Shifting official line raises questions about Bruce Harreld's first Iowa City visit

New details emerged this week about J. Bruce Harreld’s contacts with some members of the University of Iowa’s search committee in early July, weeks before he officially applied to become the next university president.

Inconsistent official statements about Harreld’s first campus visit will raise more suspicions about special treatment for the man the Board of Regents hired two weeks ago, over the opposition of university faculty and students.  

What we learned on Monday

At the invitation of Dr. Jean Robillard, interim university president and chair of the Presidential Search and Screen Committee, Harreld spoke on July 8 to approximately 40 university representatives, mostly administrators and doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Eric Kelderman broke that news in a September 14 report for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Excerpt:

Earlier in the summer [Dr. Robillard] invited the businessman to speak with some senior staff members at University of Iowa Health Care [sic]. Dr. Robillard did not recall how he had first heard of Mr. Harreld, but he brought him to the campus early in July to offer perspectives on improving health-service operations.

“We were looking for a different speaker – not a consultant – to come and tell us about what they did in a different enterprise, what they did to keep them at the top,” Dr. Robillard said. “When I heard his name, I said, This is the type of person that really I need to bring to give us a talk.”

Dr. Robillard stressed that Mr. Harreld was not a candidate to be Iowa’s president at that time. There were other visitors, he said, who were recruited to apply after similar speaking engagements on the campus. “We are a university,” he said. “We are dealing with different people all across the country, and it’s not unusual to have people who come to campus.”

True, it’s not unusual to have outside speakers on a college campus. A few aspects of Robillard’s account are unusual, though.

1. Robillard cannot remember how he first heard of Harreld.

These events did not occur in the distant past. I am surprised that whoever brought Harreld to Robillard’s attention has slipped the doctor’s mind in the space of a few months.

2. Robillard “stressed that Mr. Harreld was not a candidate to be Iowa’s president at that time.”

Quoting again from Kelderman’s article: “There were other visitors, he said, who were recruited to apply after similar speaking engagements on the campus.”

The reader is meant to infer that Harreld was invited to apply for the presidency after the early July visit.

As we shall see below, statements released by the university later in the week contradict that version of events, as do recent comments by search committee members who met Harreld on July 8.

It seems highly likely that Harreld first got on Robillard’s radar as a potential recruit for the presidency rather than as a prospective speaker advising UIHC staff on leadership.

3. Harreld reportedly was brought to campus to share his expertise, yet was neither paid for speaking nor reimbursed for expenses.

Outside speakers on college campuses typically receive an honorarium, but even when the university pays no speaking fee, it is customary to reimburse for travel and other expenses.

For Harreld to pay his own way to and from Iowa City suggests that the visit was primarily a fact-finding trip for himself, to determine whether he was interested in seeking the university presidency.

Other news from the week supports the same conclusion.

What we learned on Tuesday

Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on September 15 about Harreld’s first campus visit, adding an important new detail.

Interim university president Jean Robillard, who led the 21-member search committee, said Tuesday that he invited Harreld to speak to top administrators of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on July 8 about “transformational change,” his area of expertise. Robillard said that, at his request, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter joined him and Harreld for lunch after the talk. […]

No other would-be candidates received a speaking invitation from Robillard, who has been a rare campus voice praising Harreld’s hiring and the transparency of the search. Robillard has called him a “breath of fresh air” and predicted he would lead the university to growth and excellence.

Robillard and Rastetter also traveled to meet with another eventual candidate in Des Moines, university spokeswoman Janeane Beck said. That candidate requested and received a tour of UIHC but didn’t speak to a group. Another candidate was a guest speaker to the College of Public Health.

Recall that Robillard told the Chronicle’s Kelderman Harreld was “not a candidate” for the presidency on July 8. Technically, the statement is accurate: Harreld had not submitted application materials to the search committee at that time. However, Robillard clearly viewed Harreld as a prospect, or else he would not have invited him to lunch with the person who calls the shots for the nine-member Board of Regents. The Regents (not the search committee) had the final call on hiring the university president.

Foley previously reported that after applying for the presidency, Harreld asked Rastetter to help him make contact with Governor Terry Branstad. The governor called Harreld (but no other candidate for the job) to reassure him about his support for the university.

Side note: one question still not answered to my satisfaction is, who first suggested that the search committee recruit Harreld? Kelderman’s article noted that during a September 3 press conference, Harreld had said “vaguely,”

“A president of a major university, I think, threw my name, possibly, into the hopper, and then the search committee reached out to me and asked me how interested I was.”

Citing “several sources familiar with the search,” Kelderman reported that former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is now president of Purdue University, recommended Harreld for the presidency. University of Iowa spokesperson Jeneane Beck echoed that account when I asked who brought Harreld’s name to the attention of the search committee and/or Dr. Robillard:

In the press conference immediately following his selection, Mr. Harreld said a president of a university threw his name in the hat.  He has not revealed the name of that president. (The Chronical of Higher Ed reports anonymous sources saying it was Mitch Daniels.)

The connection makes sense, since Harreld is a prominent Purdue alumnus.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that we haven’t heard the final word on this angle.  

I am seeking more information on whether others who were acquainted with both Harreld and Rastetter through business or social networks floated Harreld as a prospect long before Daniels contacted either university search committee members or Parker Executive Search, the consulting firm which will be paid more than $200,000 for handling the search.

We now return to the main point of this post.

What we learned on Wednesday

University officials confirmed on September 16 that Rastetter and Robillard weren’t the only search committee members who spent time with Harreld on July 8.

Statement on Harreld’s visit to UIHC From Christina Bohannan and Dean Sarah Gardial, search committee members

Given the outcome of the presidential search, much attention is now focused on the details of the search process. It is important to note that the search committee collectively agreed, early on, to keep its activities and discussions confidential in order to recruit the best candidates and to encourage committee members to speak freely about those candidates. It would be a betrayal of that trust to divulge all of those details now.

Having said that, Search Committee Chair Jean Robillard has confirmed that President-Elect Bruce Harreld visited UIHC on July 8, where he gave a talk and had lunch. We want to acknowledge candidly that we attended those events at Dr. Robillard’s invitation. This was our duty as members of the search committee. The search committee was told to be aggressive in identifying, recruiting, and vetting as many candidates as we could to get the biggest and best possible pool. When the chair of the search committee invited us to come and hear someone talk, we made it a point to be there. It is our understanding that other candidates visited campus and talked to people at various points in the process as well. Such visits are not uncommon, especially in high-level searches. Search committee members, as well as many other members of the UI community, were actively engaged in this process, and we spent countless hours talking to and about many potential candidates throughout. We are proud of the hard work everyone put into this process and the deep commitment to the University that it reflects.

Again, from Kelderman’s report for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Dr. Robillard stressed that Mr. Harreld was not a candidate to be Iowa’s president at that time.” That statement may have been true in a narrow sense, but if Robillard had not viewed Harreld as a candidate for the job, he would not have invited Bohannon and Gardial to come listen to him.

I sought further comment on whether Harreld was invited to Iowa City as a prospect for the presidency. Jeneane Beck responded on behalf of the university,

Mr. Harreld was not yet a candidate but the search committee was interested in him.  Given Mr. Harreld’s experience and published articles, Dr. Robillard believed he would provide an interesting perspective for UIHC leadership about transformational change so invited him to speak.  […]

Dr. Robillard says several potential candidates requested the opportunity to meet to discuss the position.  He and Regent Rastetter met one eventual candidate in Des Moines and that person then requested and received a tour of the hospital but did not speak to a group.

Dr. Robillard says the College of Public Health also hosted someone who became later became a candidate.

This was part of the recruiting process.    

So, Harreld came to Iowa City as “part of the recruiting process.” While there, he had lunch with several search committee members, including the most powerful man on the board that would make the hire. Other prospects for the presidency may have met search committee members on campus, but they did not have the same access to Rastetter.

Vanessa Miller’s report for today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette contains more details about the July 8 events.

[Sarah] Gardial, dean of the UI Henry B. Tippie College of Business, said she assumed Harreld was a presidential prospect, even though neither she nor Bohannan had seen his name on any official candidate list. The application deadline was July 31.

“There was no other reason for me to be there,” Gardial said. “It was an opportunity to not just see a potential candidate, but to see him in action. I thought it was an interesting opportunity.”

Harreld’s wife, Mary, also requested to come to campus and attended that July visit, according to UI officials. She did not participate in the lunch, but she toured the new Hancher building. She was the only candidate spouse to visit the campus.

Maybe Mary Harreld accompanies her husband on most of his business trips. Or, maybe she wanted to check out Iowa City as a possible place to move from New Canaan, Connecticut.

Incidentally, nothing about Harreld’s work experience or published articles indicates any familiarity with an enterprise like the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, or any expertise on managing health care service delivery. (Sales and services at medical facilities account for more than half of the University of Iowa’s budgeted annual revenue of $3.5 billion.)

Harreld wasn’t advising the senior medical staff on those topics. Instead, he spoke “about best practices for organizations that were successful and wanted to continue on that path, according to Gardial and Bohannan.”

Speaking by phone today, Gardial confirmed that Harreld did not address the structure or management of the UIHC during his remarks to staff there. He delivered what sounded like one of his lectures from the Harvard Business School: “how do you keep successful institutions moving ahead.” According to Gardial, Harreld didn’t ask his listeners at UIHC or his lunch companions later in the day for more information about the medical side of university operations. They talked about the presidential search in general terms over lunch, but Harreld did not indicate that he planned to apply for the job.

Minutes from the search committee meetings in late July and early August do not show whether others were informed about Harreld’s campus visit earlier in the summer. The committee moved to closed session to discuss the 46 applicants for the presidency.

Speaking of closed sessions, Foley reported yesterday,

A retired professor has filed a lawsuit arguing that the University of Iowa presidential search committee repeatedly violated the open meetings law and that its actions should be voided. […]

[Emeritus Professor Harrold] Hammond’s petition alleges the search committee held meetings that were improperly closed and in locations that were inaccessible to the public. Among others, the lawsuit challenges two days of closed interviews the committee conducted with nine finalists last month at a hotel near a Chicago airport. […]

A state lawyer denied Hammond’s allegations in a court filing this month, saying committee members “substantially complied with the provisions” of the law. […]

[Hammond’s attorney Greg] Geerdes had warned committee members in a March letter that he believed out-of-state airport hotel meetings would violate the law, which requires public bodies to meet at reasonably accessible locations. He also argued that he saw no justification for the committee to close entire meetings to discuss potential candidates in executive session. […]

Hammond filed a similar lawsuit after Sally Mason was named [University of Iowa] president in 2007. In a 2009 settlement, the search committee admitted to violating the open meetings law in four different ways, including by failing to give proper notice of meetings and discussing matters in closed session that were required to be discussed openly. The university promised that in the future, presidential search committees would “take thorough and sufficient steps” to comply with the Open Meetings Law. The school also paid Hammond’s legal fees of $66,000.

It’s hard for me to imagine a court invalidating all of the search committee’s actions, and by extension Harreld’s hiring. By the time Hammond’s lawsuit works its way through the courts, Harreld will have been on the job for some time. Bank on another settlement, along the same lines as the 2009 agreement. Hammond’s legal fees will be a small price to pay for flouting the university’s earlier promises to comply with open meetings rules.

The lack of transparency surrounding this year’s search could incur much larger hidden costs in the future, when it’s time to find a new University of Iowa president.

Already this year, members of the search committee had trouble persuading qualified women and minority candidates to apply for the job, Vanessa Miller reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on September 11.

By unanimously passing over three candidates with strong support on campus in favor of Harreld, whom university stakeholders overwhelmingly viewed as unqualified, the Board of Regents fueled suspicions that “the fix was in” for the new president.

Special treatment such as a phone call from the governor and a speaking invitation from the search committee president only adds to the impression that Harreld had the inside track all along.

Never mind recruiting talented women and minorities: why should qualified white males waste time applying to lead the University of Iowa, knowing that Rastetter will pick the guy he wants, regardless of what any faculty or students think?

Harreld won’t be in Iowa City forever. I pity the people who will serve on the committee searching for his successor.

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