On the Suborning of Free Speech and Shared Governance at the University of Iowa

By Stephen Kuusisto


When Iowa’s Board of Regents selected J. Bruce Herreld, a businessman with no prior experience in education, as the new president of the University of Iowa they affirmed three principles: the university is now strictly a business, the faculty and students are to be put in their respective places, and those places are likely, from now on, designed to be narrow indeed.  One way to recognize straitening in higher education is that it is always the result of a top down postural model–decisions are made by officials without regard to shared governance or academic culture. As a former professor at Iowa, and a graduate of its esteemed Writer’s Workshop, I view with alarm the Regents’ decision to shoehorn a third tier candidate into a job for which he is not qualified.

In an article for the Iowa City Press Citizen, published on the eve of the Regents decision, reporter Jeff Charis-Carlson reported the following:

“In a survey conducted by the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, only 1.8 percent of faculty and 2.6 percent of other respondents answered “yes” to the question of whether Harreld was qualified for the position. The other candidates — Oberlin President Marvin KrislovTulane University Provost Michael Bernstein and Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz — all had more than 90 percent of respondents view them as qualified, with Steinmetz being the highest.

Harreld — who also has been an executive with Kraft Foods and the restaurant chain Boston Chicken — earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he taught as a senior lecturer from 2008 to 2014. During his public forum Tuesday, he said that, although he had no experience in university administration, he does have experience helping organizations go for “good to great” and from “great to great.””

One is fairly reminded of George Orwell’s assertion: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ”

If Herreld’s rivals were all third string candidates, one might, conceivably have opened a file entitled “credulity” and, as it always is with fairy tales, find only his name. J. Bruce Herreld, chicken king and self-employed business consultant. But he is self-employed no longer. Look how he has leapfrogged over three top tier finalists  like a plastic army man lifted above the rug by a moist childish hand.

This appointment is strictly ideological. The Iowa Board of Regents has been engaged in a decade long war with the University of Iowa, had denied it funding, has proudly given support to other state institutions while lecturing the UI about everything from its admissions policies (they admit out of state and foreign students) to its tiresome faculty (whose sabbaticals have now been largely eliminated).

Now I should here admit that my father was a college president. He was a rather good one. I know what he would say in this instance. He’d say Herreld shouldn’t take the assignment. But apparently he has, and that mere fact suggests he’s comfortable with his Regents, and satisfied that a top tier state university is due for a full conversion to the principles of corporate management. Free speech isn’t principally respected in that model, as recent events at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana have conclusively demonstrated. Free speech is the first vicim of all vertical management models.

12 thoughts on “On the Suborning of Free Speech and Shared Governance at the University of Iowa

  1. I can relate to your misgivings concerning Bruce Herreld. I encountered similar angst when another Bruce- Bruce Benson, was appointed president of the University of Colorado system. Although he was awarded an honorary doctorate just prior to his appointment, Benson’s academic education consisted of a bachelors degree in engineering. He was enormously successful as a businessman in oil and minerals.

    I worked at CU as a research faculty when Benson came on board. I thought his tenure at the helm would be disastrous. For decades he argued for the abolition of tenure, among other conservative academic reforms. About a year or so into his gig, he announced he was wrong about tenure- that without it the academic business model would fail. Since then, CU has eclipsed all previous funding records (grants + endowments) for the past six consecutive years.

    Benson has, predictably, appointed many conservatives to top administrative posts throughout the CU system. But his success as a fund raiser is unparalleled. He has also eliminated scads of wasteful spending. He has survived a decade in office.

    I guess what I am suggesting here is that all may not be doom & gloom. I understand your argument that more highly qualified applicants were passed over for the position, and that Herreld is undeserving of the post. Alternatively, I think we do need to think outside of the box from time to time. And like it or not, higher education is not only business nowadays, it’s awfully darned big big business. I personally disagree with that kind of model for education, but it is what it is, at least for the time being. I think increasingly we are seeing outsiders to academia like Herreld and Benson become academic leaders, simply because money talks.

    I was once very much opposed to Benson’s appointment, and while I no longer work at CU, I remain in Colorado and keep up with news & developments there. The flip side of the argument you have made is that the appointment of life-long academic policy wonks to leadership positions is counter-productive when it comes to implementation of real, concrete reforms. An insider is an insider, and even if the bias is subtle and unconscious, such a person will maintain the status quo over all else. Inbreeding, as it were, ultimately leads us to extinction. I am not saying I agree with the flip-side, but, such an argument is likely equally valid.

    I also used to be a vociferous advocate of what we call “academic freedom” and I though the arguments made by the right concerning the lack of such freedoms on our campuses was a joke. But, I have completely changed that view and now understand universities can be among the most restrictive of free speech rights. Greg Lukianoff of FIRE has done an excellent job of highlighting these issues, demonstrating just how myopic, if not delusional, academia can be when it comes to its assertions that they are pillars of freedom, liberty and democracy.

    I’m not saying Herreld will turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread, but I also am not saying he will be a failure. What I am suggesting is that everyone reserve their judgement, and give him a chance to succeed. If he doesn’t, then chances are your regents will intervene and prevent your university system from demise.

    • I agree: higher education is oftentimes no better at supporting freedom of expression or for that matter, freedom of research, than the business community or corporate culture. That being said, it seems to me that we shouldn’t stop demanding it. The demand is a moral one when you consider the role of Germany’s universities in the promotion of Fascist ideology and Fascist science. Universities are not de facto any better than the society they reflect. Still, one hopes for clarity of purpose, transparency, shared governance, and a collective willingness to hire the best and the most able professors and administrators. I don’t believe Mr. Harreld fits the definition of a first rate candidate.

      • If Harreld is as pathetic as everyone seems to indicate, at least in terms of a university president, then perhaps a Chinese wall would be the appropriate response. The state’s legislature of your neighbor, Minnesota, did exactly this when the professional all-star wrestler Jesse Ventura became governor. Democrats & Republicans joined together and simply shut him out of the political process, refusing to work with Jesse. Four years later, he was an after thought.

        If you can convince your faculty senate, faculty in general, academic & classified staff, and students to simply turn their backs on this guy, I would bet his resignation would come sooner than later. Presidents cannot function in glass bubbles- and you could put him in one. But it has to be a unified effort.

        As far as I know, once a university president loses (or, never acquires) the support of his/ her people, they are shown the exit in fairly short order. I think that might be your best and most effective response to this situation.

    • There are differences between an unconventional choice for a university president and a wholly misguided choice. Unless Harreld is leaving many achievements off his resume, there are massive differences between him and Benson. A president is a fund-raiser, above all. Unlike Harreld, who has no ties in the state of Iowa, Benson had long-standing involvement in educational, philanthropic, and civic affairs in Colorado before becoming president. He was among the most well-connected persons in business, educational and civic life in Colorado even before he became president (leaving out the political ties which led to skepticism among his critics). He also was solidly informed about higher education, having served, according to his bio, on a number of educational governing boards and state-wide educational initiatives under three Colorado governors. He was steeped in detailed and decades-long knowledge of how higher education works in Colorado. And his areas of immediate professional expertise (oil and gas) have their counterpart at the U. of Colorado. By contrast, Harreld is a man without a state (having just moved to Colorado and having no ties to civic, philanthropic, and community life listed on his resume from Cambridge/Boston). He apparently has had no civic or philanthropic involvement anywhere. And, judging from the trainwreck that was his forum speech at the U. of Iowa, what he knows about higher education has all the depth of a Time magazine or WSJ article. It is not even clear if he perceives and can distinguish between the different missions of a liberal arts college, comprehensive university, and research university. As for Harreld’s business expertise–it looks to have been on ice for almost a decade as he told war stories of his life in the business world as an adjunct at Harvard and, it seems, unsuccessfully sought a follow-up to his IBM gig. As he explained at his talk, his consulting firm is currently defunct (having closed down when he left Massachusetts) and he mistakenly listed it as active on his resume. Having put four kids through elite liberal arts colleges/advanced degrees, his retirement portfolio is probably not what it should be. He needs a job. Someone on the search committee knew him, threw in the bait, and the Iowa Board of Regents chomped on it. Individuals like Benson are rare; the fact remains that Steinmetz’s CV (other finalist) is the CV of an individual who is most likely to be successful at leading a research university; since the post WWII era (the era during which the American research university took shape), a resume like Harreld’s has NEVER been the resume of a president of an R-1, not EVER. The saddest part of this sad story is this: until the Board of Regents membership changes, no qualified candidate will apply to be president. When Harreld goes down in flames, we can only hope that internal leaders have not all abandoned the ship for other universities, and one of them can be persuaded to take the helm. But the damage to Iowa may take decades to undo.

  2. Suborn Free Speech and Shared Governance???

    Spell Syllables
    Examples Word Origin
    verb (used with object)
    to bribe or induce (someone) unlawfully or secretly to perform some misdeed or to commit a crime.
    to induce (a person, especially a witness) to give false testimony.
    to obtain (false testimony) from a witness.

    How about “subvert”?

    • I did mean “suborn” as the search was apparently a fix. How else can you appoint a chicken slinger president of a venerable university over three superb candidates?

      • How are free speech and shared governance being “suborned” by his appointment, as the headline says?

        BTW, I am speaking at Iowa next Thursday, and will be very curious to hear faculty views.

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