Iowa's campus leaders chart different paths in difficult times

'Working remotely is exhausting and frustrating,' UI's Harreld says

Graffiti from recent protests against racial injustice covers the entrance to the University of Iowa President's Residen
Graffiti from recent protests against racial injustice covers the entrance to the University of Iowa President's Residence in Iowa City on Friday, July 17, 2020. Editor's note: Parts of the image have been blurred to cover profanity. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Just days after Iowa reported its first COVID-19 cases March 8, the state Board of Regents told its public universities to “move as quickly as possible toward the ability to deliver instruction virtually.”

Shifting to online-only courses was a first for Iowa’s regent institutions, and University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook said he immediately felt the historic weight of the board’s request and its potential to shake the foundations of higher education.

“It was going to be something we had to kind of buckle in for,” Nook told The Gazette. “We had a long conversation with my leadership team about (how) it’s going to be really important to get comfortable being uncomfortable for a while because we’re going to have to make a lot of decisions as we move along in a whole new world.”

That new coronavirus-complicated world of higher education meant a swift midsemester shift from classroom to virtual instruction, empty residence halls, canceled athletics and upended commencement ceremonies. Students lost experiential learning opportunities. Researchers paused experiments and sent assistants home. Faculty and students working and studying abroad repatriated. UI Health Care altered nearly every aspect of its operations. And with those changes came tens of millions in losses.

In a matter of days, Iowa’s university presidents found themselves faced with the complex challenges of balancing safety, academic and research excellence and financial strength of their campuses in an unprecedented time.

While historically aligned, those values suddenly became at times competing. How the university presidents prioritized them emerged as paramount in forging the paths forward for their campuses.

UI President Bruce Harreld discussed that challenge during a recent presentation about his campus’ plan to resume in-person instruction this fall. In response to a reporter question of how he was handling this, Harreld acknowledged that “at the outset, I was really, really struggling.”


“And one evening I remember sitting back and saying, ‘Look, what is the one objective, what’s the one principle, we should be using — or I should be using — to guide me through this?’” he said.

“And it was pretty easy once I started thinking about it that way. Because, to me, the issue is keeping all of us safe. Yes, you could say money’s important, keeping everybody in jobs. But the issue of keeping us healthy seemed to be absolutely the most important consideration for students, for faculty, for staff. Everybody.”


All three of Iowa’s public university presidents have cited safety as being paramount in their decision-making. But even with that common core value — and the same governing board overseeing them — the campuses diverged.

“We specifically got people together and empowered a group of these experts from across our campus to work through every nuance and specifically address how the University of Iowa should reopen,” Harreld said during a virtual campus presentation. “Not the entire regential system. Not the privates in Iowa. Not Notre Dame. Not Purdue. Not Indiana. But Iowa.”

With the presidents agreeing on student preference for in-person learning, each expressed reluctance in taking steps to cancel on-campus summer courses, study abroad expeditions and a broad swath of other in-person programming like youth camps and orientation sessions.

And the presidents shared a similar tone of optimism for the fall, although each conceded in their own fashion the rampant unknowns.

“Though the future is not set in stone — and we continue to monitor the latest guidance and information about this pandemic — we are planning to resume face-to-face instruction this fall,” Harreld wrote in an April campus message.

Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen that month noted fall preparations “will require new and creative approaches to how we support our mission and campus operations, especially in considering the best alternatives available if our planning efforts are impacted by external factors beyond our control.”


The regents for years have worked to eliminate duplication across their public universities, but details of each university’s reopening had to fork because of the myriad differences from campus to campus. And those details were many — prompting each president to assign his or her own version of a fall planning committee.

“Closing something, you just almost flip the switch,” Harreld said during his recent campus presentation. “Reopening, there’s no switch.”

The teams have and are continuing to craft plans with some similarities but many variances — including details involving classroom configurations and distancing; residence hall safety; virus testing and contract tracing; student life experiences; research ramp-up; backup plans for remote learning; and human resources issues for employees.

Wintersteen, for example, announced last week that all ISU students planning to live in a residence hall must take a COVID-19 test first. The UI and UNI have not unveiled such a mandate.

Differing financial losses and cuts also have caused varying tacks.

“The greatest challenge has been finding ways to continue delivering on our mission in the midst of the pandemic’s unpredictability and mounting budget pressures,” Wintersteen told The Gazette. “For months, more than 150 leaders on a dozen campus teams have worked tirelessly on every angle of how we operate and navigate.”

Among the campus’ more major splits was over what to do with the fall calendar.

ISU and UNI decided to bring students back a week earlier than usual, on Aug. 17; keep them in class on Labor Day; and complete the term — including finals — the day before Thanksgiving.

The UI will resume classes Aug. 24, as planned, and run the semester into December — although all instruction after Thanksgiving break will happen virtually to avoid bringing students back after high-risk holiday travel. Harreld, during his presentation, opined on the UI’s need to pave its own way.

“We pride ourselves on teaching students how to think critically, we say that’s one of our most important jobs,” he said. “Unfortunately, only my opinion, I think many of our peers have not done that very well. I think, as it relates to reopening, instead they seem to be moving like lemmings.”


Just because one school finds a course of action best suited for its institution doesn’t make it a good fit for everyone, Harreld said.

“This virus is not the same coast to coast. It’s not even the same in Iowa,” he said. “So we purposely have not taken the approach that just because one institution decided to go online for the entire year, we didn’t emulate that. We didn’t decide that our calendars should be just the same as other institutions.”


But one mutual hurdle all three presidents have had to clear — or at least attempt to — in leading during historic challenges from a distance.

The presidents can’t cram administrators and experts into “war rooms” — like former UI President Sally Mason did during the 2008 flood. They can’t hug grieving friends and colleagues like past UI President Hunter Rawlings did after a graduate student in 1991 fatally shot four faculty and a student.

They can’t convene face-to-face roundtables and listening sessions with minority students, faculty and staff like each of the presidents has done during periods of civil unrest and social justice protests — which this summer erupted across the country and in each of Iowa’s university communities.

“I did attend a memorial at the Cedar Falls Park,” Nook said about his decision to show up in person for an event after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“It was important for me to be there personally,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to go out of my way to tell people I was there. I was just there. I think it’s important to recognize what’s going on, and to be a member of that community.”

Even as the three universities asked most employees to work remotely — only recently phasing in employee returns to campus — Nook and Wintersteen continued to work out of their offices.


“President Wintersteen has worked on campus throughout the pandemic, with the exception of three days of vacation,” ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt said.

Nook told The Gazette his building was empty and so continuing to work there made sense.

“I live on campus and just have to walk across the street to my office, so whether I work from my home or at my office in the building, I’m still on campus,” he said. “I’ve chosen to work in my campus office mostly so that I just didn’t have to take materials to the house.”

UI and Board of Regents officials and Harreld declined to answer The Gazette’s questions about where he has been working from this summer, or say whether he has been in Iowa.

“The university has repeatedly asked UI employees to remain working remotely unless their work must be completed on campus,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said. “Facilities Management is developing building-specific plans for social distancing and other best practices, and President Harreld will return to campus when his building’s plan is implemented.”

In a statement, Harreld said that “working remotely is exhausting and frustrating.

“I like talking to people, and doing it through my computer and my iPad is not the same,” he said. “But we have asked employees to work remotely to reduce the threat of exposure for everyone, including those who must report in person, so I’m trying to lead by example.”

Referring to leadership during the recent social justice protests — which have enveloped the UI campus this summer, with hundreds congregating nightly for a period, spray painting historic fixtures like the president’s residence, the Old Capitol and Kinnick Stadium — Harreld said the pandemic’s disruption on “our routines and ability to gather” has become even more acute.

“The pain and fear it caused is heartbreaking,” he said. “I never want our students to be afraid. And the separation from one another and from their support systems on campus only made matters worse.”

But crisis leadership involves not just surviving but “seizing the opportunities that will emerge as a result of the crisis,” Harreld said, citing wisdom from a mentor. Technology, in this case, is among those opportunities.


“While we are still in the surviving phase, it is beginning to become clear that today’s technologies allow us to learn, work, and collaborate in a more distanced mode,” he said. “We will likely discover that we need less physical space per employee and should explore more flexible employee working standards.”

That said, Harreld emphasized survey data showing students’ clear preference for face-to-face instruction and on-campus experiences.

“The ‘high impact practices’ we so often refer to are shaping up to be truly high impact and they are very hard to replicate online,” he said.

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