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UI chief search hits major stall

Diane Heldt

The Gazette

December 8, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

  IOWA CITY — Nearly 11 months after David Skorton announced he was leaving the University of Iowa presidency, state regents said Thursday they don’t know when they will again discuss finding his successor.

  The Board of Regents announced it would restart the fractured UI presidential search after one candidate it contacted no longer was interested in the job.

  UI faculty, staff and student leaders, already upset with how this search has progressed, plan to call for votes of no confidence in the regents’ leadership next week. Regent Teresa Wahlert of Waukee said it could be after the holidays before the regents regroup to talk about a new search. And Regents President Michael Gartner of Des Moines said it’s unlikely the matter will be raised when the board meets Monday in Iowa City.

  Gartner said only he and regents Bob Downer of Iowa City and Mary Ellen Becker of Oskaloosa are expected to be in Iowa City for the meeting, with the others participating by phone. ‘‘I doubt that that’s the appropriate time to raise it,’’ Gartner said. ‘‘We’ll need to regroup and discuss it and move ahead, but it will be with all deliberate speed.’’

  A second search should move much more quickly than the now-aborted one, Gartner said. Items such as the job description and marketing are in place, and Gartner presumes the board will rely on the search firm Heidrick & Struggles again. The UI already has paid the firm $195,000, but that doesn’t include all search costs to date. Downer stressed how important resuming the search quickly is to repairing the regents’ poor relationship with UI faculty, staff and students. ‘‘It’s my feeling that we need to move expeditiously on this — if not Monday, at least very soon,’’ he said. ‘‘This is, I fear, going to end much worse if we’re unable to do that.’’

  But Wahlert, who led the first search, said she doesn’t want to rush a new one.

  ‘‘I don’t think there’s any rush to hurry up and define a new process so the bows and arrows can have their way with it,’’ she said. ‘‘What’s important is to have thoughtful time to put together a process we think will work. I think we’ll have input from a lot of people.’’

  The regents announcement Thursday said the board agreed to contact again one candidate and make a personal visit after a thorough discussion Monday of the qualifications of four candidates the board rejected Nov. 17 in a 6-2 vote.

  UI Provost Mike Hogan was among the four finalists. He did not return a message Thursday.

  Gov. Tom Vilsack, who stepped into the controversy two weeks ago in an attempt to craft a resolution, said in a statement Thursday that an offer, contingent on a campus interview, was extended to the candidate. Vilsack spokesman Matt Paul said the governor had a ‘‘candid and cordial’’ phone conversation with the candidate Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to sway him for the UI job. The candidate, whose name has not been revealed publicly, told Vilsack that personal and family reasons led him to withdraw, though there was an acknowledgment that from ‘‘time to time there is turbulence between a governing board and a campus community,’’ Paul said.

  UI faculty and staff leaders questioned whether a successful search can be conducted under the current regents leadership. The process has been contentious from the beginning, with many campus leaders upset about the strong role regents played in the secretive process.

  ‘‘I believe this entire fiasco needs to be put at the foot of Michael Gartner and Teresa Wahlert,’’ UI Faculty Senate President Sheldon Kurtz said. He will put a no-confidence vote in regents leadership to the senate on Tuesday.

  UI Staff Council President Mary Greer said she will pursue a no-confidence vote when her council meets Wednesday. ‘‘What a difficult situation Iowa looks like to these candidates now,’’ she said. ‘‘This whole fiasco isn’t our best professional foot forward.’’

  UI Student Government President Peter McElligott said his group may pursue a no-confidence vote next week. ‘‘Obviously this was a fear all along . . . a question of would we even be able to get these candidates interested after the way they were treated,’’ he said.

  Gartner said the candidate approached this week was OK with a campus interview. He added that he isn’t worried about finding good candidates in a second search.

 Committee pushed for time

  All 14 search committee members who are not regents sent Wahlert an e-mail on Nov. 4, expressing concern about the way finalists would be identified after off-campus interviews with candidates, The Gazette has learned.

  The e-mail said ‘‘a majority of the search committee feels disenfranchised by the lack of participation in the development of the procedures and plans dictated to us on Friday November 3, by (Regents Executive Director) Gary Steinke on your behalf.’’

  The letter said the search committee and a campus advisory committee must remain active until the new president is appointed, and reiterated support for campus interviews with finalists.

  But Downer told the committee’s co-chairs Nov. 7 the regents would not agree to on-campus interviews before interviewing candidates in Des Moines on Nov. 10 and 11.