Education

Appellate court sides with regents in UI presidential recruitment

Court: plaintiff's argument 'defies common sense and practical reason'

Bruce Harreld, University of Iowa president, gives a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Bruce Harreld, University of Iowa president, gives a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Iowa Court of Appeals has upheld a victory for the Board of Regents related to accusations it broke the law in its recruiting of University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld.

A Polk County District Court judge in 2017 found five of the board’s nine regents did not violate Iowa sunshine laws in 2015 by holding a series of meetings with then-UI presidential prospect Harreld, and on Wednesday the appellate court agreed.

“We conclude the district court did not err in granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment,” according to Wednesday’s court ruling. “It is not disputed that a majority of the nine-member Board of Regents never gathered together in one place or location.”

The series of meetings at the heart of the lawsuit, filed by former UI employee Gerhild Krapf, occurred July 30, 2015 — as the board and a UI search committee were in hot pursuit of a new leader. That day, then-Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter picked up Harreld from the airport and drove him to his personal business, where the former IBM businessman participated in two separate meetings with a total of four regents — two in each.

Harreld later applied for the top UI post and was hired in September 2015 — despite widespread criticism of his candidacy across campus due to his lack of academic administrative experience.

Krapf and other critics argued the board predetermined its selection, disregarding feedback from UI community members, and in its aggressive pursuit of Harreld held the series of sub-majority meetings to circumvent transparency laws — or at least the spirit of them.

But the appellate court in its Wednesday decision pointed out no one disputes a majority of regents never met on the day in question.

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Harreld first rode with Rastetter from the airport before first meeting with regents Larry McKibben and Mary Andringa. He immediately followed that discussion by meeting separately, but at the same location, with regents Katie Mulholland and Milt Dakovich.

“Thus, there was never a majority of the members present at a gathering,” according to the Court of Appeals. “There was also no deliberation … There is nothing in the summary judgment record to show the five regents discussed among themselves the individual meetings with Harreld.”

State law defines “meeting” as a gathering of “a majority of the members of a governmental body where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties.”

Krapf argued that separate but serial submajority meetings constitute a single meeting — contending in court that any time members of a government body hold a series of discussions within proximity they’re subject to open meetings laws.

“Krapf’s proposed serial submajority rule defies ‘common sense and practical reason,” according to the court decision. “The plaintiff’s proposed rule is neither expedient nor practical.”

This decision ends legal challenges tied to Harreld’s hire — three years after he arrived on campus. In September, the university — without admitting wrongdoing — settled a separate lawsuit by agreeing to pay its accuser $55,000 in attorneys fees.

That suit, filed by UI professor emeritus Harold Hammond, similarly accused the UI presidential search committee of violating open meetings laws in the way it conducted semifinalist interviews.

Hammond, among other things, accused the committee of holding off-site interviews at a location outside Iowa and at a time not reasonably accessible to the public; holding closed meetings that should have been open; and making decisions in secret that should been public.

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He asked the court to nullify the search committee’s actions — meaning its selection of Harreld as a finalist — and award damages.

Although the settlement didn’t affect Harreld’s employment, it spelled out UI presidential search committee requirements going forward, including requirements its post meeting notices and agendas; livestream all open portions of meetings and retain those recordings online for at least 90 days; and provide training during its first meeting.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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