Bruce Rastetter recruited Bruce Harreld earlier than previously acknowledged

Bruce Harreld officially begins work today as the University of Iowa’s 21st president. Speaking to the Iowa City Press-Citizen’s Jeff Charis-Carlson on October 30, Harreld promised to “fight, fight, fight for this institution”–a response to widespread fears that he would accede to the Iowa Board of Regents’ plan to shift funding away from the university.

In the same interview, Harreld revealed new details about how he was recruited for the presidency, undermining parts of an official narrative that had already shifted several times during the month of September.

Critics of the Board of Regents’ decision to hire the only finalist who had no base of support on campus are being told to stop complaining and give the new president a chance. I wish Harreld every success in his new job and hope to be proven wrong about what his tenure will mean for the university.

But this is no time to stop scrutinizing the hiring process and whether leaders of the search committee and the Board of Regents misled the public about their early contacts with Harreld. The University of Iowa is a public institution. The search for its new president cost taxpayers more than $308,000. Iowans have a right to know if the search committee‘s deliberations and finalists’ campus forums were merely a sham concealing the Regents’ intent to choose a hand-picked candidate.

Charis-Carlson reported for the Sunday Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen on Harreld’s October 30 interview. The big news: Harreld met with key members of the search committee well before his first visit to the University of Iowa campus on July 8 and his secret meeting in Ames on July 30 with four members of the Board of Regents. From Sunday’s front-page story:

Harreld, who starts as president Monday [November 2], visited Cedar Rapids in early June to attend a meeting with Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter and Jean Robillard, UI’s vice president of medical affairs and chairman of the UI Presidential Search and Screen Committee.

Peter Matthes, UI’s interim chief of staff and a staff member assigned to the search committee, also attended. Another member of the search committee, businessman Jerre Stead, arranged the meeting, but was unable to attend. […]

Harreld said he had “absolutely no” interest in the job when Rastetter, who was on the search committee, called him in late spring and brought up the topic “out of the blue.” Rastetter’s introductory call was followed a week later by a more personal invitation from Stead, who has known Harreld professionally for more than two decades. […]

It was Stead who persuaded Harreld to fly to Iowa and meet with other members of the search committee. Although Stead eventually was unable to attend the meeting, it was there that Harreld first heard something that made him want to learn more about the job — the story of UI Health Care’s development and growth under Robillard’s tenure.

According to Harreld, that Cedar Rapids meeting lasted three or four hours, during which Robillard indicated UIHC had been implementing some “organizational change” along the lines Harreld described. “About a week later, Robillard emailed Harreld and asked him if he would be willing to make a similar presentation to UIHC leadership,” Charis-Carlson wrote.

That Harreld spoke in early July to approximately 40 university representatives, mostly UIHC administrators and doctors, was first reported by Eric Kelderman in a September 14 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Speaking to Kelderman,

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.

I found it odd that just a few months after the fact, Robillard would not remember how he had heard about Harreld. The Chronicle story gives the impression Robillard only knew of Harreld secondhand before inviting him to talk to his staff. We now know the two men had spent several hours together in the company of the University of Iowa’s interim chief of staff and Rastetter, who calls the shots for the nine-member Board of Regents. If Robillard forgot about such a lengthy meeting by the time he talked to Kelderman, perhaps he should consult with a doctor specializing in memory loss.

Incidentally, Robillard was well-acquainted with Harreld’s longtime business contact Stead years before Stead was appointed to the presidential search committee as a representative of the University of Iowa Foundation. Along with his wife, Stead co-chaired the UIHC’s $500 million capital campaign from 2011 to 2014. The couple personally committed $20 million to that campaign.

As for Robillard emphasizing to Kelderman “that Mr. Harreld was not a candidate to be Iowa’s president” at the time of his July 8 visit, that is at best a half-truth hanging on a technicality: Harreld had not formally applied for the job yet. By any reasonable standard, Harreld was seen as a potential candidate. Rastetter and Stead had already personally asked him to consider applying. Stead had arranged for Robillard, Rastetter, and ex officio search committee member Matthes to meet with Harreld in Cedar Rapids the previous month. Robillard invited law Professor Christina Bohannan and business school Dean Sarah Gardial to attend the July 8 talk; neither had any medical expertise but both went to hear Harreld as part of “our duty as members of the search committee.”

Charis-Carlson’s latest story doesn’t make clear who encouraged Rastetter to call Harreld “out of the blue.” But to my mind, the new information casts doubt on the previously reported notion that Purdue University President Mitch Daniels suggested Harreld for the University of Iowa presidency. Kelderman’s piece included this speculation on how Parker Executive Search (which was paid $281,770 for its role) sought out Harreld:

Mr. Harreld has not been made available for an interview since his appointment, but he addressed that question, albeit vaguely, in a news conference that followed the board’s decision: “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.”

That major-university president was Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the leader of Purdue University, according to several sources familiar with the search.

Mr. Daniels did not respond to a request for comment.

Speaking in September on behalf of the University of Iowa, Jeneane Beck declined to state who brought Harreld to Robillard’s attention but pointed me in the direction of Kelderman’s reporting, giving a semi-official seal of approval to the narrative. But as Bleeding Heartland discussed here and here, Daniels as the original source recommending Harreld never rang true for me.

Now it’s even harder to imagine that Daniels put Harreld’s name on the radar when Stead “has known Harreld professionally for more than two decades” and arranged Harreld’s first meeting with senior members of the presidential search committee. I wonder whether Daniels made the formal recommendation to Parker Executive Search to avoid making Harreld look like the inside candidate favored by Rastetter and/or Stead. Charis-Carlson’s report on Harreld’s October 30 interview alluded to “concerns about potential conflicts of interest arising from Harreld’s longstanding relationship with Stead”:

“I would say he was more of a coach,” Harreld said to a question about whether he and Stead had ever been in business together. “Yes, I think if you actually go back through, technically, he was working for an organization that was trying to sell something to us. Or I was working with an organization (trying to sell something to him). Both of us have had multiple moves. … I view him as very much a mentor of mine at various stages of my career.”

Stead “has had a long career leading high-tech and information companies.” Harreld spent thirteen years in senior positions at IBM.

Speaking to reporters at his September 3 press conference, Harreld said, “A president of a major university, I think, threw my name, possibly, into the hopper […].” Maybe those qualifiers “I think” and “possibly” hinted that this version wasn’t the whole story about the recruiting effort.

Ten days ago, Board of Regents member Subhash Sahai confirmed that he did not know other regents met with Harreld in Ames on July 30 until media reported on that event in late September. Sahai added that he was “angry, mad and most importantly sad about this revelation,” because behind-the-scenes contacts created “the impression of favoritism and impartiality [sic].” He went on to say that he stands by the decision to hire Harreld and took Regents President Rastetter and President Pro-tem Katie Mulholland at their word when they assured him board members had not already settled on a candidate before interviewing the four finalists on September 3. In closed session, regents engaged in “impassioned, intense and rigorous debate about the choice,” Sahai explained, implying that the subsequent unanimous public vote for Harreld was designed to lend legitimacy to the candidate favored by “the majority of the people on the board at the time.”

My questions to anyone who maintains Harreld’s hiring was not a foregone conclusion:

Why so much secrecy about Harreld’s meetings with search committee members and regents before he applied for the presidency?

When in the last five years has the Board of Regents not approved something Rastetter wanted?

P.S.- A separate piece by Charis-Carlson appeared in the Sunday Des Moines Register under the headline “Harreld: No ‘wholesale’ plans for reorganization.” At this writing, it’s not available on the Register’s website, but I will update this post with a link when possible. In that piece, Charis-Carlson quoted the new university president as saying he sees senior administrators’ “institutional knowledge” as “enormously important,” so while he will appoint some new personnel, he doesn’t plan “wholesale changing of leadership.” Toward the end of the article, Charis-Carlson speculated,

The one area on campus that probably will see the least direct interference from Harreld is University of Iowa Health Care, which includes the UI Hospitals and Clinics, the Carver College of Medicine and the UI Physicians group practice.

“I think that’s in very good hands,” Harreld said of the leadership of Jean Robillard, UI’s vice president for medical affairs and a member of the presidential cabinet.

I’ll bet he does.

UPDATE: Vanessa Miller covered Harreld’s new revelations in this story for the Sunday Cedar Rapids Gazette. She led with Harreld saying he didn’t want the job at first.

After Harreld rejected Rastetter’s initial inquiry, longtime friend and UI alumnus Jerre Stead — who was on the 21-member UI presidential search committee — reached out to Harreld to ask him to reconsider.

“He called me and basically asked, in terms of friendship, would I spend a day just getting to meet members of the search committee?” Harreld said.

In early June, in a Kirkwood Community College conference room in Cedar Rapids, Harreld sat down with Rastetter, UI Interim President Jean Robillard and Peter Matthes, interim chief of staff and vice president for external relations. They talked about a “host of issues,” such as how institutions can continue to improve themselves and about the UI Hospitals and Clinics — Robillard also is vice president for medical affairs with UI Health Care.

During that discussion, Harreld said, Rastetter again asked if he was interested in applying for the UI presidency.

“I said no,” Harreld said. “He asked me three more times, and I remember turning to Peter Matthes and saying, ‘He doesn’t take no for an answer, does he?’”

Later in the article, Miller reported,

Harreld said he never got the sense he was a shoe-in or even a favorite for the job.

Some members of the UI community have criticized Harreld’s meetings with regents and his visits to campus during the closed portion of the search. But, he told The Gazette, that surprises him.

“I find the criticism bizarre, to be really honest about it,” he said, adding that he simply wanted more information. “There is an assumption that I somehow was given preferential treatment. I didn’t see that at all. At all. I’m still trying to get enough information.”

The Ditchwalk blog raised an important point:

[Interim chief of staff] Matthes is a staffer, but he’s not quoted in either the Gazette or Press-Citizen piece. He was in the room. He knows what was talked about in that room. […] it’s important that Peter Matthes be put on the record about exactly what was and was not talked about — or, that Peter Matthes be put on the record refusing to detail what was talked about.

Kelderman’s November 1 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education is worth a read. He quoted many people on campus to illustrate his main thesis: Harreld starts the job “in a hole.” This part made me laugh:

Beginning the day after he was named to the position, he began reaching out personally to the campus community, meeting with individuals and small groups of both administrators and faculty members.

Reviews of those meetings have been mixed, however, and even some who are trying to move beyond the controversy have a hard time coming up with a positive message about the new president. […]

[Rachel Williams, an associate professor of both art and women’s studies] has met twice with Mr. Harreld. She found him personable and well-meaning, she said, but he seemed to lack a real understanding of the complexity of a research university — or of higher education in general.

For example, she explained, during one meeting, Mr. Harreld pointed out rankings from U.S. News & World Report and Forbes to show areas where Iowa could improve. “I tried to explain to him that these metrics are not representative of what these schools do,” she said. “He’s not a bad person, and he’s not a stupid person, so that’s good, right?”

Last month, Harreld wrote to the whole university community explaining why he came to Iowa. I remain concerned about his agenda and vision for change, but at least he went on record saying, “I fully support faculty tenure. It provides the foundation for academic freedom, protects innovative research and scholarship, and ensures that our students can learn from the best in their fields.”

About the Author(s)


  • Boot out the faculty

    Comment Maybe the U of I faculty wants to DEMAND they pick the president. What a bunch of whiners. A bunch of liberal democrats that act like babies. The legislators need to send a message that their behavior will not be tolerated or they can find other employment. As taxpayers we have had enough of their “academic superiority behavior”.

  • Portals?

    Common link: Scott M Sperling. Like Harreld, Sperling has a BS from Purdue and an MBA from Harvard. Like Harreld he was part of Boston Consulting Group. And like Harreld, Sperling is an inductee into Purdue’s Sigma Chi HOF.

    Sperling was on the board of Hawkeye Holdings, the CEO was Bruce Rastetter. Bruce Rastetter was a director of Advanced Bioenergy, where Sperling was a director too. (and Hawkeye Energy Holdings)

    Harreld said he was named to Bruce Rastter by someone from Boston Consulting. Sperling fits that bill. Sperling is now a partner with Thomas H Lee – a private equity firm.

    That is if you buy into the ‘Boston Consulting’ alibi. A quick check of J Bruce Harreld and Jerre Stead shows they lived at the same time in Barrington IL — even close to each other — and belonged to similar organizations. Both are Presbyterian Elders. Harreld admitted that Stead is a mentor of his. Stead could be a shadows source of Harrelds candidacy.

    Why all the chicanery to disguise meetings (at Kirkwood and at Ames)? Why did Stead deceive the press about his relationship with Harreld? Why is Robillard either disingenuous or demented (saying he doesn’t remember how he heard of Harreld when he met with him for 4 hours in early June? Why did Rastetter form a subset search committee *board of regents* that Sahai even admits he never knew? Why subvert the shared governance search? Why are there so many ‘retirements’, ‘firings’, 3.5 million dollar consultants, old employees of Rastetter hired on at the BOR in DM or ISU in Ames. Why transfer funds from Iowa to ISU based on some tainted formula? Someone or some group is doing their utmost to covertly hijack the agendas and functioning of Iowa’s public universities. (?ALEC). A state AG or federal prosecutor needs to get the bottom of this.

    • when did Bruce Harreld say

      that someone from Boston Consulting passed his name to Bruce Rastetter? I missed that.

      Stead and Robillard should have been more forthcoming with other search committee members about Harreld’s connections to Stead and Harreld’s meetings with Rastetter and other regents.

      • It's here, on interview

        Go to about 50 seconds in or so and Harreld gives his narrative.

      • Link