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A Failed Presidential Search Divides the U. of Iowa

Audrey Williams June

Money & Management
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Volume 53, Issue 18, Page A25
January 5, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 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 Chronicle of Higher Education.]

The University of Iowa, beset by controversy since its governing board scuttled a 10-month search for the institution's next president, will start its presidential search over from scratch.

The Board of Regents, which in November rejected all four finalists in the first search, tapped a popular dean, David C. Johnsen, to head the new search committee. The plan is to move quickly, with the selection of committee members to be completed early this month. The board says it wants to name a new president by July 1 or earlier.

"We have to get to work right away," says Mr. Johnsen, dean of the College of Dentistry. "We're going to do everything we can to move the process ahead."

He appears to have widespread support in his new role. But across the campus, anger at the regents is pervasive. Faculty members, staff members, and students all voted no confidence in the board's leadership following the failed search.

"I think the Board of Regents' decision put a great big black mark on the State of Iowa because it clearly said that there are problems here," says Mary E. Greer, president of the University of Iowa Staff Council and a member of the first committee, which the board disbanded. "I know that being the president of the University of Iowa is a very good position for the right candidate, but I think it will be challenging for this new committee."

Plagued With Problems

Iowa's former president, David J. Skorton, left six months ago to become president of Cornell University. The search for his successor was plagued with problems almost from the beginning, as faculty members criticized regents for keeping the search secret. The board was vilified in particular for not abiding by an Iowa tradition of requiring finalists to participate in public interviews.

The search, which began in the spring of 2006, after Mr. Skorton announced his departure, stumbled to a conclusion in November, when the board voted 6 to 2 to reject the four finalists for the job and then dissolved the 19-member search committee, which had been led by Teresa A. Wahlert, one of the regents. The president of the nine-member board, Michael G. Gartner, has said the regents wanted a candidate with more experience in running a university medical center. Mr. Gartner, who was also on the search committee, did not respond to telephone calls or e-mail messages soliciting comment.

Iowa's governor, Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, intervened and asked the regents to reconsider the field of finalists. The board agreed, but its top pick, who was never identified, withdrew from the search in early December. The 10-month search cost roughly $200,000.

In response, faculty and staff members and student groups passed no-confidence votes in the leadership of the Board of Regents. Much of their anger has been directed at Mr. Gartner and Ms. Wahlert, president pro tempore of the board.

During a taping of Iowa Press, a weekly news program on public television, Mr. Gartner said critics who complained about his management style had never met him. "There's a kind of herd mentality going on at the moment, or a piling on," he said. "But that's OK. That's what freedom is all about. Say what you think even if what you think is not based on fact or informed opinion."

The level of hostility on the campus prompted one regent, Thomas W. Bedell, to resign in mid-December. Mr. Gartner, whose term ends in 2011, says he does not intend to step down. Ms. Wahlert's term ends this month. Still, Sheldon F. Kurtz, president of the Faculty Senate, says the group will continue to push the issue.

"I'm sure some would say that to keep the tensions that exist between the Board of Regents and faculty on the table will have a negative impact on the search process. We see it in a different vein," says Mr. Kurtz, who is a law professor. "We believe if we're ever going to be successful in recruiting a president and, just the same, successful in retaining a president we need to deal with the issues that have led to losing one president and having a failed search."

Those issues, he says, originate with the Board of Regents.

Mr. Kurtz agrees that the regents are responsible for choosing a president. But, he argues, they must understand that universities seek advice from the people who work there, particularly from faculty members.

"The most effective way for the Board of Regents to find the most qualified individual is to recognize the university is not run like a corporation," says Mr. Kurtz.

Mr. Gartner owns the Iowa Cubs, a minor-league baseball team, and used to be president of NBC News and was also a print journalist. Ms. Wahlert is president and chief operating officer of a real-estate, investment, and development company. Business backgrounds are prevalent among most of the other regents as well.

'A Great Opportunity'

Although terminating a presidential search and starting over is uncommon, such actions do not always trigger long-lasting negative repercussions, experts say. For a flagship research university like Iowa, the bad publicity may be embarrassing, but it will not be crippling in terms of recruiting a new leader, says Claire A. Van Ummersen, vice president of the American Council on Education's Center for Effective Leadership.

"An institution like Iowa, they can certainly recover from this," she says. "I'm certain that they'll come up with a very good pool of candidates and eventually an excellent president."

Ms. Wahlert is confident as well, calling the job "a great opportunity for someone." The appointment of a dean, rather than a regent, to lead the new search committee is part of the governing board's plan to conduct the search differently, she says.

The new committee will also be smaller than its predecessor. Four regents were involved in the search process before, but it is possible that none will be on the new committee.

The board will retain the same search firm, Heidrick & Struggles, which will bill the university only for expenses going forward, says Ms. Wahlert.

"I think the board is committed to removing as many contentious issues as possible" from the search process, she says.

But the issue of how open the search process should be, particularly when it comes to whether to conduct on-campus interviews, is likely to remain a sticking point. Ms. Wahlert, who believes that such interviews would limit the pool of candidates willing to consider the job, says the regents still have not promised that such interviews will occur.

"We know that the very sought-after people will request confidentiality. That's the higher-education market today," Ms. Wahlert says. "Because of the caliber of person that we're looking for, because of the anticipated pay range, it's expecting too much to ask people to put their careers on the line. This is not about secrecy. It's about respecting the candidate." (Mr. Skorton's total compensation for 2005-6 was $309,250.)

But faculty members see public interviews as an important part of the search process, says Mr. Kurtz, the Faculty Senate president. A candidate who can't embrace the culture of openness at the university, he says, is a "wrong fit."

Annie Shuppy contributed to this report.