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Whatever is next in U of I search, start with openness ...


Des Moines Register

December 1, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

It's not entirely clear what the next step will be in the search for a new University of Iowa president.

Logically, though, there appear to be few alternatives other than revisiting the original pool of finalists, or, at some point, starting the search anew.

Either path could lead to an acceptable selection - provided the process is fully open to the public.

The Board of Regents touched off an uproar Nov. 17 when it voted 6-2 to throw out the names of four finalists and scrap a 10-month search.

Because the search process was shrouded in secrecy, much remains uncertain about why it derailed. But one thing is clear: Secrecy hasn't worked for anyone.

The U of I hasn't gotten a new president.

The faculty, staff and students are upset. They were prepared to take votes of no-confidence in the regents before Gov. Tom Vilsack intervened (unfortunately, in another closed meeting).

The public is questioning the integrity and mission of the regents, wondering whether they have a hidden agenda.

Vilsack took on the role of mediator in a three-hour meeting in Cedar Rapids Monday night with Interim U of I President Gary Fethke and key players involved in the search. He's indicated he would prefer the regents select a president from among the four finalists recommended by an 18-member search committee.

The Board of Regents can take a big step toward salvaging its reputation and doing what's best for Iowa by taking the route of openness.

If the board revisits the original finalists, it should invite them for open interviews on campus. If it starts over, the search process should be open from beginning to end.

The most visible public board in the state should hire the head of a public university in full public view. Anything less is unacceptable.

... Otherwise, public is left to speculate the worst

When the public isn't told what's going on, it comes up with its own theories.

That seems to be exactly what's happening with the U of I president's search. It's an object lesson in why the process should be open.

When the Board of Regents rejected the four finalists for the U of I presidency, regents President Michael Gartner said in a written statement that "the regents needed candidates who had more experience as leaders who oversaw complex health-sciences operations ..."

That has apparently prompted U of I faculty to voice long-simmering concerns about various regents' ties to the health-care industry and the roles of the regents and president in supervising University Hospitals.

Those concerns shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

The search committee was headed by regent Teresa Wahlert, a former Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield board member. Former regents President John Forsyth is Wellmark's chairman and chief executive officer, and his dual roles troubled many faculty. Last year, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller concurred, ruling that his representation of both entities was a conflict of interests.

Regent Robert Downer suggested in a recent Register essay that it was the regents' actions following a contract dispute with Wellmark that spurred former U of I President David Skorton to leave.

The contract involves big money. The year Forsyth resigned, Wellmark was the largest private contractor to the U of I hospital system, paying $140 million to the hospital during fiscal year 2004. The insurance company also provides health-insurance packages to the universities.

The relationship between the regents and Wellmark might be entirely proper. But it deserves ongoing scrutiny, which can't happen amid secrecy.

Did the relationship have any bearing on who will be selected as president?

The public doesn't know. That, again, is the point. Speculation ensues when the public is shut out of something as important as selecting a university president.

And if the regents would happen to end up choosing someone with ties to the insurance industry, regardless of the candidate's qualifications, that speculation will look like a fact.