Higher education

Slow down process for picking next UI leader, several faculty members urge

Regents set to choose president days after finalists publicly named

(File Photo) UI Vice President for Medical Affairs and Chair of the university’s Presidential Search Committee Jean Robillard listens during a conference call at the first meeting of the University of Iowa’s presidential search committee in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
(File Photo) UI Vice President for Medical Affairs and Chair of the university’s Presidential Search Committee Jean Robillard listens during a conference call at the first meeting of the University of Iowa’s presidential search committee in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With four finalists for the University of Iowa presidency slated to visit campus this week and next before the Board of Regents makes its selection days later, a group of faculty members is asking for the process to slow down and be more open.

“We want to get the maximum participation by faculty, staff and students — we want the opportunity to make our own judgments about the candidates,” said Paul S. Muhly, a UI professor in the Department of Mathematics. “What we don’t want is a situation where there is strong opposition to a candidate for reasonable reasons, and that individual becomes president.”

Nearly a dozen UI faculty members Monday told The Gazette they have concerns about how feedback on the four finalists will be collected, compiled and shared with the regents. And they’re concerned about the rapid timing of the on-campus visits and final selection.

Former Regent Bob Downer, who spent 12 years on the board and endured several presidential searches before his tenure ended April 30, said the concerns seem legitimate.

“It seems quick to me,” Downer said. “There certainly is nothing wrong with having an expeditious process. But I also think that, after the forums, it sometimes takes a little while to digest everything that’s being heard.”

Two finalists are scheduled to visit campus this week — one Thursday and one Friday — and two more are planning visits next week, on Monday and Tuesday. During those visits, the finalists will meet with campus constituents and participate in evening public forums.

The Board of Regents is planning to interview the candidates Sept. 3 — less than two days after the final public forum — and select a new president at that time.

Names of each finalist will be released 24 hours before he or she arrives.

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The public is invited to share input on each candidate through websites that will be set up by Parker Executive Search, the firm the regents hired to help facilitate the hunt for a replacement for former UI President Sally Mason, who retired.

The board has said the schedule “allows for a full day between the final open forum and the presidential selection to ensure faculty, staff, and students have an opportunity to submit feedback.”

But several faculty members told The Gazette they worry they won’t have enough time to vet each candidate, provide a thoughtful response and communicate it to the regents.

“The regents get to choose it — no one denies that,” Professor Muhly said. “But if they choose someone we don’t want, that’s a problem, and it’s going to be a problem.”

Previous presidential searches at the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University, and the last UI search followed a similar timeline, according to Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman.

But in those cases, a search committee formed to facilitate the process — involving faculty, staff and students — played a larger role in gathering public feedback on finalists and sharing it with the board.

This time around, the 21-member search committee that recommended the finalists was dismissed after providing the names to regents. Now Parker Executive Search, instead of the committee, will use an online process to amass feedback on the finalists.

Parker will set up four individual sites for each candidate, and offer space for individuals to submit open-ended feedback, Lehman said. The websites will not ask specific questions or use any type of survey tool to gauge public opinion.

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“This is a different way to collect feedback,” Lehman said. “Parker has not done the secure website before.”

Several faculty members said they would prefer a more formulaic method of collecting feedback, and they’d prefer it go through the search committee rather than the search firm.

“We had nothing to do with choosing the search firm,” Muhly said. “We have no reason to trust them.”

Former regent Downer said during the last UI presidential search in 2007, the search committee “provided valuable insights to the board in the final stages of the process.” It submitted semiofficial communications with feedback on each candidate.

“While some individuals (on the committee) may do this now, it would be individual rather than collective comments,” Downer said.

Kembrew McLeod, a UI professor in the Department of Communications Studies, said he, too, is suspicious about the new way of collecting feedback and the quick timetable for naming a new president.

“With the dissolution of the committee and the quick turnaround, I have a knee-jerk reaction that the candidate already has been selected,” McLeod said. “That might not be true, but it’s a terrible way for a new president to start — under a cloud of suspicion.”

McLeod and other faculty members said they’d like the Board of Regents to extend the deadline for selecting a new president to allow the community more time to vet each candidate and provide thoughtful feedback.

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“This is the most important decision that is going to be made for the university campus for years to come,” he said.

Officials with the UI search committee have said 46 people applied for the UI presidency, vacated by Mason on Aug. 1. Of those, nine were invited for initial interviews in Chicago and four were chosen to come to campus.

No information has been released about the pool of applicants or the group of nine invited for initial interviews, prompting additional concerns among UI faculty related to equity requirements and affirmative action policies.

“It’s a little scary how rapidly this is all coming about,” said Bob McMurray, a UI professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “I can’t think of anyone I have talked to among the rank and file that hasn’t been a little worried.”

McMurray said the UI Faculty Senate is doing as much as it can on short notice to coordinate a process where it compiles faculty feedback on each finalist and provides some type of summary for the regents.

“But I think moving the decision back would be advisable,” he said. “I know some people don’t want their names out there too long … but any president we would want or that we would hire is going to have to deal with public scrutiny. So I think a few more days would be very very advisable.”

The Board of Regents has not received any formal requests to change the dates in the presidential search process, and spokesman Lehman said the board is proceeding as planned.

“The board has tried to be very thoughtful and transparent with the process,” Lehman said. “It’s reached out to hear from as many as possible on this important decision.

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