Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter on Thursday praised new University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld for his efforts to meet with, engage, and challenge the campus community since taking office Nov. 2.
However, Rastetter criticized the behavior of members of the public who interrupted, shouted, and even cursed during a contentious public forum that Harreld hosted on the UI campus Tuesday evening.
“I would hope that, in the spirit of open transparency that’s happening at the University of Iowa, that some of those people would be more professional than what they appeared to be the other night,” Rastetter said.
He made those comments, in part, in response to criticism UI community members have leveled against the Board of Regents’ public hearing process associated with its regular meetings. Rather than allowing people to speak directly to the board no board members attend those hearings, but comments instead are video recorded and posted online, where regents can view them. No one verifies that board members watch the videos, and many commenters have complained they receive no feedback or response.
Rastetter on Thursday said he has watched all the videos and listened to the comments. But, he said, “I don’t know how you would respond when someone says that you’re corrupt or there’s cronyism, when it’s not true.”
“I think we’ve chosen to try to be professional and tried to conduct ourselves in the best way possible,” Rastetter said. “So a variety of those comments, I don’t know as if they deserve a direct response.”
He expressed support for the current method of gathering public feedback, saying “having a visual and recorded statement is a pretty good way to do that.” He also pointed to Tuesday’s town hall as an example of why engaging with the public during a time-limited meeting might not be productive.
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“I would suggest that sometimes in the public town hall meetings, it’s less than an amicable way that people are presenting themselves,” Rastetter said. “So I would encourage a more professional presentation.”
Rastetter said regent Patricia Cownie attended Tuesday’s town hall — during which members of the public repeated calls for Harreld to resign — and she reported back on his presentation and the public exchange. Before taking questions from the audience Tuesday, Harreld showed dozens of data sets indicating the university is falling behind its peers in areas like faculty compensation and retention, federal funding, and national rankings.
“Certainly we applaud President Harreld and the whole university administration for having the town halls,” Rastetter said. “We hope they continue to do that, and we hope that people who attend those town halls will continue to be more professional.”
The board on Wednesday conducted midyear reviews of the heads of the institutions it oversees — including Harreld, Iowa State University President Steven Leath, and University of Northern Iowa President Williams Ruud.
Harreld, a former IBM businessman who was hired amid controversy after hundreds of UI faculty, staff, and students expressed concern over his lack of academic administrative experience, has been on the job less than four months.
The board did not disclose details from Wednesday’s reviews, which were not tied to the presidents’ compensation. But Rastetter on Thursday said he feels Harreld is doing what he was hired to do, in part, by meeting with every stakeholder group the university touches.
“He continues to do that in a significant way, and we know the number of hours he is putting in, whether it’s with students, whether it’s with faculty, whether it’s with staff, researchers, legislators, donors,” Rastetter said.
He praised Harreld’s commitment to hold at least three town hall meetings a year.
“He’s very clearly doing what the board has asked him to do, and I think what’s expected of a new university president,” Rastetter said.
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Specifically, Rastetter pointed to Harreld’s presentation Tuesday that challenged the status quo and pointed out areas needing improvement.
“All those are the things that we would expect as a board,” he said.
Aside from the vocal critics who spoke out during the Tuesday public forum, Rastetter said the board has heard from many within the UI community and across the state who support him.
“The majority of the campus community, I think, is accepting the principal that they want to work together with President Harreld to make the place a better place,” Rastetter said. “That is what we had hoped would happen. And I think that’s what’s happening.”