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Let's look at the regents scientifically

John R. Menninger

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 1, 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.]

Recent actions, or inactions, by the Iowa Board of Regents inspire one to reflect upon the history of universities. Governors, in appointing Board members, have tended to favor experience in business. But such activities do not adequately represent what universities have in the past done and still do today.

Universities as we know them date from Bologna in Italy (1044). Earlier schools existed (Shangyang, started over 4,000 years ago in China; Nalanda University, 2,500 years ago in India) but however one defines these institutions, the message is clear: Universities have been going on for a very long time, much longer than the business models of today and those who have succeeded by implementing them.

According to the Lombardi report on The Top American Research Universities (2002), "(R)esearch universities function as quality engines. They accumulate reso-urces of all kinds to support the highest possible levels of faculty and student quality."

Faculty have primary responsibility to generate this quality, by operating in guilds to act as "individual experts joined by their shared commitment to a particular methodological and subject approach to knowledge and driven by a national and international system of common standards and criteria for quality." This is how universities have become and remain successful institutions and how they contribute to society.

This is not how businesses operate, neither real estate development nor minor league baseball. When Regents decide to exercise their prerogative to participate actively in the search for university presidents they would do well to understand exactly what kind of institutions they govern. Without active participation by faculty, staff and students, they risk losing the expertise necessary to identify leaders in the production of academic quality.

No one challenges the legal responsibility to elect the president of the University of Iowa that Regent President Michael Gartner stresses.

But what is legal is not the same as what is wise and prudent. It would be wise to choose a president who is familiar with running a quality engine, rather than a health care insurance business. It would be prudent to choose someone who would automatically receive the respect of the faculty, staff and students who generate the quality. To quote the Lombardi report again: "A governance structure with strong and effective leadership can help the research university succeed; the same structure with weak leadership can inhibit success."

As a scientist, I am an empiricist; I look at the evidence. Gov. Vilsack appointed all the current Regents and he has the power to suspend them (Iowa Code 262.5).

They might have looked good on paper but now we have experimental results suggesting that at least two current regents can't do an essential part of the job: choosing a university president.

When the reason offered for canceling a search is that none of the four candidates considered by the board was qualified and when those candidates were forwarded with the full support of the search committee, a group that included its regent chair and the board president, something does not compute.

When the excuse offered for not choosing one of the four candidates was lack of familiarity with health care issues but the search committee included two heads of clinical departments of the medical college and hospital, plus a practicing regent physician, it sounds like Washington spin gone crazy.

This is evidence of inability to discharge the duties of the office of regent.

Short of removing the board president and the regent chair of the former search committee, it is difficult to imagine how a subsequent search would attract any candidate capable and willing to head one of the leading research universities in the country.
John R. Menninger is a University of Iowa professor of biological sciences.