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IOWA CITY - It wasn't the first contentious question lobbed at the fourth and final candidate for the University of Iowa presidency. But it seemed to summarize many that preceded it.
'Why did you even apply for this job?” an audience member asked.
J. Bruce Harreld, former top executive with IBM, Boston Market Company and Kraft General Foods, answered that question by referring to a comment he made in his opening remarks at a public forum Tuesday at the UI.
'I think I can help,” he said. 'If I can't, kick me out of here.”
Unlike the three other finalists for the presidency, Harreld has almost no leadership experience in academia. He served as an adjunct lecturer for six years at Harvard Business School
He opened Tuesday's forum by praising the university and calling the possibility to serve as its president an 'amazing opportunity for me.” He said the community is right to ask: 'What the hell's this guy doing?”
'Let me tell you why I'm here,” he said. 'I'm here because I've helped other organizations go through exactly what I'm going to talk about with you in the next few minutes ... transformational change. ... It's in that context that I think maybe, in fact, I have some role to play.”
Harreld pointed out changes in the higher education landscape and warned the university of its need to adapt or fail. He cited competitive influences pulling resources - including community colleges and technical schools - and said, 'As good as you are, you need to prepare yourself for what's coming ahead.”
'The intense rivalry for world class talent - at the faculty and student level - is one of the biggest forces driving the headwinds at institutions like this,” he said. 'But I do actually believe there is a way through it.”
He said the university needs to do more experimentation and innovation through things like distance education, for example. But he acknowledged having little information on what the university already is doing in some areas.
'Where are we in terms of distance learning? Where are in we terms of hybrid education?” he asked. 'I hope you've got the answers. If not, let's do some experiments.”
He said he raised some of those questions with faculty, who he said respaded, 'We tried to get that started.”
Harreld, like the three finalists before him, was asked to articulate a vision for the university. He summed it up as 'great to greater.”
'We ought to be so damn good people will look at us and say, ‘I want to be that.' ”
Faculty members quickly raised concerns about Harreld's candidacy and his potential ties to the Board of Regents.
In the second question of the night, psychology professor Ed Wasserman cited fears that pursuing a business model for the university would be like 'giving the fox the keys to the hen house.”
Harreld vowed to tell the story of UI's relevancy to the nation.
'I will fight to differ, with all due respect, that I'm just going to be a corporate guy coming in and slash and burn,” he said. 'Part of the answer is getting back to great to greater.”
One person in a long line waiting to ask questions raised the issue of performance-based funding - a model the regents proposed last year that could have pulled millions from UI and redistributed it to Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa if it had been approved by the Legislature.
The questioner asked whether Harreld would ever support transferring funds from UI to the other institutions or treating UI unequally.
'Yes, I can imagine reasons that might be the case,” he said. 'I think you can, too.”
For example, he said, UI might be better at fundraising than the other institutions, meaning it has less of a need for state support.
When pressed, Harreld seemed frustrated.
'I wouldn't approach it like, gee, we need our own third,” he said. 'You sound like … kids coming at me telling me that because this daughter has so much, the other one wants the same.”
On another topic, he addressed the issue of campus sexual assaults by referencing former UI President Sally Mason's six-point plan to curb such violence.
'I read the six-point plan,” he said. 'I can't remember all six points. Shame on me. I have a two-point plan. N-O.”
One member of the public asked Harreld if he has had financial dealings with any member of the search committee or the regents.
'No,” he said.
'Have you already been offered this job by any member of the Board of Regents,” the questioner continued.
'No,” Harreld said.
The tone of the forum grew increasingly contentious, with Harreld and speakers interrupting each other. At one point, Harreld cited Wikipedia in his knowledge of the university.
Afterward, history professor Katherine Tachau said she was insulted by many of Harreld's answers.
'I have never seen such a polarizing candidate brought to campus in 30 years,” she said. 'He seems to have very little sense of what the job of president entails. I have no doubts he could be a useful consultant, but I wonder how on earth he is going to do any fundraising with alumnae.”
The Board of Regents is planning to interview Harreld and the other three candidates - Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, Tulane Provost Michael Bernstein, and Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz - on Thursday. They anticipate naming a new UI president that same day.