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Regents' preferred candidate rejects offer

Presidential search scrapped again

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 8, 2006

Audio: The Presidential Search

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The search for a University of Iowa president has been scrapped, again, after the preferred candidate rejected an offer contingent on a public on-campus interview.

The Iowa state Board of Regents announced Thursday that the board settled on a preferred candidate Monday after re-evaluating the previously rejected four finalists. The regents agreed to contact the finalist and schedule a visit, but the candidate declined further consideration.

"In 40 years, we have never had such a disaster," said Katherine Tachau, UI history professor and member of the presidential search committee.

Of the four finalists, three were sitting provosts at major institutions, and the fourth was a president at a mid-sized college. UI Provost Michael Hogan was among the finalists and remained interested despite the controversy. He did not return messages Thursday.

Regent executive director Gary Steinke visited the preferred candidate Tuesday. Steinke did not return phone or e-mail messages Wednesday.

Gov. Tom Vilsack, who stepped in to mediate a rift between regent leaders and campus groups Nov. 27 in Cedar Rapids, spoke with the preferred candidate for 15 to 20 minutes Wednesday afternoon.

"Based on a family and personal and career decision, that candidate decided to withdraw from the selection process," Vilsack's spokesperson Matt Paul said Thursday. "It is my understanding that decision was not based on the issues surrounding the search."

Vilsack is disappointed that the candidate declined, but he is pleased that the three items he requested at the Nov. 27 meeting occurred, Paul said. That is, they reconsidered the finalists, requested on-campus interviews and the faculty, staff and students withdrew planned no-confidence votes in the regents' leadership.

Campus groups re-initiated plans for no-confidence votes Thursday.

This chapter signals the end of a seven-month, $195,000 saga filled with controversy and secrecy. The search has been in flux and campus groups in an uproar because the regents voted 6-2 on Nov. 17 to reject four finalists and dissolve the search committee that recommended them.

It is unclear when or how the search to replace David Skorton, who was named president of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., on July 1, will resume.

A new search process will be developed as soon as possible, according to a regents' press release, with "consultation with all UI stakeholders, donors, faculty and staff, deans, administrators and Iowa City area community leaders."

Regents react

Regent president Michael Gartner said in a brief e-mail Thursday the next search would go more quickly, the search committee would "probably" include a new cast and that he didn't anticipate difficulties in recruiting top-tier candidates due to the much publicized failed search.

Gartner also has no plans of heeding calls for his resignation. He said, "of course not," as to whether the board leadership needed to change in order to attract a president.

Regent Amir Arbisser of Davenport served on the disbanded search committee. Arbisser said he expects a different look when the search resumes and added he was not sure if Atlanta-based search firm Heidrick & Struggles will be retained.

"Clearly the process we just went through was not optimal," Arbisser said. "My impression is that regents won't lead the search. That is not to say they won't be on the search committee."

Arbisser drew campus ire for rejecting the candidates with his Nov. 17 regent vote. He said he understands the frustration.

"The campus needs to express themselves. Clearly this has been an unfortunate outcome for all of us. ... (Regents) are equally passionate. It is unpleasant and not desirable," Arbisser said. "The bottom line is we had a process that didn't succeed, and we contributed."

Regent president pro-tem Teresa Wahlert served as the presidential search committee chairwoman and was to be the spokeswoman. Wahlert did not return messages Thursday and rarely has commented on the search.

"I am very disappointed. I felt we did have four excellent individuals that were forwarded by search committee. I felt that any one of the four had excellent potential to be president of UI," Regent Bob Downer of Iowa City said. "I would prefer to focus on the future and not the past. We need to get all constituencies involved and craft a process for going forward."

The presidential search is not on the agenda for Monday's regents meeting in Iowa City, but it still could be added. Several regents are not expected to attend, but will participate by telephone.

Campus groups respond

Campus groups have been upset with the search from the beginning when regents veered from the traditional model of a campus- led search.

"We had four very strong candidates. I was hoping we would have a president announced," said Steve McGuire, a UI professor of art education and member of the search committee. "We believe the other three candidates were just as strong as the candidate they spoke with.

"This does significant harm to this university. This will be the grounds for putting forward the no-confidence vote on Tuesday. It couldn't be clearer; a university doesn't move forward by being in a place of uncertainty."

Faculty Senate President Sheldon Kurtz plans Tuesday to introduce the no-confidence vote he had postponed.

"Unless we change the leadership of Board of Regents, we will not be able to recruit a president," Kurtz said.

UI Staff Council President Mary Greer was not impressed with the effort to reconsider the finalists or to attract the preferred candidate.

"It is not the best professional foot forward in any way, shape or form. Number one, Steinke is not a voting member of the Board of Regents, he is a staff member," Greer said.

Greer also questioned why the candidate backed out.

"I don't think these candidates would feel comfortable saying it was because of the process (to Vilsack)," Greer said. "They don't suddenly say, "Oh, hum, it is not such a great fit.' I think it is very clear to me the events from Nov. 17 have clearly had an impact."

Staff Council plans to continue with its no-confidence vote, which it had planned to postpone at Vilsack's request. Greer said she expects to hear today from Vilsack.

Steve Collins, a UI electrical and computer engineering professor, said UI still could land a top candidate because UI is a top institution with no structural problems and the leadership issues with the regents are solvable.

Collins, who led the search to replace Hunter Rawlings, said Hogan was "extraordinarily capable" and would have impressed the UI community with his vision for the university if regents proceeded with on-campus interviews.

"I can understand if he and others are looking at other opportunities. This is not a great opportunity here at the moment. (Hogan) will be a president in the not-too-distant future at a good university," Collins said.

UI Interim President Gary Fethke said he was surprised by the news Thursday and that the next search should be "representative of the UI community, accountable and feature a transparent process."

"All of us should think hard about the image of this great university," Fethke said. "We need to focus on what we do best and to work to develop a search process for moving us forward."

Fethke called the looming no-confidence vote a "mistake."

"There is nothing to gain from no-confidence votes, because by voting no-confidence, they will close off communication with a sitting governing board," he said.

Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn served on the search committee and was disappointed it didn't result in an appointment.

"I was a guest to their process and I tried to participate with guidelines they put forward. I participated with the understanding there was going to be a president," Wilburn said.

"It will be up to (Governor-elect Chet) Culver to see that the process continues and we get someone hired, so the disruption at the university can go away, and the university community can get back to work."

Audio: The presidential search
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The four audio clips:

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 8, 2006

Below are audio clips from phone interviews done in the wake of the Board of Regents announcement that the University of Iowa presidential search is once again at square one.