Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa

Vilsack works to mediate U of I controversy

Erin Jordan

Des Moines Register

November 27, 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.]

Gov. Tom Vilsack took on the role of mediator this evening, trying to broker a solution to the ongoing controversy over the selection of a new president for the University of Iowa.

Vilsack was meeting behind closed doors in Cedar Rapids with top officials of the university and the Iowa Board of Regents in an attempt to find consensus that would end the controversy that threatens to create a wider chasm between faculty members and the board that governs Iowa’s three state universities.

Members of the university’s Faculty Senate are scheduled to vote today on a no-confidence resolution that is unprecedented at Iowa’s largest university in the past quarter century.

The U of I controversy also threatens to attract unwanted national media attention during a week when Vilsack formally kicks off his campaign for U.S. president.

The meeting in Cedar Rapids had been scheduled to last about an hour. But three hours later, the discussions were continuing without any sign of how long the session would last.

Earlier in the day today, Vilsack met with the editorial board of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and said he would like to see a two-part solution to the UofI controversy, which has produced viltriolic accusations about the motives of members of the Board of Regents.

Vilsack said he favors:

• Creating a vice president for health sciences position under the U of I president to oversee University Hospitals and the College of Medicine. They now have their own administrators who are independent of each other. One of the issues in the aborted search for a new president was the desire of some regents to have one or more of finalists with health science management experience.

• Having the Board of Regents reconsider the four finalists recommended by an 18-member search committee the regents appointed. The four finalists include U of I Provost Michael Hogan, two other men who are provosts of major universities, and a fourth man who is president of a mid-sized university.

Vilsack told Gazette reporters and editors that having an administrator who oversees all of the health sciences at the university could allow the Board of Regents to take another look at the four presidential candidates favored by the search committee.

“I think that’s a reasonable first step,” Vilsack told the Gazette. “It seems to me to be a realistic way to deal with one of the troublesome spots. It makes it easier to solve the next issue” of hiring the best president for the U of I.

The Gazette reported on its Web site that Vilsack said he is not interested in placing blame on anyone for the current tension between the regents and the faculty and staff of the university. It’s important to focus on finding a new U of I president, Vilsack told the newspaper.

“To me what we need to do is tamp this down,” Vilsack told the Gazette staff. “The last thing we need to do is throw gasoline on this fire, which has burned pretty bright.”

The white-hot emotions among many University of Iowa employees are behind the no-confidence vote that is scheduled for the Faculty Senate meeting Tuesday. The meeting begins at 3:30 p.m. in the Senate chambers of Old Capitol.

Professor Sheldon Kurtz, the president of the Faculty Senate, has drafted a resolution that will be voted on at the meeting. The resolution acknowledges that the Board of Regents has the duty under Iowa law to hire a president to run the university. But the resolution continues, “the Faculty Senate of the University of Iowa expresses its lack of trust and confidence in the leadership of the Iowa Board of Regents.”

Attitudes toward the Board of Regents have plummeted in Iowa City since the board surprised people by voting 6-2 on Nov. 17 to reject the slate of four presidential finalists and to disband the 18-member search committee that had been worked for months to winnow the field of some 150 candidates for the U of I presidency.

The job has been open since David Skorton left to become president of Cornell University.

The board’s six-member majority has made few public comments about their concerns with the four finalists. Regents President Michael Gartner has said the lack of health sciences management experience among the four was among the concerns of the majority, including all four regents on the search committee.

Regent Robert Downer of Iowa City, one of two regents to vote “no” on Nov. 17, has said the proposal to create a vice president under the president to oversee all health care matters on the Iowa City campus should eliminate the regents’ anxiety over the lack of hands-on health sciences management experience by the next U of I president.

The vice president’s position has been empty since Robert Kelch left the university in 2003. The job was not filled primarily because of Skorton’s experience as a professor of medicine and health sciences administrator.