Appointment of former IBM executive causes unease at University of Iowa

Bruce Harreld will become president of the institution in November

September 8, 2015
Source: Inside Higher Ed

Come November, the University of Iowa will have a businessman with little experience in academia at its helm, and many faculty members are not happy about it.

The Iowa Board of Regents unanimously appointed former IBM senior vice president Bruce Harreld as Iowa’s next president last week, despite outspoken criticism of Harreld as lacking the necessary qualifications to lead a university.

Harreld was one of four publicly announced finalists for the position and the only one without experience in higher education administration. He is a consultant who formerly worked as an executive at IBM, Kraft General Foods and Boston Market Company restaurants.

His higher education experience is limited to eight years as an adjunct business professor at Harvard University and Northwestern University.

Faculty members have expressed concerns that Harreld lacks the knowledge and skills to work under a shared governance model and understand the complexities of leading a multibillion-dollar academic and research organisation. Many worry that he will view the institution with a corporate mindset, and that he will allow the regents to make the wrong changes to the university.

An American Association of University Professors survey of 164 Iowa faculty and 122 students and others found that fewer than 5 per cent of respondents felt that Harreld would make a good president. Other groups that collected faculty comments, including the search firm Parker Executive Search and Iowa’s Faculty Senate, have not publicly shared summaries of that feedback.

“Bruce Harreld is taking on the presidency under an enormous cloud and it’s going to take a lot of work to begin to make his presidency work effectively and to gain the trust of the community,” said Ed Folsom, an English professor who served on the presidential search that produced Sally Mason, whose retirement in August created the vacancy that the board is filling. “The fear of a good part of the university community is that he is assuming a presidency that…looks to the Board of Regents for guidance and approval, rather than looking to the university community for guidance and approval.”

Harreld won the job over three other finalists with experience in higher education administration: Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College; Michael Bernstein, provost of Tulane University; and Joseph Steinmetz, provost at Ohio State University.

On Tuesday, Harreld participated in a forum with professors, students and others that was at times contentious. He was questioned about his background in business and his knowledge of Iowa and higher education and asked point-blank why he wanted to be Iowa’s president.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, and I think appropriate discussion, about my background,” he said, adding that he’s led “transformational” turnarounds in the corporate sector and wants to usher Iowa through an era of challenges.

“My experience is that organisations don’t actually maintain themselves. They either go up or they go down…Winners can very quickly become losers. Great institutions have an ability to fall very quickly,” he continued. “As good as you are, you need to prepare yourself for what's coming ahead.”

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