Bruce Harreld walks into "teachable moment"; some critics give the wrong lecture

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld has been paying out of pocket this fall for coaching from a “top-notch” communications consultant, but his public speaking skills apparently need more work. Last week Harreld suggested to the university’s Staff Council that instructors who go to class unprepared for their teaching obligations “should be shot,” Ryan Foley reported today for the Associated Press.

It’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last time Harreld has some trouble adapting to academic culture.

But I hope it will be the last time Harreld’s critics on campus discredit themselves by reacting to the president’s missteps in a ridiculous way.

Harreld used the ill-fated expression at a December 9 meeting, in response to a question about his plans to improve teaching at the school. Librarian Lisa Gardinier e-mailed Harreld the next day: “For a university president to use the term ‘should be shot’ so flippantly, and just a week after the most recent highly publicized mass shooting … is horrifying and unacceptable.” Gardiner also noted “other issues with your rambling, unfocused talk,” which reinforced her “concerns regarding your ability to lead our university.”

Andy Thomason reproduced the e-mail chain between Gardinier and Harreld in this piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. To his credit, Harreld responded in less than two hours. However, his first answer struck an unfortunate tone: “Thanks for the feedback. I likely will never be able to live up to your expectations, but I will try.” Gardinier wrote back quickly to criticize the president’s failure to address the main issue she raised: “Violence is not to be joked about as a public authority, and certainly not in the frame of consequences for professional performance in the workplace.”

Less than an hour later, Harreld e-mailed Gardinier again, saying he “didn’t mean to ignore” her comment about gun violence and didn’t intend to offend anyone with what he called an “unfortunate off the cuff remark.” He continued,

Nor did I seriously mean to imply I support gun violence in any shape, manner, or form.

Frankly, I have used the comment in many, many forums and this is the first time any one has objected to it. I apologize and appreciate your calling my attention to it.

Harreld’s defense has the ring of truth. To suggest that someone who screwed up “should be shot” sounds like a phrase that would attract no special notice in the corporate world. Speaking to Foley today, Gardinier admitted, “We’ve probably all used that phrase at some point or another, but most of us aren’t university presidents and aren’t in positions of authority.” All credit to her for seizing what she called a “teachable moment.” Here’s hoping Harreld will learn from the experience.

The president’s apology wasn’t good enough for the union representing some 2,300 University of Iowa graduate students. COGS UE Local 896 posted the following on their Facebook page this afternoon:

COGS’ Response to Harreld’s Statement that Unprepared Lecturers Should Be Shot

On December 9, Bruce Harreld said, at a Staff Council meeting, that unprepared lecturers, “Should be shot.” This statement is not simply a flippant, rhetorical remark. It is a threat—an act of violence against—the University community as a whole, and particularly against workers in their workplace.

Gun violence has reached epidemic levels in the United States, particularly on school campuses. Our own University was the site of a mass shooting which resulted in the deaths of six people. Harreld’s statement displays not only a callous disdain for the members of this community, it shows an appalling disregard for this campus’ history.

Furthermore, Harreld violated the University’s policy against violent threats (http://opsmanual.uiowa.edu/community-policies/violence/prohibited-behavior), as well as the Regents’ anti-violence guidelines (http://www.regents.iowa.gov/Policies/Chapter%204/chapter4.30.htm).

It is not acceptable for Harreld to dismiss the statement with a casual apology to a single individual after making a violent threat against all of the University’s lecturers during an official performance of his duties on campus. His offending statement and flippant response are but one clear example of Harreld’s inability to function adequately or behave appropriately in the role of University President.

Violent speech has no place on this campus and it is particularly egregious coming from someone in Harreld’s post. COGS condemns Harreld’s statement promoting violence and threatening the University’s workforce. We stand in solidarity with teachers who feel threatened and are committed to creating and maintaining the University as a safe space. Therefore, COGS demands that Harreld forfeits his position as President in light of the threat that he poses to the campus community.

As a former grad student (at a different university), I’m embarrassed for the people who drafted that statement or approved releasing it. Any thinking adult can see that Harreld was not literally threatening to have unprepared instructors shot. He used an inappropriate metaphor and did not apologize quickly enough when Gardinier brought the mistake to his attention.

COGS slammed the decision to hire Harreld and later voted no confidence in the Iowa Board of Regents. Union leaders have been involved in several on-campus protests against the new president. I share their misgivings about the Regents’ choice and don’t blame anyone for worrying about how the business leader’s vision for “transformative change” might affect graduate teaching at the university.

Which is all the more reason for graduate students not to make fools of themselves. Overreacting to someone else’s mistake always backfires.

COGS may have some tough fights ahead. Its leaders need to to preserve their credibility with university stakeholders and members of the public, as well as with journalists who will be covering University of Iowa happenings more attentively, because of the massive controversy surrounding Harreld’s hiring.

Speaking of media coverage of the university, I saw that the Des Moines Register, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and the Chronicle of Higher Education gave credit to the Associated Press for today’s scoop. In contrast, Vanessa Miller’s article for the Cedar Rapids Gazette did not mention the origin of reports on Harreld’s “should be shot” comments and his subsequent e-mail exchange with Gardinier.

I learned a few days ago that Miller and I disagree on basic principles of attribution. In my world, when you get a story idea from someone else’s exclusive, you give credit to the journalist who broke the news, even when you could go to the same sources and replicate the reporting yourself. I would be just as critical of any writer who submitted an open records request for Iowa State University e-mails in order to match Miller’s excellent scoop for Sunday’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about outgoing Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen’s new job.

DECEMBER 16 UPDATE: Harreld wasn’t able to leave this one alone. Jeff Charis-Carlson reports today,

“During a discussion with our Staff Council I responded to a question about improving graduate student teaching by commenting that ‘I have learned the (hard) way that if I ever walk into a classroom without a teaching plan, I should be shot,’” UI President Bruce Harreld wrote late Tuesday [December 15] in an email to the Press-Citizen. […]

“Clearly using the word ‘shot’ in today’s environment is insensitive and I apologize,” Harreld said in his email. “However, I never said ‘teachers should be shot.’”

Harreld said he called Gardinier on Tuesday afternoon to discuss what had actually been said, and “she quickly agreed with what I said and agreed that I never said ‘teachers should be shot.’ … I then repeated again what I said and she agreed that I did said ‘I should be shot.’”

Harreld also included an follow-up email he sent Gardinier later Tuesday.

“I believe there is meaningful difference between ‘I should be shot’ and ‘teachers should be shot,’” Harreld wrote to Gardinier. “I am more than willing to be held accountable for I did say but not for what I didn’t say. Your (sic) were honorable enough to agree in today’s call to corroborate what I said and quickly agreed that the reporting has been inaccurate. Would you please be willing to speak with reporter to correct this error?”

It doesn’t look good for a university president to pressure a librarian to change her story.

Too bad for Harreld that Sam Van Horne of the university’s Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology has already confirmed the context of Harreld’s remarks. Van Horne asked the question about teaching during the December 9 meeting and explained yesterday,

“I remember him talking about different ways in which instructors should be prepared: They should be prepared to lead discussion. They should be prepared to work with students individually. They should be prepared for a variety of things,” Van Horne said. “It’s our job to prepare them.”

Van Horne said he had been caught off guard by Harreld’s use of the phrase “should be shot” in reference to under-prepared teachers, but the phase seemed “off-the-cuff” and he was focused more on the discussion of Harreld’s vision for teaching.

Contacted yesterday by several journalists seeking comment, no one from the University of Iowa’s communications staff hinted that Gardinier had inaccurately paraphrased Harreld’s remarks. If he really had said, “I should be shot,” then the e-mail correspondence reproduced here makes little sense. Why wouldn’t he have clarified the misunderstanding immediately, rather than saying he’d used the phrase many times before without causing offense?

The president’s high-priced communications consultant has her work cut out for her, unless Eileen Wixted herself advised Harreld to “clarify” his comments in this manner–in which case he’s not getting good value for his money.

DECEMBER 28 UPDATE: The American Association of University Professors chapters at Iowa’s three state universities released the following statement on December 27.

To the Board of Regents, State of Iowa:

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapters at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa, join our University of Iowa colleagues and graduate students in deploring the reported statement at a public meeting by the university president, Mr. J. Bruce Harreld, that teachers who are unprepared for class “should be shot.”

Coming from any university president, Mr. Harreld’s comment, regardless of his intent, would be unprofessional and unpresidential. His words reveal a stunning lack of sensitivity for the safety of Iowa faculty, staff, and students. As Iowans know, the University of Iowa has already experienced the horror of a mass shooting in November, 1991. We have not forgotten the faculty members, students and university administrator who were killed and the student who was paralyzed on that day. We remember, too, the trauma experienced by the entire community. And we abhor the occurrence of such senseless violence on any campus.

Since 1991, faculty members at our universities can be, and have been, disciplined or fired for a similar remark. There is no lesser standard for a university president. Mr. Harreld’s crude, off-the-cuff comment makes it clear yet again that the Iowa Board of Regents disserved our students, our colleagues, and the state of Iowa when, through their dishonesty, they selected someone unprepared for the office of university president to lead one of the three universities for which they have a duty of care.

This insensitivity and lack of knowledge of the University of Iowa once again calls into question Harreld’s ability to lead the campus community. We call on the Board of Regents to revisit their decision. The University of Iowa deserves better.

Since the Regents are not going to revisit their decision to hire Harreld over one insensitive comment, I would encourage the faculty association to keep its powder dry for another day. I am seeking further information about faculty members at Iowa universities who (according to this statement) have been “disciplined or fired” for making similar remarks.

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