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Final Candidate To Be Next UI President Is A Familiar One: UI Dean of College Of Education

Daniel Clay, Dean of the University of Iowa College of Education, addresses the audience at the Levitt Center for University Advancement, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan via AP, Pool)
Shivansh Ahuja/AP
Pool The Daily Iowan
Daniel Clay, Dean of the University of Iowa College of Education, addresses the audience Thursday at the Levitt Center for University Advancement on the UI campus.

The fourth and final candidate vying to be the next president of the University of Iowa is one of the school’s own: Dean of the UI College of Education Daniel Clay met with campus leaders and took questions during a public forum on campus Thursday. With a background in psychology and counseling, Clay brings experience in scholarship, teaching and administration as well as business management and knowledge of the internal workings at the University of Iowa.

Clay is the only finalist to come from within the University of Iowa, where he’s served as the dean of the school’s College of Education since 2016. He is also a professor in the college’s Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations.

A first generation grad, Clay sees transformational value in higher ed

Speaking at the public forum Thursday afternoon, Clay made the case for himself as the best leader and advocate for the school because he understands its transformational value as a first generation college graduate himself.

“My father barely finished 10th grade. And my mother, who married my father, moved away before she finished high school. They didn't have the knowledge, they didn't have the money to know about college,” Clay said. “But higher ed changed the trajectory of my life and of my entire extended family.”

Hailing from a small farming community of 600 people, going to college opened up a whole new world for Clay. He presents himself as an advocate who can make a powerful case for the UI in board rooms and conference centers, as well as in small town coffee shops and legislative committee rooms. He says his experience shaped his understanding of what the stakes are for a robust, high quality and affordable public education.

“Iowa is uniquely positioned for students like me to develop their own stories,” he said. “But I also know that we can do better. I know we can do better.”

Before coming to Iowa, Clay served as the dean of the College of Education at the University of Missouri. With degrees in educational and counseling psychology and business administration, Clay has also had stints on the faculty of Auburn University, Western Illinois University and the North Dakota University College of Medicine, as well as a previous stop at the University of Iowa.

He’s published scores of academic articles, as well as book chapters and books, spanning issues of the psychology of kids with chronic illness, cultural competency in counseling, workaholism, rural health care initiatives, and stress management among law enforcement officers.

Clay is also an entrepreneur, founding and funding startup business ventures, including a company that licenses and markets intellectual property developed at the UI. When questioned about potential conflicts of interest, Clay said he follows the university’s “very rigorous” guidelines and said his business interests are analogous to those of a professor who pens a textbook.

An emphasis on “continuous improvement” and diverse leadership

In his administrative roles, Clay prides himself on implementing a continuous improvement model designed to absorb new data on revenues, costs and graduation rates, among other factors, in order to review and refocus programs on an annual basis. And he highlighted his efforts to establish a “culture of high standards and accountability," creating pathways for advancement and professional development across the college and seeking out diverse leaders to advise him.

“I'm really proud to say that five of the seven people on my leadership team are women. Two are persons of color and one has a disability. And they're all extraordinary leaders. And they all came in at different ranks but continue to advance,” Clay said. “I think it can't be accidental. It has to be intentional. And if it's important to us, then we have to provide institutional resources to make it happen.”

In the forum, Clay laid some of the groundwork for how he envisions his leadership and management style would differ from past presidents. He said it’s critical that the next president be more visible in communities across the state, building relationships with elected officials and employers to build partnerships and a pipeline of students from rural Iowa. Referencing last summer’s protests for racial justice, he also pledged to be more present and accessible, especially in times of crisis.

“I think our university should have had a more prominent presence to listen to our students and our community members who were expressing their pain and their anguish and their concern,” Clay said. “So as a president, I can assure you one thing: I will always be here. I will always listen to learn.”

Outlining changes to leadership and management style

Clay also said he would like to see changes in the university’s budget model to lessen what he described as competition for funding between the school’s colleges and its university services, saying the system incentivizes conflict within different parts of university over limited funding. He hopes to restructure the budgeting process to incentivize more collaboration.

“We should be promoting collaboration and not competition within ourselves,” Clay said. “I think you have to incentivize innovation, yes, but I would like to change that dynamic so that we're incentivized not to compete with central service units for limited funding, but to work together to find a way to expand the available pie.”

Clay also made it clear he believes it’s vitally important to protect and defend certain essential components of the university against political attacks, at a time when partisan fights around free speech and academic freedom on university campuses have attracted the attention of state lawmakers.

“Academic freedom was originally designed to provide faculty opportunities to pursue the truth and to speak the truth without fear of retribution. And I think any university president in higher education should be willing to fight to the death for that,” Clay said. “But we simply cannot shout people down and shut them down if we disagree. If we can't have difficult conversations about things like race on our campus in this divisive time, then where are we ever going to have them?”

The presidential search committee will meet again next week to discuss the four candidates, to review campus feedback and draft its recommendations. Community members have until Monday April 26 at 5 p.m. to fill out online surveys on the candidates. The Board of Regents is scheduled to interview the finalists on April 29 - 30 and announce their hire that Friday afternoon.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter