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UI and regents should talk out in the open


Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 29, 2006

[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 leaders of the University of Iowa faculty, staff and student senates -- Shelly Kurtz, Mary Greer and Pete McElligott -- have their personal credibility riding on clear, positive results emerging from their three-hour, closed-door meeting Monday with Gov. Tom Vilsack, Interim UI President Gary Fethke, two members of the Iowa state Board of Regents, a state legislator and a distinguished alum. Not many details have emerged about what was said in the meeting, but the participants from the UI community said afterward that they felt that their concerns were finally being heard.

A host of controversial decisions by Regent President Michael Gartner and President Pro Tem Teresa Wahlert have been straining the board's relationship with the UI community. But the regents' recent 6-2 vote to dissolve the search committee for a new UI president and to reject the four candidates endorsed by the committee fractured that relationship seemingly beyond repair. As Regent Bob Downer, who voted in the minority, wrote in his guest opinion Tuesday, "The decisions of the Board of Regents enumerated above do little to instill confidence in us by members of the public. We must do better and be more transparent in our decision making which takes place between, as well as at, board meetings."

We can't understand, however, why the governor, regents and UI leaders thought that a closed-door meeting was the best solution for fixing the problems of a failed presidential search process that has been mired in secrecy and distrust. As a newspaper, we can't advocate strongly enough that such government meetings need to be open and available to public scrutiny. We have to be skeptical of university leaders who complain about being left out of the regents' decision-making process and then, after a closed-door meeting, offer little more than a collective "trust me" to their constituents.

Many in the UI community said Tuesday that they were willing to grant a little trust to Kurtz, Greer and McElligott. They agreed to call off the "no-confidence" votes against the regents that were planned for Tuesday. But even the trio's staunchest supporters said that their trust was limited and that positive results would have to come quickly -- some adding that their trust will only be worthwhile the leaders eventually make public the details of Monday's meeting.

We urge Kurtz, Greer and McElligott not to waste the confidence of their constituents with any more closed-door meetings. If they do, they may find the charges of "Gartnerism" shifting quickly to them.

We likewise call on Vilsack to prove his presidential qualities by following through on this issue before turning his attention to the national stage. Earlier this year, Vilsack managed to bring together leaders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the leaders of organized labor -- two Democratic groups often at odds with each other. Washington Post columnist David S. Broder called the event "the strongest proof of (Vilsack's) ability to be a successful power broker."

We need the governor to exercise further his power broker muscles to restore trust between the UI community and the regents and to ensure that the UI community thinks its next president is the best person for the job. And he should have the sense enough to know that this should be done in full public view.