More secrecy and signs of a corporate leadership culture at the University of Iowa

From the day Bruce Harreld was hired as University of Iowa president, his resume problems indicated a disconnect from academic culture. He admitted he would need “a lot of help, a lot of coaching” to adapt to his new position, thanks to an “unusual background” in the corporate world. Harreld paid out of pocket for media training with “top-notch” consultant Eileen Wixted, not only to improve his skills as an interview subject but also to “be as transparent and natural to the UI community as possible.” A different part-time consultant on a contract running to the end of 2015 was charged with writing a communications plan for Harreld.

The Harreld administration has been anything but transparent so far: withholding documents related to statewide polling and other work the university awarded through no-bid contracts; rushing to rename a nearly century-old children’s hospital without public input; appearing to pressure a university librarian to revise her recollection of controversial comments Harreld made at a Staff Council meeting; and combining two top staff positions in the health care unit without going through the usual process to gain prior approval from the Iowa Board of Regents.

On Wednesday Iowans learned that weeks ago, Harreld signed a lucrative contract extension for Athletics Director Gary Barta. The deal’s terms came to light only after an Associated Press correspondent asked to see the contract. Moreover, Harreld gave Barta this strong vote of confidence despite multiple lawsuits and civil rights complaints charging gender bias, as well as “a wide-ranging federal civil rights investigation into allegations that its athletics department does not provide equal opportunities for female athletes.”

The unusual secrecy surrounding Barta’s contract extension and its generous terms while the athletics department is under investigation suggest that Harreld is still operating from the perspective of a corporate executive rather than a leader of a public institution.

Luke Meredith and Ryan Foley broke the news about Barta’s contract on February 17:

A document obtained by The Associated Press shows that Iowa President Bruce Harreld and Barta reached a five-year contract extension last month. It guarantees Barta $4.6 million in compensation through June 30, 2021.

The deal increases Barta’s base salary from $400,000 to $550,000 in July and nearly doubles his annual deferred compensation to $250,000. Both amounts will then jump by $50,000 in 2018.

Barta will remain eligible for up to $110,000 in annual bonuses for academic and athletic achievements spelled out in his earlier contract. But the new deal adds an additional $40,000 in potential bonuses based on whether he meets yearly goals established by Harreld, a former IBM executive who was hired as school president last fall.

The deal was inherently newsworthy. Barta was already the third highest-paid employee at the University of Iowa and the fifth highest-paid state employee in Iowa. He is also one of the most prominent university officials, because Hawkeyes sports drive so much media coverage. Boosters expressed “mixed” opinions about Barta’s leadership as recently as last summer, but the strong performances of the football and men’s basketball teams this season have quieted the doubters.

Click here to view or download the contract extension, which Harreld and Barta signed on January 29. The academic and athletic targets from the earlier contract are on page 6 of that document. What hoops the athletics director must jump through to earn the extra $40,000 in bonuses are not clear, but it’s notable that Harreld negotiated this deal against the backdrop of a major federal investigation. Foley reported for the AP on February 12,

The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education is looking into gender bias allegations in 13 areas, including how the [athletics] department counts participation levels, awards scholarships, schedules practices and games and delivers services such as tutoring, medical attention, housing and dining. A team of investigators will visit the Iowa City campus in April, according to documents released Thursday under the open records law. […]

Iowa has provided thousands of documents in response to investigators’ request for 41 categories of records. Investigators plan to interview Athletic Director Gary Barta, administrators, coaches and athletes on all 24 of Iowa’s teams during the weeklong visit beginning April 11. […]

The civil rights office opened an initial investigation into the athletic department in May in response to a complaint filed by four women’s field hockey team members. […]

Separately, [fired field hockey coach Tracey] Griesbaum is expected to file a discrimination lawsuit over her termination. And her partner, former senior associate athletic director Jane Meyer, already filed a lawsuit alleging she was unfairly reassigned to a different department after Griesbaum’s firing and paid less than the man who Barta hired to replace her. Meyer was in charge of ensuring equal opportunities for female athletes.

In a statement released by the university after the AP obtained documents on Barta’s contract extension, Harreld said,

Director Barta is a longtime member of the University of Iowa family and extending his contract was the right thing to do. He and the entire athletics department are committed to the success of our student-athletes both on the field of play and in the classroom.

In the NCAA 2015 Graduation Rate report, UI student-athletes ranked ahead of peers nationally for fifth straight year, setting all-time best Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of 89 percent.

Director Barta’s compensation reflects the current salaries across the Big Ten and other major athletic programs in the marketplace.

Harreld could have waited to see what investigators turned up before giving Barta a huge raise for the next five years. The message to women athletes and prospective recruits is not encouraging. KCCI-TV’s sports director Andy Garman had the same thought about the odd timing.

Another question arises: if Harreld believes extending the athletic director’s contract now is the “right thing to do,” why the secrecy? After the previous University of Iowa President Sally Mason agreed to a contract extension for head football coach Kirk Ferentz in 2009, a press release outlining the terms came out within a few days. I sought comment on why the university did not announce the deal with Barta before the AP’s Meredith and Foley reported the story.

University spokesperson Jeneane Beck implicitly rejected my suggestion that the news had been kept secret, saying Foley “asked for the contract and it was provided immediately.” At this writing, she has not responded to my follow-up questions about why there was no public statement before that time and whether the university had any plan to disclose the information, in the absence of a journalist’s inquiry.

At a corporation like IBM, there would be no need to put out a press release on a top manager’s new contract or details on his higher salary, deferred compensation, and bonuses.

But Harreld leads a public university now. Its dealings are supposed to be transparent, especially when they concern a high-profile official like Barta. Harreld should rethink his communications strategy, because he’s either getting bad advice or ignoring good advice on when to let the sunshine in.

P.S.- A bit of unintentional comedy to brighten your day: University of Iowa general counsel Carroll Reasoner is unhappy federal officials have refused to disclose the broad gender bias complaint against the athletics department. “She’s appealing the Department of Education’s decision to withhold the document,” Foley reported last week. I feel your pain, Ms. Reasoner. It’s so frustrating to have your request for public documents denied for no good reason.

UPDATE: Patrick Vint has an interesting post on this contract extension up at the Black Heart Gold Pants blog. Scroll down to read the comments under that post as well.

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