A former Iowa State University dean, vice president, and provost who went onto serve as University of Northern Iowa president for seven years before retiring amid controversy in 2013, Ben Allen now is slated to serve as interim ISU president when Steven Leath departs in May.
The Board of Regents is set to appoint Allen to the interim role, effective May 9, when it meets to accept Leath’s resignation on Monday — one week after Leath accepted the position of Auburn University president.
Allen, 70, will remain interim ISU president until a permanent successor assumes office, according to regent documents. His annual salary will be $525,000 — matching Leath’s pay.
The announcement shocked some UNI community members, including professor and faculty union president Joe Gorton, who said Allen was forced out of UNI following — among other things — his decision to close Malcom Price Laboratory School and cut about one-fifth of the school’s academic programs, prompting a faculty vote of no-confidence.
“It’s unbelievable that the board would appoint someone to that position who was forced out of office by a faculty vote of no confidence at UNI,” Gorton said. “This smacks of one more really bad decision by (Board of Regents President) Bruce Rastetter just before he walks out the door.”
Allen retired from UNI in 2013 following the no-confidence vote — the first-ever in school history — and with the American Association of University Professors investigating his institution’s governance, academic freedom, and tenure procedures.
At the time, Allen told The Gazette he believed the budget cuts and program closures — in the face of a $5 million deficit — were the right decisions. The other option, he said, would have been layoffs.
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“If you worry about your legacy, you’re going to be making some decisions on a very personal level that won’t be right for the institution,” Allen said at the time.
But Gorton said Allen’s cuts have haunted UNI, calling the closure of Price Lab — a UNI-based teacher education and professional development school that enrolled and employed hundreds — a “terrible decision and a decision we have suffered from ever since.”
“Our enrollment is 1,000 lower than it should be every year since that,” Gorton said, adding Allen “absolutely” was forced out at UNI.
“The fact that he had received a vote of no-confidence and put UNI into a position where it was staring down the barrel of an AAUP censure, there was no way he was going to be able to sustain any credibility with the faculty or local legislators or really the community,” Gorton said.
He questioned what the Allen appointment at Iowa State might mean for the immediate future of that university — which, like the other regent schools, is facing massive cuts in state funding amid growing enrollment.
“If it wasn’t so absurd,” Gorton said, “It would almost be funny.”
The AAUP never actually censured UNI, Gorton said, because Allen retired and the board hired his successor Bill Ruud — who left last year after three years on the job to become president of smaller private Marietta College in Ohio.
The board recently wrapped a search for Ruud’s replacement, bringing in former Montana State University Billings Chancellor Mark Nook as new UNI president in February. Nook was hired one year after the board hired former IBM businessman Bruce Harreld as University of Iowa president.
Allen came on as UNI president in 2006 but previously spent much of his career at Iowa State — serving as a faculty member, dean, vice president, and provost. In a statement at the time of Allen’s UNI hire, then-ISU President Gregory Geoffroy praised Allen for doing a “superb job” leading the university’s strategic planning and reaccreditation process.
Geoffroy also noted Allen oversaw the merger of two colleges to form the College of Human Sciences.
“He is a strong, decisive leader with great interpersonal skills who is highly respected throughout the university and well beyond our campus,” Geoffroy said. “He is a person with the highest standards of honesty and integrity.”
Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in business economics from Indiana University-Bloomington and a Master of Arts and doctorate in economics from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He spent his years before Iowa State teaching at Washington State University and as a Brookings Economic Policy Fellow in the Office of Transportation Regulatory Policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation — among other things.
He joined the ISU faculty in 1979 and became the first University Distinguished Professor in Business. He went on to serve as chair of the ISU Department of Transportation and Logistics, dean of the ISU College of Business, and vice president for academic affairs and provost before assuming duties as UNI president on June 5, 2006.
During his time at UNI, Allen was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Committee for the National Commission of University Accountability. In 2010, he landed a congressional appointment to serve on the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.
But, facing serious budget woes, Allen told The Gazette in 2013 he had to make tough decisions — which some faculty members said he did without following proper procedures. Allen conceded he erred in closing the programs at once, rather than incrementally.
Leath’s departure marks the third regent university president resignation or retirement in two years, and critics are wary as regents ready themselves for another search — having spent hundreds of thousands on searches since 2015, despite dwindling state appropriations.
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The UI search that landed Harreld drew sharp criticism from faculty, staff, students, and community members — as the board disregarded widespread concern over his candidacy by hiring him anyway. The recent UNI search went much more smoothly, and regents and lawmakers are calling on the ISU search to follow that model.
“The UNI search was a good search — it was a very good, transparent search,” Regent Sherry Bates told lawmakers earlier this week. “It’s a model that I would like to see used for the Iowa State search. With that being said, each university is different and unique.”
When regents meet Monday, they’re scheduled to authorize Executive Director Robert Donley to advertise for, select, and enter into an agreement with a firm to provide consulting services for the ISU search.
Donley also is scheduled to receive authorization to create a search committee and to develop a process and timetable for the ISU search. He’ll report on his progress at the April meeting in Council Bluffs.
Rumors already have started flying about who might be in consideration for the permanent gig, including Rastetter — who promptly quashed that notion — and ISU basketball coach Fred Hoiberg, who’s at the center of a petition with nearly 300 supporters calling on the board to pick him to succeed Leath.
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