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

Mistrust plagues president search

Marc Hansen

Des Moines Register

December 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.]

The University of Iowa will get around to hiring a new president someday. How and when, it's impossible to say.

But you wouldn't call it soon.

Finding an outstanding replacement for David Skorton shouldn't be all that difficult. We're talking about a great job in a wonderful academic and social environment.

You stay a few years, make a good buck, raise several million more, live rent-free in a beautiful house in a lovely neighborhood, host several dozen parties and wait for the Ivy League to call.

But when the decision is up to a group of people who don't trust one another, it doesn't work.

On Friday, four faculty members, two of them serving on the search committee, came to Des Moines to meet with the Register editorial board.

This is supposed to be a cooling-off period. Taking time out from his run for president, Tom Vilsack stepped into the melee and told everyone to take a deep breath and chill for a while.

The chill has turned to ice. The faculty members - Sheldon Kurtz, Steve Collins, Katherine Tachau and Francois Abboud - didn't come out and say it, but it was clear. None of them would be disappointed if Gartner, the regents president, stepped down.

Oh, for the good old days of Marvin Pomerantz at the helm. Tachau, the search committee vice chairwoman, said she had so much respect for Pomerantz, she even read his autobiography. The first and last Republican autobiography she ever read.

The word "turmoil" was used a few times in the conversation. So was the word "mistrust."

I seem to recall "tremendous discomfort" used more than once, too. Also appearing in my notes are "Clear dereliction of duty" and "micromanage."

The trouble started, the professors said, when the regents insulted Skorton by giving him a raise that was smaller in percentage than his counterparts at Iowa State and Northern Iowa. Skorton said bye-bye, and a popular, effective president was gone.

Faculty Senate President Kurtz did call Gartner "one of the smartest people you'll ever meet," a guy who can come up with 50 terrific ideas rat-a-tat-tat.

He spoiled the uplifting moment, though, by saying Gartner was no leader. You don't lead by ordering people around, all the professors said. The great leaders can sell their ideas to people who are reluctant to buy them.

They complained about the secrecy of the search and a few other things.

When I got Gartner on the phone, he didn't want to talk about the criticism. He said he's heard it all before and what good would it do now to strike back?

Too bad. There is another side to this. Gartner could have pointed out how, in most walks of life, the employees don't get to hire their boss.

We off-campus types are seldom asked to join the search committee. The system isn't perfect, but rarely is the governor called in to restore order.

Gartner could have reminded everyone it's the regents' job to run the university. He could have pointed out that Michigan hired Mary Sue Coleman away from Iowa in the dead of night.

No public search there. Coleman wouldn't have gone for it. And, unfortunately, that seems to be a trend.

He could have said you didn't hear many complaints from Northern Iowa and Iowa State when they needed a new president.

He could have said health sciences represent almost half the university dollars spent. And it isn't a terrible idea to put someone in charge who understands it.

He could have said times are changing.

But that's the past. The future is a new president. The present is a situation that cries out for drastic action.

It cries out for a new search committee. It cries out for Gartner and probably Teresa Wahlert to remove themselves from the process, too.

It cries out for a fresh start with fresh faces. That's the only way this gets settled.