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Same sinister plot in UI search sequel


The Gazette

January 6, 2007

[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.]

When a search for a new University of Iowa president crashed and burned last year, there was a glimmer of hope that the new search rising from the ashes would steer clear of the prats and pitfalls that undermined the process.

  It was nothing more than a glimmer because, although a new search committee was being seated, the state Board of Regents was still being steered by a president who prefers to keep the public on a need-to-know only basis.

  Well, so much for hope. The fatal flaw ó the Regents President Michael Gartnerís penchant to conduct the publicís business in private ó is very much a part of the new search, based upon regent e-mail messages obtained by The Gazette earlier this week.

  The board is continuing to essentially meet in secret to discuss the search versus affording the public an open discussion and full explanation of the process. In e-mail messages in mid-December, Gartner steered the nine-member board to make several important decisions about the new search: it would be lead by a UI dean, likely David Johnson of the College of Dentistry; on-campus interviews for the presidential finalists would not be required; and the search should not be limited to candidates with academic careers.

  A consensus on all these issues was reached by the regents via e-mail discussions led by Gartner, who rationalizes his actions as simply trying to find common ground before the board would hold a public meeting.

  Legal minds are suggesting the board has done nothing illegal by using e-mail messages to discuss and decide important aspects of the new search. But the action certainly violates the spirit of Iowaís open meetings law, an ongoing irony given Gartnerís lifetime in the journalism business and former passion for openness in government. The secrecy also seems to set the stage for yet another rocky search for the successor to David Skorton, who announced his resignation almost a year ago.

  The new search faces a shaky future if the regents continue on this course of secrecy, which not only breeds mistrust of the board in particular, but casts a shadow on the reputations of the UI and the state.

  His last-minute salvage attempt notwithstanding, Gov. Tom Vilsack basically sat by and watched the search crash last year despite repeated concern raised early and often about a dysfunctional regents board rife with personality conflicts and personal agendas. Gov.-elect Chet Culver seems to be ignoring the clarion call, too, to address the source of the problem, although Iowans can hold out hope that Culver will act more decisively once he assumes the authority of the governorís office next week.

  The e-mail messages are the smoking gun of a board that needs new leadership. Without such, the UI may get a new president, but Iowans will be left wondering whose interests were served.