Education

University of Iowa presidential search sessions limited public participation

The decision 'certainly does not live up to the spirit of Iowa's public meetings laws'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Gazette File Photo)

IOWA CITY — A committee searching for the University of Iowa’s next president this month held a series of 10 virtual listening sessions — with its last one Tuesday — seeking faculty, staff and student feedback about what the campus wants in its next leader.

But none of those Zoom sessions were open widely to the public or recorded for public release later — despite the broad public interest in Iowa’s oldest university. Such in-person sessions for past searches have been open to the public.

The virtual sessions also come after the UI’s 2015 presidential search drew widespread criticism and even litigation settled with a UI payout and a promise to be more transparent in future presidential searches.

After launching a search in November to replace UI President Bruce Harreld, who is retiring, the university announced Dec. 8 the 10 campus listening sessions with a message posted to Iowa Now, pitched as a “one-stop source” for UI news for the campus community, “alumni, families, fans and friends.”

The message included Zoom links, meeting IDs and pass codes. But only viewers with HawkIDs — and not the wider public — could access the discussions, which were capped at 300 participants.

Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman said the restricted sessions did not violate Iowa’s Open Meetings law, which, he said, requires a majority of committee members to be present and that they deliberate or take action.

“These sessions do not include deliberation or action among the committee members,” he said. “Committee members simply listen to the sessions.”

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The sessions weren’t recorded because they were not “official meetings of the search committee,” Lehman said. ”A HawkID is required to ensure only members of the campus community are able to participate.”

‘spirit of law’

Even if the restricted sessions are not in technical violation of the Iowa law, the format “certainly does not live up to the spirit of Iowa’s public meetings laws,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

“Nothing in the law prevents the search committee from having these sessions open and accessible to everyone,” he said. “It is disappointing that people who do not have a HawkID are prevented from listening to these sessions.

“The new president will serve a much broader group than people who carry UI IDs,” Evans said. “Taxpayers of Iowa, parents of UI students, graduates of the UI, and people who rely on the University of Iowa hospitals all have an interest in the selection process.

“They should not be prevented from watching these listening sessions because of a format that certainly is anti-transparent.”

Past promises

The 2015 presidential search, Evans noted, led to a sanction from the American Association of University Professors and lawsuits, including one accusing the UI search committee of holding inaccessible off-site interviews with semifinalists; closing meetings in violation of proper procedures; inappropriately shuttering some discussions; and making decisions in secret that should have been made in the open.

The UI in that case denied wrongdoing but agreed to pay its accuser $55,000 in attorney fees via a settlement that required, among other things, future UI search committees to post meeting notices and agendas; livestream all open portions of meetings; and retain recordings online for 90 days.

“It appears that members of the Board of Regents and members of this search committee learned nothing from that embarrassing experience,” Evans said.

The Board of Regents on Tuesday did not immediately provide numbers to The Gazette of participants in the 10 listening sessions, which wrapped with a student session at noon.

What’s next?

The UI presidential search committee’s next virtual meeting will be at 9 a.m. Dec. 30. An agenda for that discussion, which will be live streamed and open to the public, includes discussion of presidential attributes and the position description.

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

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