IOWA CITY — Even as an online petition seeking to oust the Board of Regents’ choice for University of Iowa president nears 1,000 signatures and protesters plan to rally at Wednesday’s regents meeting, the board reports no one has attended any of its public hearings this year on the UI campus.
In fact, only three people overall have attended the 47 hearings held in 2015 at the regents’ three universities, two special schools and board office.
And while more than 100 public hearings have been held across the campuses since the regents in 2013 began requiring them in conjunction with its monthly meetings, only 34 comments have been logged.
“I’m not surprised that they’re not well-attended,” said. Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who served on a Transparency Task Force the regents created to recommend the best ways to respond to public information requests and provide public access. He asked for something more simple — a public comment period during regular meetings.
Even so, the task force recommended hearings on each campus, which occur the week before regularly scheduled board meetings. The hearings must last one hour and be staffed by institutional transparency officers or representatives. No regents or board staff members attend. Instead, any comments presented there are video recorded, posted online and reviewed by board staff to determine if an issue should be brought to the board.
Regents are notified when a comment is posted on the website. But there is no confirmation that they view it.
Even when there are no public comments at the hearings, institutional staff have to set up the video technology and stay for the full hour.
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The lack of comments is not from a lack of interest. Even as an outcry over the selection of J. Bruce Harreld as the next UI president is reaching a crescendo and issues like campus sex assaults, student debt and government support of higher education have gained prominence, the board has done little this year to make the public aware of the hearings,
The last time the board issued a public notification about any of the hearings was in January, when the year’s full schedule was posted to its website.
Danielson said he pushed for a time during each of the regular board meetings for comment.
“It was not practical to have people come to a different venue,” he said. “They want to be able to speak directly to the leaders at the moment they’re having their meeting.”
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of faculty, staff and students have voiced outrage around the regents’ hiring of Harreld, who has an extensive business background but no experience leading an academic institution.
The Faculty Senate and student governments have issued votes of no-confidence in the board. The Faculty Assembly for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences called on all nine regents to resign or be dismissed. And the UI chapter of the American Association of University Presidents has called on the national chapter to investigate the regents.
A public hearing on the UI campus was scheduled for Sept. 3 — the same day the board chose Harreld. Hearings also were held Sept. 4 at ISU and at the board office — neither of which had any participation.
The regents are scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Iowa City, and a new group calling itself “Iowans Defending Our Universities” is planning to protest. Yet no one participated in any of last week’s public hearings scheduled in conjunction with the meeting.
Danielson said the work of the transparency task force overall was “a swing and a miss.”
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Josh Lehman, a board spokesman, said anyone can request a presentation before the board by asking in writing.
According to policy, those requests must “state the specific subject to be discussed and the reasons why a personal appearance is necessary.” People requesting time with the board must provide supporting documentation or evidence.
“The executive director will determine, in his/her discretion, whether a request is to be granted and whether such a request for oral presentation is relevant to the business before the board,” the policy shows.
Asked why the board doesn’t allow a comment period at its meetings, Lehman cited the task force recommendation.
“That’s what the public hearings are for,” he said. “We want to give the public an opportunity to speak their piece, if they have things they want to say on issues that are coming before the board, and these public hearings are designed to give them this opportunity.”