Iowa, California, and Presidential Searches

On Thursday, the Iowa Board of Regents unanimously appointed former IBM senior vice president J. Bruce Harreld as the University of Iowa’s next president.  Harreld’s experience in higher education is limited to a few years as an adjunct business teacher, but the regents apparently selected him over three distinguished academic leaders for his alleged expertise in “organizational turnarounds.”

The appointment has drawn widespread and it would seem much-deserved condemnation from Iowa faculty members and others.  On this blog, Stephen Kuusisto has argued eloquently that the appointment bodes ill for both shared governance and academic freedom.  In a survey of 164 Iowa faculty and 122 students and others, conducted by the Iowa AAUP chapter, 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 all had more than 90 percent of respondents view them as qualified.

“Faculty, staff, students, alumni and other community members were all of one mind that this man was not competent to run any university,” Katherine Tachau, a history professor and president of Iowa’s AAUP chapter told Inside Higher Ed.

“[Regents] may think that a CEO can run a university without any support on the ground and they are mistaken,” she continued, adding later, “There’s no scenario in which he can be successful in the eyes of the campus community. Maybe he’ll be successful in the eyes of regents, those regents who want to destroy the university.”

To be sure, there is nothing unprecedented or inherently improper about the appointment of a prominent non-academic to a college or university presidency.  Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, became president of Columbia University straight from his successful leadership of the war against Hitler, with little discernible harm to the institution, and went on to a more prominent presidency soon after.  (In a famous tale, Eisenhower was said to have told a convocation honoring Nobel Prize-winning physicist I.I. Rabi that he was always happy to see “one of Columbia’s employees honored.” The remark, it is recorded, drew from Rabi this response: “Mr. President, the faculty are not employees of the University-they are the University.”)  More recently, one comment on Kuusisto’s post argues that the appointment of businessman Bruce Benson to lead the University of Colorado has been more salutary than many, including the commenter, had expected.

After all, the contemporary college or university president is more often a fund-raiser and an overseer of administration than a genuine scholar, although fund-raising and administrative skills hardly stand in contradiction to successful teaching or scholarship.  Moreover,  there is no guarantee that those with impeccable academic credentials will be any more friendly to faculty concerns than an outsider might be.  (See, for example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)  At the University of California the appointment of Janet Napolitano as president raised faculty concerns, but in important respects her tenure has seen modest improvement in faculty relations compared to that of her predecessor, Mark Yudof, a prominent and distinguished legal scholar and expert on the First Amendment and academic freedom.

But what is at issue in the Iowa app0intment is not the qualifications, or lack thereof, of Mr. Harreld.  It is, first and foremost, the flawed and troubling process by which he was selected.  The search for a new president is one of the most significant instances of shared governance in the life of a college or university.  The 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, formulated jointly by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (the 50th anniversary of which we will celebrate next year) states:

Joint effort of a most critical kind must be taken when an institution chooses a new president. The selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested. The president should be equally qualified to serve both as the executive officer of the governing board and as the chief academic officer of the institution and the faculty. The president’s dual role requires an ability to interpret to board and faculty the educational views and concepts of institutional government of the other. The president should have the confidence of the board and the faculty.

AAUP’s 1981 Faculty Participation in the Selection, Evaluation,and Retention of Administrators articulates the importance of faculty participation:

The Statement on Government emphasizes the primary role of faculty and board in the search for a president. The search may be initiated either by separate committees of the faculty and board or by a joint committee of the faculty and board or of faculty, board, students, and others; and separate committees may subsequently be joined. In a joint committee, the numbers from each constituency should reflect both the primacy of faculty concern and range of other groups, including students, that have legitimate claim to some involvement. Each group should select its own members to serve on the committee, and the rules governing the search should be arrived at jointly. A joint committee should determine the size of the majority which will be controlling in making the appointment. When separate committees are used, the board, with which the legal authority rests, should either select a name from among those submitted by the faculty committee or should agree that no person will be chosen over the objections of the faculty committee.

Clearly the Iowa decision, and the process that led to it, not only ignored these principles but openly flouted them, with the apparent intent of putting the faculty in its place.  This is most unfortunate, for as the 1966 Statement put it: “a college or university in which all the components are aware of their interdependence, of the usefulness of communication among themselves, and of the force of joint action will enjoy increased capacity to solve educational problems.”  And as the AAUP’s report on the 1971 Angela Davis case at UCLA concluded, “academic freedom cannot flourish when governing boards and faculties confront each other as if they were adversaries.”

The Harreld selection seems especially troubling given the apparent quality of the rejected candidates — provosts at Ohio State and Tulane and the president of Oberlin College.  But it must also be recognized that the ability to make such comparisons is increasingly rare.  Iowa is one of a few states that still require public disclosure of finalists, and the search included campus visits by all four candidates.  Increasingly, however, such visits are rare and with growing frequency all that a college or university community may learn about a presidential search will be the name of the winning candidate.

Ironically, even as the Iowa regents were announcing their choice, California State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy White was addressing a meeting of the CSU system Academic Senate.  (In the CSU the system leader is called chancellor, while campus executives are presidents.)  He was asked about the CSU’s recent abandonment of a long-time presidential search policy of inviting multiple finalists to visit a campus and meet with faculty, staff, and students, in favor of a secret (White prefers the term “confidential”) process whereby only a single successful candidate is announced after private interviews with the trustees.

According to White, the new policy is necessary because, he reportedly alleged, 80% of potential candidates would decline to apply for the position were public meetings and interviews required.  Of course, White offered no evidence for such a figure, which seems pulled from thin air to justify a preference for secrecy based on other factors.  For if nothing else the willingness of the three unsuccessful candidates for the Iowa position — whose qualifications far exceed those of several sitting CSU presidents — would seem to indicate no lack of capable individuals willing to submit to public scrutiny.  But, more important, one must ask whether any individual unwilling to undergo public evaluation should even be considered to lead a public institution, where transparency should be standard.

In a sense, then, Iowans were fortunate that they were able to compare the qualifications of multiple candidates, even if it would appear they were most unfortunate in the final selection.  But the Harreld appointment and the increasing secrecy of presidential selection procedures in California and elsewhere stem from a common source: the ill-considered view of too many trustees, politicians, and educational managers (yes, they are managers and not simply administrators) that in the end colleges and universities are no different from business enterprises and that the criteria for educational leadership are no different from those for a corporate CEO.  Business leadership in general is highly overrated these days, and too often those executives recruited to higher education are in actuality the least and not the most successful.  But even the most effective business leaders can only rarely claim to be educators.  And it is educators, often visionary and iconoclastic educators to be sure, that we need to steer our institutions of higher education in the 21st century.

5 thoughts on “Iowa, California, and Presidential Searches

  1. Pingback: The Faculty: “Speed Bumps to Progress”? | The Academe Blog

  2. I think it’s likely the “final” decision was made well before anyone got on campus. Which makes it all the more insulting to the three qualified candidates, the faculty and the university community as whole.

  3. Pingback: Opposition to Secret Presidential Searches Spreads | The Academe Blog

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