The Iowa State University vice president who has been leading “perhaps the largest IT initiative” in school history but came under fire for being hired without a formal search and for providing flight training to former ISU President Steven Leath around the time of that appointment has resigned.
Jim Kurtenbach’s resignation was effective the same day he announced it, Thursday. The former Republican lawmaker and Iowa State associate professor of accounting was appointed interim chief information officer in January 2015 and began his tenure as vice president and CIO in July 2016.
He plans to return to the College of Business, where he earned tenured faculty status in 1997. ISU President Wendy Wintersteen has named Kristen Constant, Morrill Professor and chairwoman of the materials science and engineering department, to serve as interim vice president and chief information officer.
Wintersteen said Constant and Kurtenbach will work together to facilitate a smooth transition. Constant will make $275,000 in her new role — above the $252,794 that Kurtenbach was making in the position. Constant was making a salary of $209,217.
Kurtenbach’s new salary was not immediately made public.
When asked why Kurtenbach resigned, ISU spokesman John McCarroll said he enjoyed the CIO work — which included several large-scale projects.
“But he also expressed interest in returning to the classroom,” McCarroll said. “He has a passion for the faculty role.”
Wintersteen in a statement said Kurtenbach has been “integral in enhancing security across the university’s enterprise technologies; modernizing IT infrastructure; implementing Canvas, a new learning management system; and initiating the switch to Workday to update and streamline our information systems and processes.”
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When Kurtenbach was hired in 2016, the university did not advertise for the position or conduct a search, which ISU officials said is allowed under university policy.
McCarroll said former ISU President Leath waived an open search because Kurtenbach had become “deeply involved” in leading “perhaps the largest IT initiative the university has ever pursued,” according to The Gazette’s reporting.
“Jim Kurtenbach was seen as uniquely qualified to lead the project,” McCarroll said in July 2016.
Kurtenbach also launched a reorganization of Iowa State’s information technology services unit that cut at least 30 positions and involved controversial practices — including keeping some of the workers in the cut positions all day in a room they dubbed, “Gitmo Iowa State.”
Kurtenbach again attracted the spotlight during a controversy over Leath’s use of ISU-owned planes. Leath was criticized for using the planes, at times, for personal use and misusing some university resources.
Leath confirmed for The Gazette that Kurtenbach provided him some of the final flight training he needed to receive a specific certification. Leath said he flew his last required hours with Kurtenbach on Jan. 10, 2015 — after Kurtenbach had been appointed interim CIO.
Some lawmakers and regents have criticized Iowa State’s hiring practices — specifically those that occurred without an open search. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, during a committee meeting with lawmakers in February pointed specifically to Iowa State’s hire of Kurtenbach and former Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, who also landed a high-paying ISU director position without a search.
“You’ve hired two politically-connected white males to big six-figure salaries without advertising either position — without taking any other applications, without interviewing other candidates. My question to you is this: to someone outside the university — the average taxpayer — do you think this looks like equal opportunity hiring or do you think it looks more like the old boy network in full swing?” Quirmbach said at the time.
Leath responded by noting that competition and unique opportunities necessitate exceptions.
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“If you make a couple of exceptions to get top people at the right time for the right position, that can move the university forward,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for that.”
The university has not made any decision about timing of a search to replace Kurtenbach on a permanent basis, according to McCarroll.
Constant, his interim successor, has been with Iowa State since 1992, when she joined the College of Engineering. She’s the Wilkinson professor of interdisciplinary engineering — in addition to her role as department chairwoman.
In a statement, Wintersteen praised Constant’s expertise in continuing Iowa State’s initiative to update and streamline campuswide systems and processes.
“We look forward to how this complex, multiyear endeavor will ultimately transform our administrative functions for the 21st century, improving human resource, finance and student business processes and services campuswide,” Wintersteen said.
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