University of Iowa President Harreld urges better 'succession planning'

'I could have really used someone to have guided me around the issues'

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld addresses the attendees during the 2019 Fall Philanthropy Talk at the Iowa Me
University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld addresses the attendees during the 2019 Fall Philanthropy Talk at the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

The University of Iowa needs better succession planning, can’t afford to “relax and go on pause,” and should avoid interim leadership, UI President Bruce Harreld told the Board of Regents on Monday as it accepted his retirement – which he announced last week, three years before his contract expires.

“Personally, I think the university has not over the last several decades, done a great job in succession planning, not only for my position but for other positions,” Harreld told the nine-member board, which voted unanimously to start the search for his replacement.

“The succession planning I think we've done in a kind of rushed fashion,” he said. “What we've done is tended to wait for someone to retire or resign. And then we appoint an interim …

“What happens is the natural tendency of an organization to relax and go on pause,” Harreld said. “And I just think there's too much going on at this university and across the regential system to put anything on pause.”

Harreld – hired in 2015 amid uproar and protests over the selection process to succeed Sally Mason – surprised many by announcing his retirement only a year after extending his contract through 2023. His campus has seen significant administrative turnover in recent years, with many main roles still occupied by interim leaders – including its provost, diversity head, and dean of its largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Harreld vowed in his announcement to stay on until a successor starts, negating the need for an interim president. And Harreld said Monday he’d be willing to stay even longer to help a new leader acclimate.

“I'm also reminded of how I joined the university five years ago,” Harreld said. “At that point in time, I could have really used someone to have guided me around the issues, strategies, meeting people … Certainly I got through that. But it took a year, maybe a little more, to get productive.


“So I would like to, if my successor would like, I would like to help them in that transition,” he said. “It may not take that long, but I just don't think it's disappear. I think it's some meaningful transition.”

After Mason left her post in August 2015, then-UI Vice President for Medical Affairs Jean Robillard stepped in as interim for several months until Harreld started in November. Robillard, who also chaired the 2015 UI presidential search committee, remained in his vice president post during his stint as interim UI president.

In listing all the campus has going on right now, Harreld did not address its response to COVID-19 or budget cuts but cited its strategic plan update; “significant long-term issues” for its UI Hospitals and Clinics, related to capacity and growth; and implementation of a $1.165 billion agreement for the private operation of its utilities system.

That deal allowed UI to create an endowment it could pull millions from annually.

“We've got the allocation of (the public-private partnership) monies for the first time here in the next few weeks,” he said. “So I don't think it's wise to pause.”

Harreld, who in August 2019 signed a contract to stay on until 2023 or forfeit his $2.33 million deferred compensation, told the regents Monday, “I’ve been asking a lot of people in the last year, how long does it take to do a typical search?”

Hearing 12 to 18 months," Harreld said he's also asked, "In an environment like the one we’re currently in, which is certainly unique, is it shorter or longer?”

“And everyone says, ‘Well, we don't know, but if anything it’s probably longer.’ So it could well be beyond an 18-month period.”

An executive with AGB Search, a national search firm based in Washington D.C. currently conducting eight searches for university or college presidents, told The Gazette last week a robust pool of candidates exists and the pandemic has not slowed their searches.


Regents officials have said they would like to have a new UI president in place by next fall. And they’ve said Harreld’s contract allows him to collect his deferred compensation by staying employed in some capacity – not necessarily as president but possibly a lecturer or adjunct professor.

The board didn’t discuss Harreld’s retirement during Monday’s special meeting or what they’d like to see in his replacement. Harrled – who came to the UI presidency from a non-traditional background as a private business executive with no academic administrative experience – urged regents pick “a great leader who's got wonderful Midwestern values, understands importance of teams, and to collaborate really really well.”

“I love this institution,” Harreld said. “I’m in no rush to leave. But I do think it's time to start the process.”

The board did that Monday by directing Executive Director Mark Braun to find a search firm; establish a search committee; and develop a process and timetable.

Moments after the meeting, the board issued a request for proposals from search firms, outlining its requirements and expectations of a consultant – including that it help search for and screen candidates; conduct background checks; coordinate interviews; and help with assessments.

A timeline for selection of the search firm has the board interviewing finalists Nov. 4-6 and awarding a contract Nov. 13 – days before the board’s next regular meeting Nov. 18-19, when Braun is expected to report back on his selection of a search committee as well.

Comments: (319) 339-3158;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.