Education

Pandemic doesn't deter university president searches

Regents promise to follow AAUP search guidelines this time

Bruce Harreld (center, left) greets then-Regent Subhash Sahai (center, right) after being announced Sept. 3, 2015, as th
Bruce Harreld (center, left) greets then-Regent Subhash Sahai (center, right) after being announced Sept. 3, 2015, as the 21st president of the University of Iowa at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — As the University of Iowa prepares to embark on the arduous task of finding its next president in the midst of a pandemic, Iowa’s Board of Regents acknowledges it’s in uncharted territory.

“We’re sort of in a new normal,” board Executive Director Mark Braun told The Gazette about how long its hunt for a 22nd UI president might take. “What timelines played out before and how they’re going to play out now, nobody knows the answer to.”

Managing Principal Roderick McDavis with AGB Search of Washington, D.C., a firm often used by universities, said that in some cases, searches actually are zipping along more efficiently because virtual meetings make getting together simpler.

That firm — currently conducting eight presidential searches for private and public colleges and universities big and small across the country — reports on average taking four to six months to land a new hire.

“We’re finding that even in light of the pandemic that we can still get a search done within that time frame,” McDavis said. “One of the good things about dealing with a search in these times is that because you can do them virtually, it’s a lot easier to get people together than when people have to travel.”

HARRELD RETIRING: UI president announces he’s retiring from job after five years

Paring down travel in the earlier search stages also is saving money.

McDavis said most campuses still are bringing in finalists for in-person interviews. Once on campus, top choices have been engaging in a mix of meetings — some happening online from a campus office and others happening face-to-face.

Finalists still have been participating in forums and town halls — although those, too, might offer campus community members options for how to watch and weigh in.

The search that brought UI President Bruce Harreld to campus five years ago sparked heated debate, protests, votes of no-confidence and eventually a sanction from the American Association of University Professors — prompting the board to work with faculty and the AAUP to outline best practices moving forward.

It has enacted those practices — emphasizing shared governance — in subsequent searches for new presidents at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Braun said the board will follow those best practices as it embarks on the first UI presidential search since the once that drew so much ire five years ago.

“We anticipate it will be very comparable to the searches that were done at University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State,” he said. “We’re complying with those best practices, we agree with those best practices, and that is what we will follow going forward.”

McDavis told The Gazette there’s no dearth of university president candidates nationally despite the pandemic that’s threatening all aspects of higher education.

“I think there are a lot of very, very qualified people across the country who will be very interested in a presidency,” he said. “People who are in current presidencies who are, perhaps, looking to move up into a better presidency. And there are a lot of people that are either a provost or in a vice presidential position who are also looking for opportunities to move up.”

In the searches AGB is leading now, McDavis said plenty of highly-qualified candidates are applying. And he said the applicants are coming both from academia and outside — like Harreld before his hire at UI.

“I would say about 75-25, three to one, 75 percent of the selections are coming from traditional positions, and a quarter are non-traditional,” McDavis said, noting many institutions also are prioritizing diversity. “Institutions are apt to include people of color and women in the pool — so much so that we’re finding that over the past few years, 50 percent of our placements have either been women or people of color at the presidential level.”

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Iowa’s regents will kick off its search to replace Harreld with a special meeting Monday to accept this retirement and instruct Braun to start looking for a search firm and compiling a search committee.

Although he said the board would like to have someone in place by next fall, Braun said, “We’re going to be judicious. We’re going to take our time. We’re going to hire the right person. And whether that timeline is the same as previous searches or not, we don’t know.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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