This is not what leadership looks like

When the Iowa Board of Regents picked Bruce Harreld over finalists far more qualified to be president of a major university, supporters of the hire touted the non-traditional candidate’s leadership ability, honed in the corporate world. Regents President Bruce Rastetter has repeatedly commented on Harreld’s “successful, collaborative skills” and experience “making organizations better and bringing teams together and developing a strategic plan of how we make organizations better.”

Six months into Harreld’s tenure, those purported leadership skills have yet to be seen. The president declined to respond when challenged over the University of Iowa’s refusal to release documents related to statewide opinion polling. He extended Athletic Director Gary Barta’s contract for five years despite lawsuits and federal investigations of possible gender discrimination on Barta’s watch. (The university didn’t disclose that decision until a journalist asked weeks later to see the contract.) When the Associated Press reported that the head of campus police had “interfered with an investigation into a hit-and-run drunk driving accident by his stepson,” an incident not disclosed even to key members of the Board of Regents, Harreld made no public statement for two days. Then he told one reporter “there’s no there, there”–less than 48 hours before the university announced the official’s demotion.

Yesterday Harreld showed up at a forum on social justice issues unprepared to answer the most obvious question that could have been asked.

Monday’s event was originally conceived as a second town-hall forum to be led by the president. (The first was a contentious affair in February, which Professor Judith Pascoe described here.) Harreld’s idea for a town-hall about diversity changed to a panel discussion featuring the president with a focus on social justice, a running theme of several campus events this semester.

A major local story in recent days has been the university’s failure to comply with Johnson County’s higher minimum wage. County supervisors unanimously approved a local ordinance last September, raising the minimum wage for most employers to $8.20 per hour as of November 1, 2015, $9.15 per hour as of May 1, 2016, and $10.10 per hour as of January 1, 2017. After that, the county minimum wage will rise annually on July 1 “by an amount corresponding to the previous calendar year’s increase, if any, in the Consumer Price Index for the Midwest region as published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.”

Last summer, officials indicated that the University of Iowa was probably not subject to the ordinance. The university did raise all employees’ hourly wages to $8.20 by November 1, “to keep pace with the local market.” However, as the next deadline approached, university officials admitted not all employees would be earning $9.15 per hour. Stephen Gruber-Miller reported for the Iowa City Press-Citizen on April 29,

The University of Iowa has said that, as a state agency, it is not bound by the county’s ordinance. At a Board of Regents meeting last week, Rod Lehnertz, UI senior vice president for finance and operations, stressed that the university has to remain competitive, but that does not mean UI as a whole will increase wages.

“We do not and are not following the Johnson County (minimum wage), but rather our own market needs to fill any position on campus related to the minimum wage,” Lehnertz said.

University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck confirmed that there are 2,685 university employees who make less than $9.15 an hour and won’t receive a raise resulting from the new minimum wage. All but 39 of that number are students, and the rest are temporary staff, she said.

That’s more people than are employed by any other business in the county, according to data from the Iowa City Area Development Group. The largest Johnson County employer after UI and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is the Iowa City Community School District, which employed 2,346 people in 2014.

So, a $9.15 minimum wage took effect for most Johnson County employers on May 1. Harreld agreed to participate in a panel discussion of social justice issues on May 2. As anyone could have anticipated, someone asked why the university isn’t raising wages for its lowest-paid employees. From Jeff Charis-Carlson’s story for the Iowa City Press-Citizen:

A question was posed via notecard Monday asking about whether UI officials, in the name of social justice, should have agreed to raise the minimum wage on campus — especially considering that the new minimum wage was so far from a living wage.

None of the members of the panel, which primarily included members of the planning committee for the [“Just Living”] theme semester, said they felt qualified to answer the question.

Audience members, including a member of the county Board of Supervisors, called for the question to be answered by UI President Bruce Harreld, who declined to answer.

Who could be more qualified to respond than the person running the university?

The absurdity of the scene comes through in Vanessa Miller’s take on the same event for the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

When several audience members, including Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, raised questions about why the university did not increase the minimum wage on campus, the panelists fell silent.

“It seems like a very basic social justice issue,” Sullivan said during the discussion.

“I think that’s a wonderful topic that we can add to our list,” Brittney Thomas, coordinator of the learning commons in the UI Main Library, said in response, prompting multiple audience members — including Sullivan — to stand up and walk out.

“I was obviously extremely frustrated by the university’s decision to ignore that topic,” Sullivan told The Gazette after the forum. […]

In the end, Harreld vowed to continue the conversation — even using summer months — to focus on specific topics in hopes of better addressing the issue of social justice on campus.

Wonderful! Add it to the list. Let’s continue the conversation this summer.

The minimum wage is a timely issue now.

It’s hard to fathom how Harreld could have walked into that room unprepared to talk about such a hot topic.

For a guy who co-authored a bunch of articles on leadership, he has a lot to learn.

P.S.- Speaking of poorly-planned public meetings, Miller reported on April 21 that seven forums for community input on the University of Iowa’s strategic plan would take place between April 25 and May 5. As the Ditchwalk blog pointed out, officials genuinely interested in collaboration would not “jam the entire outreach process into a short ten-day window, which was itself announced only a week earlier.” Especially since the period before finals week is a busy time for most students and faculty.

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