Higher education

New University of Iowa president says he didn't want the job at first

'Not at all'

Incoming University of Iowa President J. Bruce Harreld speaks during an interview with The Gazette in his office in Jess
Incoming University of Iowa President J. Bruce Harreld speaks during an interview with The Gazette in his office in Jessup Hall on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — J. Bruce Harreld did not want the job.

“Not at all,” he said.

When Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter called the former IBM and Boston Market Co. executive over the summer to ask if he would be interested in applying for the vacant University of Iowa presidency, Harreld promptly dismissed the opportunity.

“I had a lot of other things going on in my life that were either more important or more interesting,” said Harreld, who was living in the Colorado high country at the time, serving as a business consultant, traveling and spending time with his wife, four children and six grandchildren.

Fast-forward several months and Harreld is set to become the 21st UI president on Monday. And — despite pushback from some faculty, staff and students in the form of no-confidence votes, censures and protests — Harreld said he's fired up about it.

On Friday, during one of his first one-on-one interviews since being chosen for the job in September, Harreld told The Gazette he's passionate about this university and is motivated to propel it toward continued and sustained excellence. He's listening, learning and working with the core of the university — which he said is the faculty — to develop a shared and unified vision for the way forward.

He's raising funds, meeting students and reviewing processes and policies, he said.

But his arrival to this institution and those feelings took deliberate contemplation, research, meetings and discussions.

“I felt like I didn't have enough information,” Harreld said.

'He doesn't take no for an answer'

After Harreld rejected Rastetter's initial inquiry, longtime friend and UI alumnus Jerre Stead — who was on the 21-member UI presidential search committee — reached out to Harreld to ask him to reconsider.

“He called me and basically asked, in terms of friendship, would I spend a day just getting to meet members of the search committee?” Harreld said.


In early June, in a Kirkwood Community College conference room in Cedar Rapids, Harreld sat down with Rastetter, UI Interim President Jean Robillard and Peter Matthes, interim chief of staff and vice president for external relations. They talked about a “host of issues,” such as how institutions can continue to improve themselves and about the UI Hospitals and Clinics — Robillard also is vice president for medical affairs with UI Health Care.

During that discussion, Harreld said, Rastetter again asked if he was interested in applying for the UI presidency.

“I said no,” Harreld said. “He asked me three more times, and I remember turning to Peter Matthes and saying, 'He doesn't take no for an answer, does he?'”

Harreld stuck with his “absolutely not” answer but — based on Harreld's experience as a corporate executive, business consultant and educator at Harvard Business School — Robillard asked him to visit campus in July and work with the UI Health Care team.

That led to Harreld's July 8 visit and lunch with Rastetter Robillard, and two members of the search committee. But he still had little interest, having previously committed himself to three business clients.

“I felt I was doing a betrayal of trust in even considering something else,” Harreld said.

And his mind didn't change for a long time. But, Harreld said, he began to soften to the idea after reading more about the institution and talking to friends and colleagues.

He said he wanted to meet with at least four regents, visit with members of the UI administration and speak with Iowa State University President Steven Leath, who he had heard was leading a successful change effort on the Ames campus.


“I actually put those in front of the search committee and said, 'Here's what I'd like to do,'” Harreld said. “They didn't say yes to all those. They said yes to some of that.”

Harreld met with four regents and Leath on June 30 — the day before the application deadline. He was chosen among nine candidates for initial interviews in Chicago and was among four finalists introduced publicly to campus.

But, Harreld told The Gazette, it wasn't until the morning of his final interview with the Board of Regents — the day he was actually named president — that he decided he wanted to pursue the job. He and his wife had their final conversation about it at 8 a.m., Sept. 3, Harreld said.

“We needed to make sure it was really something we wanted to do,” he said. “Early that morning I said, 'OK, should I go into the interview?' Because once you go into the interview, it's pretty clear you've committed yourself.”

He went through with the interview and said he felt he communicated well his thoughts about the job and how he would approach it.

It wasn't until he received a phone call asking him to come to a specific spot that he thought, “Well, maybe this is really happening.” Harreld said he never got the sense he was a shoe-in or even a favorite for the job.

Some members of the UI community have criticized Harreld's meetings with regents and his visits to campus during the closed portion of the search. But, he told The Gazette, that surprises him.

“I find the criticism bizarre, to be really honest about it,” he said, adding that he simply wanted more information. “There is an assumption that I somehow was given preferential treatment. I didn't see that at all. At all. I'm still trying to get enough information.”

'Don't second-guess yourself'

During Harreld's public forum as a candidate on Sept. 1, members of the UI community asked why he applied, if he already had been offered the job and whether he supported a controversial funding proposal that would have pulled millions from UI and redistributed it to Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa.

Many faculty, staff and students over the subsequent 48 hours made public their displeasure with Harreld's candidacy and asked the board not to hire him. After the board did, the Faculty Senate issued a vote of no confidence, as did the UI student governments and Faculty Assembly for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Despite all that, Harreld said, he doesn't regret his decision to take the job.

“Not at all,” he said, conceding there have been some long days. “I have gone home at night saying, 'Wow, can't believe I have to do it all the next day.' But no, don't second-guess yourself.”

Harreld said he's witnessed similar organizational reactions.

“Any time there is a change in an organization, particularly a change of leadership, there is huge anxiety and fear,” he said. “That is the unknown — that, plus my background, caused people to say, 'Woah.'”

Over the past two months, Harreld has met with faculty, administrators, students and staff and believes he's made headway bridging divides. He admits, though, “I have a long way to go.”

Harreld said he's asking everyone he meets what they think should be his priorities.

“I say, 'My vision is our vision. Do we have one?'” he said. “Most people say, 'No, not yet. What's the process for getting to our vision?' So I'm spending a lot of time on that.”

Harreld said he wants to nail down a few things to really focus on, and faculty — he suspects — will have a lot to do with that.

“Making them better,” he said, “more productive.”

'Where are we going to go next?'

Members of the Board of Regents, in hiring Harreld, cited the changing nature of higher education — including decreasing state support, rising tuition rates, mounting student debt and increasing competition.


Harreld said he brings to the table “a lot of experience helping organizations go to the next level.” He thrives on collaboration and uniting people in a sort of “coalition of the willing.”

“This notion that we can stay where we are is classical misthink,” he said. “The question becomes, where are we going to go next?”

Although Harreld said it's too soon to develop metrics for success, he pointed toward the core of the institution — the faculty and the education and knowledge they create and disseminate.

“If you want to go to the next level, my suspicion is that core is where you are going to spend a lot of time,” he said. “How you do that better and how you do that with more people and protect the great talent that's already here.”

Right now, Harreld said, he has one agenda item as president — “listening and learning.”

When addressing the issue of the university's budget, Harreld said, he isn't looking to immediately cut costs. Right now, he said, it's not about saving a nickel.

“My guess is I'm spending nickels here is where we're headed, not saving them,” he said.

Before former President Sally Mason departed in August, she had set a goal of growing the UI student body and campus, and Harreld said it's too soon to know how to pursue that endeavor. He's heard concerns from faculty about quantity versus quality and from other institution heads about the danger of just getting “bigger and bigger.”


When asked about a regents-backed proposal to tie more state allocations to resident students and encourage enrollment of more Iowans, Harreld said, he wants to make sure UI's vision is bigger than this state.

“One of the things I will fight for is to make sure we are on a national level here and we are going to continue to stay on a national level,” he said. “If the implications of various policies and procedures are that we are going to become more and more statewide and less regional, than I'm going to have to have a conversation.”

UI's larger reach benefits both the nation and the state, Harreld said.

“That's an asset that needs to be protected,” he said.

'We worked very very closely together'

Among the institutional heads Harreld has talked to since landing the UI job is former UI President Mason.

In fact, Harreld said, he and Mason have known each other for more than a decade. Both Purdue University alumni, Harreld said he worked with Mason from a business consulting perspective while she was provost of Purdue from 2001 to 2007.

“We worked very very closely together,” Harreld said. “I purposefully and she purposefully didn't reach out to one another at all during the process of the search or my consideration. I think that would have been inappropriate.”

But, he said, after he was chosen, they both attended a dinner and the two shared thoughts on the job.

“She was very warm,” Harreld said. “She made specific comments about the strength of the team here. And I agreed with her.”

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