After tumultuous start, Harreld quietly making inroads at University of Iowa
IOWA CITY — As a teenager at a small school in a small town in Ohio, Bruce Harreld and his buddy Terry Briggs soaked in the limelight that comes with running for and being picked to lead the student body — Bruce as vice president and Terry as president.
The speeches, the handshakes, the promises.
“We had a pretty good platform,” recalled Briggs, now a 65-year-old retired architect in Cincinnati.
Nearly five decades ago and long before anyone had heard of Match.com, the two pledged a “computer dating dance” where boys and girls filled out cards with likes and dislikes and got paired by a computer.
And the two promised more student assemblies to discuss important issues at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, a river town of about 7,500 tucked in the crook of southeast Ohio.
Bruce was athletic, sociable and ambitious. Both boys were used to commanding the attention of their peers.
“We would be up on a stage to lead those things,” Briggs said.
No longer a 16-year-old high school junior, Bruce Harreld at age 64 took the stage last year as a finalist to head the University of Iowa, a $3.5 billion-a-year enterprise that has educated hundreds of thousands of Iowans.
And gone were the days of teenage adulation.
He faced a skeptical crowd, some wondering if a secret deal to hire him was already cooked and others questioning why the business executive was even considering a job in academia.
As regents unanimously picked him as the institution’s 21st president, opposition grew.
Hundreds of protesters called on him to “go home” and branded him a “cheater in chief.”
Many questioned just how a match like this one was ever made.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Harreld — a former Boston Market Corp., Kraft General Foods and IBM executive — taking charge of the UI.
In the tumultuous days and months after he came onto the radar here, opponents cast vote after vote of no confidence in him and the regents who hired him, burst into a regents meeting to protest and tried to shout him down at a town-hall.
After news reports revealed Harreld in his candidacy got private meetings with some search committee members and regents that other finalists weren’t afforded, a critic sued the Board of Regents asserting members violated Iowa’s public meetings law in hiring him to the $590,000-a-year-job.
At least for now, it appears more town-halls with Harreld is are unlikely. And so is a publicly accessible Harreld, who declined several times to be interviewed for this article.
Instead, he seems focused on reaching out in quieter ways — showing up at classes and meeting with small groups of faculty or students while also playing a larger regional role in enhancing economic development.
In his initial public appearance on campus last year, Harreld sought to address reasons why he — a man with no academic leadership experience — would be right for such a job now.
He laid out what motivates him to take on the problems of leading the UI amid rising education costs, a shrinking ratio of state support and other schools luring UI faculty with better pay.
If he hoped critics would change their minds by now, he’d be disappointed. But many he’s reached out to are giving him a second look. And — despite their misgivings over the process that brought him here — some acknowledge he’s making them think.
In interviewing an array of people who at one time or another have worked with Harreld, a dichotomy emerges: Some can’t seem to get enough time with him. Others have had enough.
'What the hell is this guy doing here?'
In his first public appearance as a candidate for the UI job in September 2015, Harreld fielded pointed questions from an antagonistic crowd.
“Why did you even apply?” someone asked.
“I think I can help,” he answered.
Although he has some experience in academia — teaching at Harvard Business School for six years and at Northwestern University for one year — he pitched himself as someone with a fresh perspective.
“I don’t have the administrative background a lot of other candidates do in these types of institutions,” he said. “And I personally have struggled with that issue — as I suspect many of you have — in thinking about why I would want to do this.”
Living in Colorado at the time — where he worked as a business consultant, traveled and spent time with his wife, four children and six grandchildren — Harreld told The Gazette in one of his first interviews as UI president he vacillated until the last minute on whether he wanted the job. His “yes” hinged on the question of what he could contribute.
“I’m here because I have helped other organizations go through exactly what I’m going to talk about with you,” he said during his candidate forum last fall. “Transformational change.”
Referring to his corporate leadership experience, Harreld reassured the crowd that “I’ve been through this.”
“And so it’s in that context that I say, ‘Well maybe in fact I have some role to play, and I might be helpful,’” he said. “You’ll be the judge of that. But I think it’s completely legitimate for you to ask, ‘What the hell is this guy doing here?’”
Among those who have known him the longest, the fact that Harreld would leave the business world to take on an uncertain academia future is not surprising.
Peers and colleagues from his past tell stories of ambition, insight and forward-thinking — potentially shedding light on why he’d take a job where so many opposed him from the start.
“He probably took it as a challenge,” said Jeffrey Simmons, 66, of Murrieta, Calif., who knew Harreld as a youth. “Somebody probably said, ‘Hey, can you help? What do you bring to the table?’ And in the first five minutes, you know. You know he’s got what it takes to correct things, make decisions and guide the school in the direction the person he’s talking to wants it to go.”
'Creating a vision for the University of Iowa is critical'
Harreld laid this out as his first order of business for the university, acknowledging that “more critical than that is executing.”
And, he said, execution doesn’t happen when a leader stands on a stage and quips, “Here’s the vision, let’s go do it.”
“What needs to happen is an engagement, a discussion, with the whole community,” he said.
So shortly after the regents announced his hire — weeks before he officially started — the first-time president began connecting with people on campus through calls, emails and meetings.
Those early-on emails show he shared thoughts and sought information from professors, while also arranging meetings with staff and students. The messages reveal he also spent plenty of time responding to critics, even as late — or as early — as 2 a.m.
In his first year on campus, Harreld formed a “strategic plan development group” to create a five-year plan focused around a unified vision.
That plan and its vision, although intended to be expedited, was delayed last spring in hopes of involving more voices.
Now headed to the Board of Regents for approval in December, the plan reflects input from a dozen open forums along with faculty, staff, student and administrative meetings, said Provost Barry Butler.
“In all, well over 750 individuals provided feedback on the plan,” Butler said. “I believe it reflects the collective vision of the campus.”
Butler declined to release the plan before it’s approved, but said it reflects three primary goals for the UI: perform high-impact research; provide a transformative educational experience; and engage with Iowa and the world to broaden education, improve health and enhance economic development.
Helping craft a vision for an organization and make it materialize are among Harreld’s biggest strengths, according to Donald Laurie, chief executive of consulting firm Oyster International, who has known Harreld since his time at IBM in the 1990s and has co-authored with him a Harvard Business Review piece.
“Where Bruce is differentiated and extraordinary is he’s got the most clear focus on strategy execution,” Laurie said. “He actually has frameworks that he rigorously applies.”
Those frameworks include identifying necessary tasks, finding people accountable for those jobs and establishing equitable compensation.
“What kind of talent, what kind of people do we need to execute and — in some cases — what kind of people do we need to take out of the system because we’re going in a new direction?” Laurie said Harreld would ask.
He also noted Harreld’s attention to something others might disregard — “deeply-held beliefs and culture” of an organization.
“What do we need to preserve? What do we need to purge? What new values do we need or behaviors do we need to adopt?” Laurie said.
Still, some critics have scrutinized the delayed progress toward creating a unified vision for UI — pointing out, for starters, that Harreld reneged on a promise to hold three public town-hall meetings a year to discuss campus matters.
“I think he’s been far too invisible,” said history professor Katherine Tachau, who is president of the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “One of the jobs of a president, and for that matter a provost, is to articulate the values of an institution. And it’s not clear to me that he can.”
'I believe passionately in shared governance'
Harreld made the comment during his candidacy speech in pointing out the university’s obligation to “ask some of the tough questions.”
“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “Hopefully together we can get there.”
In his pursuit of practicing the concept of shared governance — which the AAUP defines as faculty involvement in making personnel decisions, selecting administrators, preparing the budget and setting educational policies — Harreld created two teams.
One is the “strategy implementation team,” charged with developing a process for supporting a campus vision and strategic goals. Another is the “operations team,” charged with handling immediate issues with the same end in mind.
He also developed a new budgeting model, delegating decisions to college deans and department heads — a move Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter praised as innovative and collaborative.
“One of the things he told us, and what we are seeing and hearing from students and faculty today, is that he would be open, inclusive and transparent,” Rastetter told The Gazette. “And, in terms of including all of them in the budgeting process, he has done that. And I have heard a number of positive things from students and faculty. For the first time since they’ve been at the University of Iowa, they are now seeing actual numbers related to their department or college.”
Still, the university over the summer took a hit on its shared governance values when the AAUP sanctioned the UI for the regents’ hiring of Harreld despite faculty and staff objections.
UI biology professor John Logsdon, an outspoken critic from the outset, said Harreld’s collaboration this past year has been uneven. Harreld met twice with Logsdon, who said the president dominated the discussions and didn’t allow much time “to have a two-way conversation.”
In recent months, Logsdon said, he’s seen less of an effort by Harreld to connect with every group on campus.
“I would like to see an ability to interact with the public in an open and honest way and have to deal with the issues that are facing him, instead of looking inside and putting fences around, and only speaking to those who are willing to support him,” Logsdon said.
UI Student Government President Rachel Zuckerman said she remains a “skeptical optimist” about Harreld.
But, from her perspective, Zuckerman said Harreld has been eager to involve students in addressing issues.
“I adore President Harreld,” she said. “He has truly embraced this notion of shared governance in a way that has empowered student leaders in a way I haven’t seen before in my four years here.”
She boasted of an “incredibly good year” for student leadership, largely due to the administration’s view of students as partners.
“It’s very high-level decision making that students have been pulled into,” she said. “And those are incredible opportunities for me to learn, and will benefit me post-graduation, and it allows us to accomplish so much more for the students.”
'Culture is a big, big problem'
In his candidate speech, Harreld called institutional norms and cultures “control systems,” stressing a need for flexibility in the face of strategic headwinds.
“Organizations don’t actually maintain themselves,” he said. “They either go up or they go down.”
One way student leader Zuckerman said she has seen Harreld demonstrate a commitment to improving campus culture — literally — is through his work with the UI’s four cultural and resource centers.
Over the summer, he and other administrative and student leaders met with center representatives in hopes of improving the campus climate for everyone.
"He was better off in the academic world than in the business world."
- Lucio Noto
Former member, IBM board of directors
“He gave up two hours of his night on four occasions to have face-to-face conversations with those communities and hear from them directly,” Zuckerman said, adding that she and Harreld compiled a list of about 100 things they could start working on immediately to improve the campus culture for those minority students.
On his resume, Harreld touts his work as a senior vice president at IBM alongside the chief executive officer and senior managers to “chart the organization’s transformation from near bankruptcy.” In those turbulent times at the tech giant facing a changing industry landscape, Harreld said he worked to change the company’s culture so it would embrace new strategies and grow new revenue.
That leadership — which played a key role in his selection at the UI — didn’t go a long way in impressing Lucio Noto, the former chief executive of the Mobil Corporation and past vice chairman of ExxonMobil Corporation who served on IBM’s board of directors while Harreld work there. Noto said he does not recall Harreld being a “major player” in the company’s turnaround.
“He didn’t knock me over,” Noto said, adding perhaps a backhanded compliment to Harreld’s hiring at the UI. “He was better off in the academic world than in the business world.”
'I might be able to help open some doors'
In his initial UI speech, Harreld told of experience in encouraging collaboration between public and private partners — cutting through red tape to push for action.
“I actually think part of what I might be able help do is work through some of those issues with you,” he said during the forum. “I also have found, actually, with a lot of the research issues at Harvard and the Harvard Business School, I could help people because I knew who to call, and how, and get the dialogue going.”
Bernie Sergesketter said he has seen firsthand Harreld’s ability to network and collaborate.
Sergesketter is a chair of the alumni donations committee for the Delta Delta chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity at Purdue University, where Harreld was a member during his undergrad days and once served as president of the house.
Although Sergesketter graduated more than a decade before Harreld, he connected with the businessman during the chapter’s push to renovate its house in 2004.
“He had a very very strong reputation within the frat because he had been so successful,” Sergesketter said. “At the time we were working on the house renovations, he was vice president of strategic planning for IBM and reporting directly to the CEO.”
Sergesketter and a colleague traveled to New York to see Harreld.
"He looks at it from the 50,000-foot level, makes connections between the university and community, and wears all hats well. I would certainly characterize him as a bold thinker."
- Nancy Kasparek
Regional president, U.S. Bank
“He has a first-class mind and is very experienced and has a lot of common sense,” he said.
As an adviser, Harreld connected the group to other successful chapter alumni and helped hone the fundraising message.
“He helped us frame the case,” Sergesketter said.
As the group looked to the future, Sergesketter said, Harreld helped the committee set up a fundraising mechanism to supply ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs.
“We have 250 alumni who contribute, so we never have to have another capital campaign,” he said. “Bruce helped us decide to do that and set up the annual fund.”
The possibility of him opening doors and networking also has led to his role as one of the three chairs of Eastern Iowa’s Creative Corridor Regional Vision Strategy.
Nancy Kasperek, another chair and regional president of U.S. Bank, said Harreld “very much understands how important it is to work together as a region.”
“I can say I have been nothing but utterly impressed,” she said. “For a person who I know has a full schedule — the time he has devoted to it — he’s always present, and not just physically.”
Kasperek said Harreld brings a needed perspective to the group.
“He looks at it from the 50,000-foot level, makes connections between the university and community, and wears all hats well,” she said. “I would certainly characterize him as a bold thinker.”
Nonetheless, there are limits to that degree of interaction and time commitment.
“We were able to get together once and catch up on a couple of things, but mostly I work with Peter (Matthes) and Laura (McLeran),” said Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, referencing Office of the President staff.
'We need to do some experimentation for the future. And some innovation'
Harreld, who has made that notion a hallmark of his past leadership and business instruction, brought the concept up early and often in his forum.
“We actually need to take our core from great to greater and do some experimentation with new business models, new technologies, hybrid learning opportunities,” he said at the time.
Former colleague Laurie said Harreld — while with IBM — was directly responsible for the company’s “emerging business organization,” which Laurie said could be thought of as start-ups. That operation produced more than $15 billion in revenue and created more than 20 “early-stage” businesses.
With Harreld in a leadership role, IBM began putting experienced managers atop the start-ups to improve their chances for success.
One example of Harreld bringing the concept to campus is his restructuring of the “human resources enterprise.” The UI employs more than 29,000 regular and temporary faculty and staff.
Cheryl Reardon is tasked with leading the endeavor to make human resources an “independent organization reporting directly to the Office of the President.” She said the goal is to create a culture where employees innovate ways to do their work “and bubble those up to us.”
During his first year on campus, Harreld highlighted innovations already underway.
In August, for example, the university announced it landed renowned neuroscientist Ted Abel — taking him from the University of Pennsylvania, where he codirected the Biological Basis of Behavior Program — to lead its new Iowa Neuroscience Institute, effective Jan. 1.
But some critics say the campus was pushing innovation and new revenue-raising models before Harreld.
On Sept. 1, 2015 — days before his hire — Chaden Djalali, dean of the UI College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, sent a letter to colleagues reporting that the president’s office wanted help from the college “for proposals that could be used to generate new revenue.”
“Suggestions might include new online courses or certificates … all ideas are welcome, and innovation is encouraged,” Djalali wrote.
That’s how Harreld at his candidate forum described the “intense rivalry of your conventional competitors — other Big Ten schools, other major research centers — for top talent at the faculty level and research level and then just as much at the student level.”
Almost as soon as he stepped on campus, Harreld began vocalizing concerns with the university’s decline in U.S. News & World Report rankings — specifically noting its weak standing in faculty pay. The university since 2004 dropped 26 spots in faculty compensation and 25 spots overall.
In response, Harreld launched a “faculty vitality initiative” aimed at improving professor pay and increasing the institution’s competitiveness — calling the effort the university’s “top priority” for the budget year.
"There is something about the outsider perspective that can be very interesting."
- Frank Durham
UI associate professor
He recently said the university has improved salaries some but still has work to do, which is why he’s pushing for tuition increases and urging lawmakers to come through with a $4.5 million bump in the university’s general fund.
UI associate professor Frank Durham, who chairs the faculty budget committee and serves on the strategic implementation team, said he was wary of Harreld’s ability to lead the campus when he first arrived — and remains critical of the process that got him here.
But having been in numerous committee meetings with him, Durham said he’s been impressed.
“I find it very interesting to watch him work with the committees and get them to think innovatively,” Durham said. “He is reframing the discussion in a way that gives people the chance to think of things they haven’t thought of.”
Durham praised Harreld’s efforts to get to know the campus this past year, “working very hard” to visit with faculty and meet with campus groups. Those discussions, he said, have resulted in real and potential change.
“We are in an interesting moment because state support for the university is insufficient, and his approach to revising the budget process is promising and interesting, I think, to a lot of people,” Durham said.
While many portrayed Harreld’s business background as a negative in leading a university, Durham said he’s found that to be intriguing.
“There is something about the outsider perspective that can be very interesting,” he said.
‣ 1975-1983: consultant, manager, vice president, board member of Boston Consulting Group
‣ 1983-1993: senior vice president, division president of Kraft General Foods
‣ 1993-1994: adjunct professor at Northwestern University
‣ 1993-1995: president, and board member of Boston Market Corp.
‣ 1995-2008: senior vice president for IBM
‣ 2008-2014: senior lecturer at Harvard Business School
‣ 2014-2015: managing principal with Executing Strategy of Avon, Colo.
‣ Nov. 2, 2015-present: president of the University of Iowa
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