Higher education

University of Iowa president changing budgeting process

Harreld: We need to start having 'some important, maybe at times tough, conversations'

University of Iowa President 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)
University of Iowa President 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)

New University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld is changing the institution’s budgeting process by enabling deans and unit heads to take more ownership over the way their departments prioritize resources.

Instead of making spending decisions from the top down, as largely has been the practice in the past, Harreld on Thursday told The Gazette he’s charged 27 unit leaders — including college deans — with prioritizing their general education budgets for the 2017 fiscal year.

Harreld has asked those leaders to make funding decisions with three criteria in mind: advancing student outcomes, improving national rankings, and protecting core values.

Administrators then will convene around those recommendations with the larger vision of moving “to excellence in areas we already have and new ones we’re going to create.”

“I think we could be a top 10 public research institution during my tenure,” Harreld on Thursday told a packed Iowa City Noon Rotary Club.

Right now, however, Harreld said the university is slipping. It’s losing ground in national rankings, relying too heavily on state support, and spreading its limited resources too thin. The university, he said, is not protecting and pushing forward its most valuable assets. And other institutions are looking to swoop in to take its place.

“There is a set of competitors, our peers … that are watching and saying, ‘Hey that’s got to be easy,’” Harreld said. “We’re watching Iowa, and as they don’t protect the things they excel at, we’re gonna take that brand away from them.”

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Harreld added, “Go click on what the University of Michigan is doing right now around creative writing.”

“And I can keep going,” he said.

That’s what Americans do. They continue to climb and get better and improve.

“By the way, I think we need to return to that here in our culture here at the university,” he said. “And I think we have every capability of doing that. All we need to do is to start having some important, maybe at times tough, conversations about the few things we’re going to protect.”

Harreld, a former IBM executive, has faced his critics since joining the university. The Board of Regents hired him despite dismal support for his candidacy among faculty, staff, and students. And faculty and student leaders passed votes of no confidence in the board for hiring Harreld, who has no academic administrative experience.

Some have questioned Harreld’s intentions at the institution, even as he’s pushed for millions more in state support.

On Thursday, Harreld conceded that state funding has dwindled in recent years — plummeting from 77.4 percent of the regent university’s general education in the 1980s to 34.3 percent this year. And, Harreld said, he intends to keep asking for increased support — laying out specific needs, like improved faculty pay.

“But if that’s all we’re doing and that’s the core element of our culture, I think we have some issues,” Harreld said. “I think we need to move from a culture of dependency to one of, ‘Here’s what we’re great at.’ We can earn it every day.”

Harreld warned against existing in a state of reliance. In part, he said, because he’s not so sure legislative support is something he can have an effect on.

“I will fight every day for more funding,” he said. “But maybe that’s part of my team’s job to figure out, given that reality, how we deal with it and how we position ourselves going forward and for success.”

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That involves ensuring the wisest use of existing resources, and Harreld told the crowd Thursday that he thinks the university is “spreading its peanut butter” too thin.

“Why are we doing that?” he said. “It’s leading to pushing everything to mediocrity.”

Harreld said his staff is feeling “pretty tired right now because we’re right in the midst of a pretty significant debate” about how best to allocate its funding.

“Are we doing it wisely enough?” he said. “Whatever it is we’re doing, maybe it’s not working. Maybe you need to try something else. Because those loss in ranking points, others see, and they’re holding us accountable for that.”

Harreld praised the university’s history of innovation, its contributions to the community, state, nation, and world, and the work ethic of its people. And he presented all that as part of his challenge.

“This is us,” he said. “We got to just pick it up. Get our act together. Get a little focus.”

Acknowledging the difficulty in hearing tough messages, Harreld said, “I’m willing to take the heat to drive this institution to the excellence that it can be. And beyond.

“If that means that we have some tough decisions, let’s go,” he said.

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