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UI presidential search: A rare educational experience

Kay Thistlethwaite

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 6, 2007

[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.]

University of Iowa's President David Skorton's leaving the university, and the tornado that struck Iowa City, were two of the most important local news stories of 2006. The first search to replace Skorton was such a disaster that it may take a lot longer to recover from than the tornado.

I wish Dean David Johnsen, the chairman of UI presidential search committee No. 2, well. He will need all the help he can get to find a new president for the university and to begin to repair the damage done by the Iowa state Board of Regents. It will be a hard sell.

Other than the two years I worked as secretary for the UI African American World Studies program, and friendships with people I met during that time, I have no connection to the university. All I know about the aborted search is from what I've read in the newspapers and from conversations with friends. I shouldn't care about the search. But I do.

I'm an Iowa Citian. I'm proud to live in a town that's home to a large public university with a reputation for excellence. During the incompetent, ugly presidential search, my feelings ranged from incredulity, to anger, to hurt, typical of what many people still are feeling. Saying "the search" in conversations is like poking the hornets' nests of politics and religion.

It may be the feeling of incredulity that bothers me most. I felt the same way about the search as I feel about the Iraq War. How could the Iowa regents, leaders in our state's education, not foresee the dangerous consequences of their actions? Their Stay the Course mindset was horrible. One regent protested about the way the search process was being conducted, but where were the rest? If others were uncomfortable with what was happening, why didn't they speak up? I was reminded of the members of Congress who said that they really weren't completely in favor of starting a war in Iraq, after they voted to do so.

I agree with a friend who said that we owe the media our thanks for thoroughly reporting on the search. Will the Press-Citizen's lawsuit against the regents accusing them of violating the open meetings law reveal more examples of their secrecy? I'm curious to learn how they justify holding rolling meetings, even if they're not judged to be illegal. How could the regents so arrogantly disregard the spirit of the law? Leaders should avoid even the appearance of doing wrong.

I don't respect people who resort to name-calling, and I'm peeved that "radical vocal minority" makes the word "radical" seem dishonorable. I don't trust people who shade the truth. Nobody believed that the request for salaries and workloads of particular professors, to be returned with utmost urgency, was just takin' care of business, something that happens every day. The explanation of why the final four candidates were rejected also was unbelievable. The candidates got that far without meeting a basic criteria that should have been defined at the beginning of the search?

We citizens need to educate ourselves about the Board of Regents. Its Web site lists the board's responsibilities as policymaking, coordination and oversight of the state's three public universities, the Iowa School for the Deaf and the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. Is micromanaging the university presidents in their detailed job descriptions? What qualifies them for their positions? Are their management styles evaluated? Is there any citizen input in the governor's appointment process? John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, quit when he finally figured out that nobody liked him. We haven't been that lucky with our Regents' president.

"Remarkable" is the current buzzword for what's going on at the university. The first UI presidential search was remarkable, indeed. It alienated faculty and staff (How many are seeking other positions?), embarrassed alumni and friends of the university, exposed an indecisiveness in our governor and created a climate of so much animosity that the best qualified presidential candidates will be hesitant to apply for the job. I hope that not all of the $215,000-plus of taxpayers' money that was spent was a waste.

The new year brings us a new UI presidential search committee chairman. A new search committee. A new governor. How about a completely new Board of Regents? The present one has lost its credibility.
Kay Thistlethwaite is an Iowa City resident. She is a member of the Writers' Group, a corps of local residents who write regular columns for the Press-Citizen.