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'Getting their way' means regents are following the law, Gartner says

Des Moines Register Online

November 21, 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.]

The Iowa Board of Regents has been under fire after rejecting four finalists and pulling the plug on the search for a University of Iowa president last week.

Regents President Michael Gartner issued the following statement to The Register today, in response to the newspaper’s editorial published Tuesday calling for an end to the secrecy in the search.

These are Gartner’s first public remarks about the search since the board halted the search process on Friday.

Text of Michael Gartner's letter:

I’ve been trying not to add fuel to the fire over the University of Iowa presidential search controversy, but I would like to answer some points raised in your editorial of Tuesday.

First, you say the Regents insulted David Skorton by giving him a smaller raise than we gave the other two presidents. That was done on a vote of 9 to 0. All nine regents signed off on the lengthy letter sent to him and put in his file explaining that. There must have been a reason.

Second, you say the board gave a much smaller role than in the past to staff and students in the search process. It’s the statutory role of the regents (Iowa Code section 262.9) to name the president, not the role of the faculty, staff and students. They constituted a vast majority of the 19-person search committee. The committee interviewed seven of the 150 or so candidates, as has been reported, and sent four names to the regents, as has been reported. I believe the four regents on the committee urged that six names be sent. When the regents received the list, six of the eight regents who voted simply thought the list could have been stronger -- and those six included all four regents who served on the Search Committee. (All nine regents participated in the interviews.) Among other things, the regents were hoping for a more diverse list -- there were no women among the four names forwarded.

Third, you say we have “shrouded the process in secrecy.” It’s true the process was confidential, but five of the seven candidates brought in for interviews told us they would drop out if their names became public, and virtually all of the original pool of 150 or so also demanded confidentiality -- a fact the Search Committee was aware of from the beginning. Right or wrong, that seems to be the way the marketplace works at large institutions these days. David Skorton’s name was not made public at Cornell (a semi-public institution) nor Mary Sue Coleman’s at Michigan (a public institution). Indeed, after being appointed, Coleman told the Ann Arbor News she would not have been a candidate if the search had been open.

“The fact that this was a confidential search made it possible for me” to apply, she said. The head of the Michigan search committee, a dean, told the newspaper: “There’s no way we could have gotten Mary Sue Coleman involved in this process had we had” an open search. Candidates “didn’t want to be paraded in front of the broader community, because if you’re not selected and you go home and your board or trustees say, ‘So you’re out there fishing for a job?’ And we have on record examples of people who’ve lost jobs as a result.” In our search, the issue of confidentiality was not imposed by the regents; it was demanded by the candidates. In fact, when picking a president of the University of Northern Iowa, the process was open and inclusive because the leading candidates agreed to that.

Fourth, you ask “what sort of people are public officials looking for” and “what are the standards for picking finalists and the finalist?” That was clear in the materials the Search Committee prepared, which are on the Web site. Similarly, the interest in persons with experience in overseeing health science was neither “sudden” nor “new.” It was in the materials from day one. They say: “This individual must also fully understand the teaching, research, and patient care missions of the health sciences and the economic and policy environments in which they operate.”

Fifth, you say the public was left to speculate that “some regents hadn’t gotten their way.” Then you say “Regents should dispense with [a search or advisory committee] if they are not interested in its advice.” In fact, the law requires the Board of Regents, not an Advisory Committee or Search Committee, to pick the presidents of the universities. Your statements imply that regents should not “get their way” and regents must follow the advice of the [search] committee. (The “advisory committee” was a committee of faculty set up to advise the faculty members of the Search Committee, which was the committee charged with forwarding names to the Regents.) Regents surely must listen to that advice, but in the end they must act on their own beliefs about who would be the best president. Some might view that as “getting their way.” Others might view it as following the law.

Of course, all of us want the best man or woman we can find to be president of the University of Iowa, a wonderful institution. Gov. Tom Vilsack made that point earlier this week, and he made another: Let’s all step back and take a deep breath. That’s good advice.

Michael Gartner is president of the Board of Regents and a member of the presidential Search Committee.