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Regent questions treatment of Skorton, halting of search

Robert Downer

Des Moines Register

November 26, 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.]

On Nov. 17, the majority of the state Board of Regents rejected the finalists for a new University of Iowa president, based on lack of "experience as leaders who oversaw complex health-sciences operations." (I cast one of two votes against the decision.) The stated reason seems particularly unusual in light of actions taken by the board since its August 2005 evaluation of former President David J. Skorton.

Skorton was a cardiologist in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine from 1980 until June 30. Even while serving as an administrator, he continued to see patients and has been recognized for many years in Best Doctors in America. Skorton possessed the qualifications that the board majority now says it needs in a U of I president.

The board, unfortunately, granted Skorton a 3 percent salary increase, compared to 5 percent for the presidents of the other regent universities. All three are exemplary educational leaders. While it is true that all board members ultimately signed off on this decision, which I deeply regret, it was also clear from discussion that I and another regent were extremely uncomfortable with it and concurred only to try to maintain unity on the board. It is possible that the new U of I president - if one is ever selected - will be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Skorton and interim President Gary Fethke.

Why the lower raise? I would submit that it was due to Skorton's heresy in giving a notice of termination of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics/Carver College of Medicine contract with Wellmark. On Dec. 29, 2004, the Board of Regents voted 5-2 to affirm the U of I's authority to act on this contract, so the board bears the ultimate responsibility for this. However, since then, as regent Mary Ellen Becker observed at the board's May 2006 meeting, there seems to be an unusual level of emotion that has attached to issues involving UIHC.

In May, the board re-established its University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Committee, which had been terminated a year earlier. This represented the fourth different way in which the board has attempted to exercise oversight of the hospital since May 1, 2003, when I became a board member. Michael Gartner, the current board president, asked me to chair the committee.

It is clear that the hospital is running very smoothly under the outstanding leadership of hospital CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky. The cooperation between her and Dean Jean Robillard of the Carver College of Medicine is excellent. By virtually every measure, the hospital is in the top ranks of U.S. academic medical centers, and has been running well ahead of budget in profitability.

An additional reason why health-care expertise should not override other university needs: Strong consideration is being given to creation of a vice presidency to oversee the hospital and College of Medicine. I have not heard any board members suggest that this vice presidency would not be needed if the new president possesses health-care expertise.

I also have great difficulty accepting the board majority's explanation for "blowing up" the search for this reason because, even though I chair the board's hospital committee, I was never contacted regarding this. It appeared from Wednesday evening's conference call that every other board member had been talked to by other regents beforehand. Regents on the Search Committee had repeatedly told the board it would have an excellent field of candidates from which to choose. We were further urged to act quickly because numerous peer institutions were only slightly behind us in a presidential search process. This was my understanding through the conclusion of the interviews on Nov. 11, and again when the board's executive session resumed at noon on Nov. 14. However, a mere 30 hours after that meeting, these "outstanding candidates" were found to be lacking.

Although tensions were present throughout the search process, I felt that the seven persons interviewed by the combined Search Committee and Board of Regents were truly outstanding. Had I been called upon to recommend four finalists, I would have selected the same four who received the committee's endorsement.

Because of lack of funding, U of I faculty members are, on average, being paid at levels below the average of the university's peer group. Many faculty have stayed, despite higher salary offers at other institutions, because of a supportive environment, a great community in which to live and expressions of appreciation for their work by colleagues, alumni, donors - and, until now, regents. By terminating the search, the board majority has taken away that appreciation from some of the most distinguished faculty, staff and students at the university.

The Board of Regents' decisions do little to instill confidence in us by the public. We must do better, and be more transparent in decision making that takes place between, as well as at, board meetings. Our fellow Iowans deserve no less.
ROBERT N. DOWNER of Iowa City is a member of the Iowa Board of Regents.