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'Voice' of critics at U of I fuels feud with regents

Sheldon Kurtz is a respected law teacher, but opinions of his role in campus politics vary.

Erin Jordan

Des Moines Register

January 2, 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.]

Iowa City, Ia. - The bottle of Maalox on Sheldon Kurtz's desk says it all.

The colorful, outspoken University of Iowa law professor has found himself at the center of a controversy between some at the U of I and the Iowa Board of Regents. The rift over the U of I's failed presidential search has spread to questions of governance of the state's largest public university.

"This has been kind of a tough year," Kurtz, 63, said with a half-smile. "The faculty has a perspective that needs to be voiced, and it fell to me to be the voice."

Kurtz, a New York native who has been at the U of I since 1973, is a distinguished scholar who has written law-school textbooks on property law. He's a popular teacher, colleagues say, who often takes the opposite side of any issue just to get his students to prove their points.

But Kurtz's critics say his frequent complaints about the regents have further detached the U of I campus from the state it serves.

"I don't know of a soul in the University of Iowa who has a stronger personality than Shelly Kurtz," said Tom Bedell, a regent who plans to resign from the board because of the ongoing strife.

Bedell, a Spirit Lake entrepreneur, had Kurtz as a law professor and liked his way of teaching. But continued criticism by Kurtz and other campus leaders is "not productive," Bedell said recently.

Taking on the regents was not Kurtz's goal when he became president of the U of I Faculty Senate, Kurtz said.

"I got elected to do a job, and I can assure everybody that it's not like this is my crusade," he said.

Kurtz is the only professor in recent history to be president of the Senate twice. The group that represents all academic units at the university voted 62-1 earlier this month on a resolution of no confidence in the regents' leadership following the failed presidential search. Kurtz's 10-page speech outlining reasons for the vote got a standing ovation from faculty.

"Faculty respond best to good reasons since we spend our lives looking for good reasons," said Katherine Tachau, a U of I history professor and former Faculty Senate president.

Regents President Michael Gartner, at whom much of the speech's ire was directed, said Kurtz's statement was "so full of half-truths, untruths and innuendoes that I wouldn't know where to begin in answering it, so I won't."

Kurtz came to the U of I College of Law in the early 1970s because two of his former professors at Syracuse University in New York spoke highly of the Iowa university. After working for five years as a wills and trusts lawyer in New York City to pay off his college loans, Kurtz moved to Iowa City.

"My dream in life was to teach at a small college town," Kurtz said. "So my dream came true."

Kurtz, whose legal specialties are in property law and health law, is paid $196,052 a year.

Kurtz worked this fall on the fifth edition of a property law textbook he writes with Herbert Hovenkamp, another U of I law professor, and helped draft the third version of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, a law that states can adopt to create a framework for organ donations.

"Shelly would be well-thought of by Iowa lawyers who practice in estate planning and probate," said Darrel Morf, an estate and probate attorney at Simmons Perrine Albright & Ellwood in Cedar Rapids. "My copy of his book, 'Kurtz on Iowa Estates,' is well-worn because I use it as my primary guide to Iowa law."

Kurtz teaches U of I medical students about legal and ethical issues, such as informed consent and surrogate parenthood. He has helped the U of I interpret complicated wills making bequests to the university.

Kurtz cuts a distinctive figure on campus, often wearing cowboy hats and boots. Kurtz wears a diamond earring in his left ear. He always wanted to get his ear pierced, so he did so three years ago in Des Moines.

Kurtz agrees he has a strong personality: "Yeah, I think people can say that. But I'm extremely collegial."

Kurtz's views are well reasoned, said David Baldus, another longtime law professor.

"Shelly is not a radical by any stretch of the imagination," Baldus said. "That's why he's an effective leader."

Kurtz is likely to remain in the limelight - at least until his term leading the Faculty Senate expires in April. The regents have relaunched the presidential search with a new search committee led by College of Dentistry Dean David Johnsen. The regents have said they hope to name a new president by summer.

Sheldon "Shelly" Kurtz
TITLE: Percy Bordwell professor of law and University of Iowa Faculty Senate president.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in history from Syracuse University, 1964; law degree from Syracuse, 1967.
CAREER: Practiced law in New York City, 1967-1972; U of I professor 1973-1989, 1991-present; dean at the Florida State University College of Law 1989-91; University of Virginia visiting law professor, 1979-80.
FAMILY: Wife, Alice; two adult daughters, Andrea and Emily Neal, two granddaughters, Kaia, 4, and Grace, 2.
FUN FACT: Vito's restaurant in Iowa City used to have a pasta dish named after Kurtz. The Kurtz Classic, which included shrimp, feta cheese and pine nuts, was adapted from one of the professor's recipes.