IOWA CITY — Any future boards of regents charged with hiring a new university president will have to decide whether they want to continue holding candidate searches in the public or keep them closed, Interim University of Iowa President Jean Robillard told the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club on Thursday.
Robillard offered that insight in response to a question about the recent search that netted businessman J. Bruce Harreld as the 21st UI president and, with Harreld, a lot of controversy.
“The problem is, you have a search that was supposed to be open, and you have searches that are completely closed, and we were probably somewhere in between,” Robillard said. “The regents will have to decide what kind of search they want.”
While giving his “state of the university” recap to a packed room of Rotarians, Robillard reiterated his support for Harreld, a former IBM and Boston Market Company executive with no academic administrative background but experience as a lecturer at Harvard Business School.
“I would not change the choice,” Robillard said. “I will support him completely.”
But, following Robillard's speech, former regent and rotary member Bob Downer said there probably was a misperception in how the “open” search would play out.
“I do think there is truth in that statement, to some degree, that the public perception of how the search was going to be conducted and how it actually was conducted were not quite in sync,” Downer said.
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In looking for former UI President Sally Mason's replacement, the state Board of Regents billed the search as an open one that would involve a 21-member search committee charged with recruiting candidates and identifying finalists. Once the group picked finalists, it would recommend them to the board, which would invite each candidate to campus for a public introduction and community forum.
Harreld was the fourth and final candidate announced, and he faced sharp criticism and harsh questions during his public forum. Following that event, many faculty spoke out against his candidacy — including the Faculty Senate and a vast majority of the 760 UI community members who participated in an online survey of the candidates.
The Board of Regents on Sept. 3 hired Harreld anyway, prompting outrage among some who felt their voices were not heard or considered. Several faculty and student groups passed votes of no confidence in the regents, and some called for the dismissal of all nine regents and Harreld, who won't start until Nov. 2.
Some concerned faculty have questioned whether Harreld received preferential treatment — pointing to meetings he had in July with Robillard and five members of the Board of Regents, including its president, Bruce Rastetter.
Robillard — who led the search committee — addressed those concerns Thursday, saying the group was charged with aggressively recruiting candidates.
“To recruit candidates, you have to talk with them,” he said. “Some of these people had never come to Iowa City. Are you to say you cannot come to Iowa City?”
When Robillard invited Harreld to speak to UI Health Care leadership on July 8 — at which time Harreld also met with Rastetter and two other members of the search committee — Robillard said he was considering Harreld as a presidential prospect.
But Harreld wasn't ready to throw in his name, Robillard told The Gazette. And Robillard didn't speak with Harreld again until he became one of nine finalists invited to Chicago for initial interviews.
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Rastetter said Harreld requested and received meetings with four other regents and Iowa State University President Steven Leath on the eve of the application deadline July 31. And Robillard on Thursday echoed Rastetter's sentiment that Harreld was doing his due diligence in researching the opportunity, and the meetings did not break any rules.
Despite the open nature of the search and the fact that members of the community got to meet with and weigh in on the finalists, Robillard said the decision always remained with the regents.
That's why, according to Robillard, the outcome likely would have been the same even if the process had been closed and none of the finalists' names had been made public. Although, he added, one benefit of closed searches is their ability to attract a larger pool of strong candidates — including sitting presidents. Former UI presidents David Skorton and Mary Sue Coleman both were recruited away to major universities through closed searches.
In an effort to overcome the contentious atmosphere on campus, Robillard said, Harreld has been meeting and talking with faculty as he prepares for first official day as president. And he told the rotary club Thursday that — with the challenges facing higher education — the university should be glad to have someone with Harreld's experience.
“Incoming President Harreld has helped major organizations increase collaboration and see new possibilities for effective growth, change and transformation,” Robillard said. “Bruce Harreld is coming here at the right time, and he is the right leader for our university.”
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