Guest Columnist

A privatization smoke screen at the University of Iowa

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)
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)

On the face of it, the “public-private partnerships” advocated by University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld may seem innocuous. But the phrase is a smoke screen for a broad attack on the fundamental character of public higher education. It also provides cover for the abject failure of Harreld and the state Board of Regents to effectively advocate for increased state support from their conservative colleagues in the Legislature for Iowa’s flagship higher education institutions.

The trend is clearly signaled in the university’s plan to privatize its power plant. It is evident in subtle and not so subtle invasions of the university’s public spaces — such as the plaza outside the Main Library — very recently by corporations like Nintendo or clothing distributors seeking to hawk their wares and ensure student consumers. In his recent speech to the Iowa City Rotary Club Harreld hinted at more to come. “There could be more such partnerships between the UI and private companies ... we’re looking at doing something similar to this in a number of areas.”

And further, he said, “this is really all about unlocking the value that’s on our campus.” And where might that “value” be? Perhaps in replacing the university’s food service by fast food chains, as has happened on some other campuses. Or outsourcing facilities maintenance? Or the university library system? Perhaps management of residence halls? Or subcontracting for teaching and other student services? Open the gates to privatization and who knows where it ends.

Public higher education is a public good in which taxpayers and families across the state have invested over decades, even centuries. It represents a commitment to provide an educational environment in which the values of free and humane inquiry, support for intellectual and artistic creativity, collective betterment, and a respite from the acquisitive priorities and greed that infect the marketplace. Past presidents of the university have understood and upheld those values. They have made a persuasive case for sustaining that tradition to Iowans and their elected representatives.

Faculty, staff and students who are new to campus or members of the general public may not realize that such a program of privatization fits precisely the Regents’ choice of Harreld as president in a 2015 search that violated the norms of transparency and fairness.

He was plucked out of the business world, with virtually no experience in higher education, in a secretive search that overrode the wishes of 90 percent of the faculty and large numbers of students, a search that disregarded a stellar group of eminently qualified finalists for the position. We are now reaping what the Regents and its chair, Bruce Rastetter, sowed.

It is time for the academic community and the public to reassert the traditional, core values of the university’s educational mission as a public entity and demand a better, more assertive advocacy of those values with elected public officials. Let’s end the charade that privatization is the only way to help students or increase the graduation rate. Let’s stop the talk of “public-private partnerships” that would fundamentally transform the nature of this university.

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And let’s all seek to revitalize the state’s traditional support for public higher education and the core values that sustain it.

Shelton Stromquist is a professor of history emeritus at the University of Iowa.

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