Anatomy of a missed opportunity for Bruce Harreld

Shortly before starting work as the University of Iowa’s president, Bruce Harreld told the Iowa City Press-Citizen’s Jeff Charis-Carlson that he had no immediate plans for high-level staff changes.

“I’ve done this in different environments multiple times,” said Harreld, who was an executive at Boston Chicken and Kraft Foods before becoming senior vice president for marketing and strategy at IBM. “And I always believe that the institutional knowledge that the existing team has is enormously important.”

There will be changes, of course, Harreld said, but agendas for change will involve the people who know the university best.

“I see a lot of leaders do this wholesale changing of leadership, and I think they lose a lot of momentum in that process,” Harreld said. “I’m a huge believer in culture and context, and I’ve been teaching that and practicing it all my life.”

This week Harreld demonstrated too much commitment to the university’s existing team.

Our story begins with a remarkable report by Associated Press correspondent Ryan Foley on February 29. Last June, the University of Iowa’s interim director for public safety, David Visin, “interfered with an investigation into a hit-and-run drunk driving accident by his stepson after the two left an Iowa City bar, driving away before officers could interview him.” Visin “repeatedly” refused requests by Johnson County sheriff’s deputy Brad Kunkel to pull over, giving “ridiculous” reasons for not doing so.

In his report, Kunkel said he believed Visin interfered with the investigation and lied. […]

After having [Visin’s stepson Sean] Crane transported by ambulance to a hospital, Kunkel blasted Visin in a phone conversation he recorded. He said Visin should have known, as an officer, that the only “reasonable, logical and ethical thing” was to pull over and that Crane’s injuries should have raised concerns.

“A cop is on the phone telling you to stop, and the person with you is involved in a hit-and-run, and you don’t do that? You tried to interfere with this. You tried to make this difficult,” Kunkel said. […]

When Kunkel told Visin about the accident and asked him to pull over, Visin repeatedly said he had no idea what was happening, irritating Kunkel, who called the situation “pretty straightforward.” Kunkel told Visin not to leave Crane by himself, but he did.

As lame excuses go, Visin set the bar high, telling the sheriff’s deputy on the night of the incident “he couldn’t pull over because he needed to go home to drop off a trailer he was pulling.” Speaking to Foley on February 29,

Visin blamed his actions on diabetes, a disease he said he has hidden from colleagues to avoid discrimination. […]

He said his judgment was affected by low blood-sugar levels, and he needed to get home to inject himself with insulin and eat.

Every diabetic knows you don’t inject insulin during a hypoglycemic episode. Doing so will further lower blood sugar levels.

Monday’s news was embarrassing for the University of Iowa, but the AP story didn’t need to be Harreld’s headache. He hadn’t even applied for the presidency when Visin interfered with another law enforcement officer investigating a crime. Harreld could have made a strong statement, saying he expects the highest level of professionalism from the public safety director and will look for another person to fill that position permanently.

Instead, officials downplayed the significance of what had happened: “University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said Monday that Visin disclosed the incident to his superior after it occurred, noting he wasn’t charged with any crimes.”

There’s an inspiring message for a university dogged by perceptions about an unsafe environment on campus: our top police official hasn’t been charged with a crime, and he told his boss right away about his run-in with the law.

Beck’s comment raised another question: what did Visin’s superior do after learning about the clash with a Johnson County deputy sheriff? Judging by Foley’s follow-up for the AP on March 1, not much.

Regents responsible for overseeing campus safety issues at the University of Iowa say they were never told about an incident in which the school’s public safety director is accused of interfering and lying during a hit-and-run investigation of his stepson.

Leaders of the Iowa Board of Regents’ subcommittee on campus safety and security said they learned about David Visin’s actions only through an Associated Press story published Monday.

The university said Visin disclosed the June 25 incident to his superior, senior vice president for finance and operations Rod Lehnertz, shortly after it occurred. But the information didn’t reach the subcommittee, which was formed weeks before the incident last June to review crime reports and topics such as sexual violence and harassment.

The committee’s charge is to review issues “as necessary with an emphasis on compliance and oversight.”

Harreld got a second chance to make an easy call. He could have acknowledged that Visin’s behavior raises doubts about his fitness for the position he holds. Having promised last fall to be “as transparent and natural to the UI community as possible,” Harreld could have announced that he takes disclosure seriously and expects his subordinates to convey all relevant information to the Board of Regents.

Sad to say, openness is not Harreld’s forte. For the second day running, the man who has been paying out of pocket for advice from a crisis communications consultant failed to comment on the story.

Meanwhile, the university released this statement:

“Dave Visin, interim director of University of Iowa Public Safety, disclosed information regarding the incident with his stepson to Rod Lehnertz, senior vice president for finance and operations, shortly after it occurred. The UI is not aware of any charges filed against Interim Director Visin.

The senior vice president for finance and operations was just filled on a permanent basis at last week’s Board of Regents meeting. Decisions regarding the interim positions which report to the senior vice president have been on hold until the position was filled. No specific timeline has been established for decisions regarding those interim positions.”

Again, the official comment raised more questions than it answered. Is not being charged with a crime now sufficient for keeping an important job at the University of Iowa? Plenty of staff have been fired for misconduct less serious than how Visin behaved with the sheriff’s deputy.

Do university leaders condone the decision by Lehnertz to bury the incident after Visin discussed it with him? Did Visin tell his boss the whole story, or a sanitized version of what happened on June 25? Did Lehnertz inform other high-ranking university officials, and if so, did it occur to any of them that the Board of Regents should be told?

Harreld might have remained silent about Visin’s misadventure indefinitely, had he not encountered Radio Iowa’s Dar Danielson at an event in Des Moines on March 2.

Harreld says his review found no reason to pursue the issue. “We’ve talked to the county…they say to us there’s no basis for any criminal action or legal action whatsoever. We’ve looked at it relative to our own policies…its [sic] seems there’s no there, there. If something surfaces, then of course we will take a deeper look. Right now we’ve done all the work and there is nothing there,” Harreld says. […]

“I spoke to the Regents last night, told them as soon as I knew about [it]. I think the issue probably popped up last summer, because I know people on my staff were aware of it. But I think, we didn’t see any need to go further until this story pops up. As I said, we talked to the county, the county doesn’t think there’s any reason for criminal charges. We don’t see any violation of university policies,” Harreld says. “Anybody can publish any story they want. We don’t see any reason to do anything other than what we are already doing.”

After reading Danielson’s report, I was more confused than ever.

his review found no reason to pursue the issue

When did Harreld conduct his review of this case? What was the nature of that review? Did it consist of anything beyond having a subordinate brief him?

We’ve talked to the county

Which university representatives talked to which Johnson County officials? Does Harreld mean last summer, or after the AP published Foley’s story on February 29?

We’ve looked at it relative to our own policies

Who researched what university policies apply to this case? When did that happen? The context suggests Harreld is referring to what Visin did when asked to pull over. What about the failure to notify the Board of Regents subcommittee named to oversee campus safety and security?

its [sic] seems there’s no there, there

Is the president saying only actions leading to criminal charges reflect on a person’s fitness to head the campus police force?

we’ve done all the work

Who did the work, and over what time frame? Harreld was speaking to Danielson roughly 48 hours after Foley filed his first report. Was the review begun and finished by then? Or does Harreld mean university officials had previously investigated Visin’s conduct?

I spoke to the Regents last night, told them as soon as I knew about [it]

That comment suggests Harreld knew nothing about the events of last June 25 before the AP broke the news on Monday. Does he consider it acceptable that the Regents were never told before February 29? Does he feel that only conduct leading to criminal charges is relevant to the Regents’ oversight of campus security issues?

I know people on my staff were aware of it

Who on Harreld’s staff knew about it, besides Lehnertz?

we didn’t see any need to go further until this story pops up

To whom does “we” refer here? If Harreld didn’t know about the incident until February 29, who decided before the news reached the public that there was no “need to go further”?

the county doesn’t think there’s any reason for criminal charges

Foley reported on March 2, “Kunkel accused Visin of lying and interfering with the investigation. Sheriff [Lonny] Pulkrabek said he asked whether charges could be filed against Visin but was told by the county attorney there wasn’t probable cause.” Technically, a lack of probable cause to file criminal charges is different from having no reason to file criminal charges. The sheriff’s deputy clearly believed Visin’s conduct was unlawful.

We don’t see any violation of university policies

Really? University of Iowa students or staff are not expected to cooperate with law enforcement officers? Who conducted the review of university policies that might apply to what transpired between Visin and Kunkel?

Does Harreld believe disciplinary measures would not be warranted against students or staff who disregard requests by campus police or interfere with their efforts to investigate an incident?

I e-mailed versions of those questions to university spokeswoman Beck on the evening of March 2. She did not reply yesterday and today could tell me only, “I’m afraid I do not have any additional information to provide right at this time.”

Harreld says he is “a huge believer in culture and context.” Unfortunately, the University of Iowa’s institutional culture is marred by excessive secrecy and not enough accountability. Even if Visin’s behavior last June 25 did not rise to the level of prosecutable conduct, his actions irreparably damaged his credibility as the top campus police officer.

Harreld could have taken charge of the situation, but his instinct was to assure the public “there is nothing there.” Was that view informed by a thorough review of the circumstances? Or did someone merely reassure Harreld, old boy network style, that Visin was “performing well” in his job, so no further action was required?

This afternoon, the university announced “a formal search for a new assistant vice president and director of public safety.” Lehnertz named associate director and university Chief of Police Lucy Wiederholt as interim director, while Visin “has returned to his previous position as associate director in charge of Clery compliance, departmental reporting, and support services.”

Demoting Visin is an appropriate, if belated, response to his contretemps with a sheriff’s deputy. But remember, just two days ago Harreld went on record saying, “We don’t see any reason to do anything other than what we are already doing,” because “there’s no there, there.”

Leaders lead. Harreld appears to have been led by the nose.

UPDATE: Vanessa Miller reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on March 4,

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness over the summer met with Visin and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek to discuss the June 25 incident, during which Visin is accused of driving his stepson, Sean Crane, away from authorities and refusing to stop when a deputy called his cellphone and asked him to pull over.

Lyness also spoke with Lehnertz in July about the incident, according to emails obtained by The Gazette. But she declined to file charges, according to Pulkrabek.

“What we want or didn’t want is irrelevant,” Pulkrabek told The Gazette.

Lehnertz, in a statement Friday, confirmed Lyness contacted him regarding the incident and indicated “their findings revealed no cause for any charges or action against Visin.” Lehnertz said Visin also independently disclosed information about the incident to Lehnertz.

“I reviewed the matter with UI legal counsel and departmental human resources,” Lehnertz said. “There were no legal actions or university policies violated, and based on the information shared with me at the time, I determined this was an internal personnel matter.”

It’s hard to believe that university policy does not require officials to cooperate with local law enforcement. I would welcome feedback from attorneys or other Bleeding Heartland readers who are well-versed in university rules.

SECOND UPDATE: After waiting “for my keyboard to cool down so I can backspace through all the swearing,” Ditchwalk put up an excellent post on “the Visin debacle.” He zeroed in on Harreld’s double-standards regarding “professionalism” in the university community. Excerpt:

take a moment and consider how you think J. Bruce Harreld, the new president at Iowa — who happens to be deeply concerned with civility and professionalism, not only for his own benefit, but for the people of Iowa, including, presumably, the faculty, staff and students on the campus that he presides over — reacted when he found out that his interim Director of Public Safety had impeded an official police investigation. Because if you don’t already know the answer, I think you’re going to have a hard time squaring Marshall Harreld’s response this past week with his haughty rhetoric. […]

The same man who cares deeply about civility and professionalism when he himself is interacting with the faculty, staff, and students that he helped to deceive in order to land the position he now holds, had absolutely no problem with the fact that his own director of public safety impeded the local police — because no charges were filed. And because that seems an important contradiction, let’s go over it again. J. Bruce Harreld, the new Mr. Manners on the University of Iowa campus, who believes that a few hostile remarks in a public forum are worthy of condemnation, had no problem with the judgment demonstrated by his director of public safety, who was, in turn, the man charged with, among other things, making sure that drunk students on campus, and victims of sexual assault and rape, are dealt with fairly and appropriately.

UI Administrative Professionalism in Action
Now, as it happens, we have a great deal of reporting from the recent town hall, and although there were certainly unprofessional and uncivil remarks uttered by Harreld’s detractors and Harreld himself, there does not seem to be any mention of the faculty, staff or students impeding an official police investigation, let alone abetting someone on the lam from a hit-and-run. So given Harreld’s professed belief in a professional code of conduct — and here I remind you that we’re still pretending he actually has such a belief — how does Harreld’s presidential concern meter not immediately go into the red when he learns that his director of public safety refused to help the local police?

The Des Moines Register’s unsigned editorial on March 7 focused on the “culture of secrecy that permeates the university,” resulting “not only in citizens being kept in the dark, but also their elected and appointed decision-makers.”

Last week, members of the Iowa Board of Regents’ subcommittee on campus safety and security acknowledged they learned about Visin’s actions only through a recent Associated Press story on the matter. And that story never would have been published had the AP not aggressively pursued the matter in the face of repeated stonewalling by public officials. […]

Visin disclosed the incident to his superior, UI’s senior vice president for finance and operations, Rod Lehnertz, shortly after it occurred. But the information was never passed on to the Regents’ subcommittee on public safety. On top of that, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness declined to charge Visin and refused public-records requests for documents related to the incident until the AP threatened to file a complaint.

When the Iowa City Press-Citizen asked for Visin’s emails on the matter, Visin reportedly said he didn’t have any such records. However, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek provided the newspaper with three email threads on the matter, all of which include messages sent to or from Visin. So why didn’t the university turn over Visin’s copies of those same emails when asked?

The university says Visin claimed to have no such records, and therein lies another layer of deceit. The school has a longstanding policy of letting the very individuals who are the subjects of an Open Records Request — the people who have the greatest incentive to bury any records that provide evidence of their own misdeeds — search their own hard drives for requested emails and declare whether the documents exist. The policy allows UI staffers to illegally withhold information while providing a very thin veneer of plausible deniability for the school’s laughably named “transparency officer.”

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