted “with appropriate justification.”
Examples of reasons warranting a skipped search include, according to UI Human Resources, that a current employee’s position was cut or that he or she developed a disability making his or her current work no longer feasible.
Other reasons include spousal hires, federal or state grant requirements or that a person’s “unique qualifications and expertise are such that no other applicant would be expected to surpass this individual’s qualifications for the position.”
“Typically, the applicant would need to be nationally or internationally renowned in his/her field to meet this criterion,” according to UI Human Resources.
That last justification — uniquely qualified internal candidates — is the reason UI officials cited for skipping the searches for provost, vice president for student life and diversity head.
“No one is better suited than Kevin Kregel to serve as the university’s highest academic officer at this moment in the university’s history,” Harreld’s waiver request for the provost position, for instance, said.
Shortly before Harreld submitted his ask to hire Kregel without a search, then-Interim Provost Kregel filed one seeking permission to skip a search for a new UI associate vice president and executive officer for diversity, equity and inclusion. His request also cited Harreld’s retirement and its role in derailing an external search the UI had launched.
“This position was vacated in August of 2019, and the university launched a search for it in spring of 2020,” according to documents seeking to appoint Liz Tovar — serving at the time as interim associate vice president for diversity — to the role permanently.
“In light of leadership developments at the university, the search closed in October of 2020 without identifying a pool of qualified candidates to interview,” according to the search waiver, referencing the university’s mid-October decision to end its search after several candidates withdrew upon learning of Harreld’s upcoming retirement.
“Given the current environment, it is vital to have a strong, effective campus leader to provide guidance on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and one who understands both the challenges and opportunities our campus faces,” Kregel wrote.
The post atop Iowa’s diversity, equity and inclusion office — like its provost position — has seen extensive turnover since its last long-term leader Georgina Dodge left in 2017.
Two interim executives filled the role until UI hired TaJuan Wilson following a lengthy national search. He, like Fuentes, started in June 2019. But Wilson resigned after just seven weeks, signing a similar settlement to Fuentes that allowed him to stay on in a “special assignment” and continue earning six figures while he looked for another job — which he eventually found at Georgia Southern University.
Liberal Arts hire
About a month after Kregel was named the permanent UI provost, he submitted a request to hire Interim College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Sara Sanders to that position permanently — without a search. Sanders had stepped in as interim in July 2020 after her predecessor, Steve Goddard, was asked to step down following uproar over his handling of budget cuts and fall-return plans.
Goddard — like Fuentes — had been in the position just a year, following a lengthy national search.
In justifying a skipped search this time, Kregel characterized Sanders as uniquely qualified for — among other things — her recent experience guiding the college through change and unrest.
“Given the current environment, it is vital to have a strong, effective campus leader to provide guidance to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and one who understands both the challenges and opportunities our campus faces,” Kregel wrote, repeating a line from his waiver request for the diversity position.
The UI traditionally and intentionally fills some positions with internal candidates, although a search still is involved and finalists still are named. With UI Graduate College Dean John Keller planning to retire, for example, the university this week is unveiling three internal finalists for the job.
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