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UI President Harreld Intends To Retire As Soon As A Replacement Is Found

University of Iowa Senate President Bruce Harreld has announced he intends to retire as soon as the next president is hired.

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld has announced his intention to retire as soon as a replacement can be appointed. The news comes as the state’s flagship public university, like higher ed institutions across the country, has struggled to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.

Harreld’s time at the UI has been embattled from the start, but he’s committed to a smooth transition process and has pledged to stay on until a new president is hired.

“I firmly believe there is a cadence to life and especially to an institution like ours. So, I have been reflecting on our collective cadence. This past summer, I informed the Board of Regents of my desire to retire as soon as a successor can be appointed,” reads a written statement from Harreld released Thursday.

Harreld’s statement does not directly address what prompted the decision, and does not set a clear timeline for his departure, though he has acknowledged the search process could take “additional time given the pandemic”.

His current contract, which was extended just last year, runs through June of 2023.

The Board of Regents intends to have a new president in place by the start of the fall 2021 semester, though the timeline will depend on the search process.

In a written statement, board president Michael Richards thanked Harreld for his work, and for committing to stay on until a replacement is found.

“I have appreciated the tireless work that he has put in over the past five years, keeping UI among the nation’s top public universities. He has been dedicated to the success of our students, faculty and staff, and always willing to listen to and engage with the university community,” Richards’ statement reads in part.

UI Faculty Senate President and law professor Joseph Yockey praised Harreld's accessibility, saying he met often with the faculty group and was readily available by phone.

Yockey also noted Harreld's contentious appointment process, which spurred the American Association of University Professors to sanction the UI, resulted in the development of best practices for presidential searches.

"The silver lining to this is that we now are in a much better position to conduct the search going forward, given the lessons that we learned from the 2015 search," Yockey said. "Going forward, I think we're in a really good position to utilize that best practices document to ensure that shared governance principles are respected in this now upcoming search."

Contentious from the start

The COVID-19 crisis has redefined this latest stage of Harreld’s time at the UI, which has been contentious from start to finish.

The selection of Harreld in the fall of 2015, over top executives at Oberlin College, Ohio State University and Tulane University, outraged professors who considered the former IBM executive unqualified to lead the institution due to his lack of experience in academic leadership.

It was Harreld’s experience in the private sector that won over his supporters on the Board of Regents and alienated faculty and staff, many of whom felt their opinions were not reflected in the decision. The UI Faculty Senate ultimately cast a vote of no confidence over the board’s unanimous appointment.

Under Harreld's leadership, the university saw increases in its research grant funding, an completed a nearly $2 billion fundraising campaign that drew on private investments and charitable donations.

One of Harreld’s topline projects was securing a 50 year agreement with a French company to operate the university’s utility system, in exchange for a $1 billion payment to be reinvested to further the school’s core mission. The deal demonstrated the business-minded decision-making that first appealed to Harreld’s supporters, while frustrating some critics who called for more transparency in the process.

A tenure redefined by COVID-19

The end of Harreld’s tenure has been buffeted by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, which has forced universities across the country to grapple with a series of damning decisions.

Additionally, a wave of protests over racial injustice and police brutality elevated the demands of the people of color at the school and in the broader community. Hundreds gathered at the steps of the Old Capitol, the symbolic center of campus, night after night and week after week, demanding justice, equity and change, with protestors at times marching right up to the President’s Residence.

The school closed its campus down and transitioned to virtual instruction as the nation ground to a halt in March. But under Harreld’s leadership, the UI welcomed some 32,000 students back to campus this fall for largely-virtual instruction, despite repeated pleas from faculty, staff and students to do away with in-person instruction due to coronavirus concerns.

Soon after the campus reopened, COVID-19 cases in Johnson County spiked, making the area a national and international hotspot for transmission of the virus, which as of Thursday had killed some 1,359 Iowans and 207,000 Americans.

More than 2,000 UI students and employees have self-reported testing positive for the virus, though this measure is likely an undercount since the school does not require testing or mandate reporting of results.

"The past six months at least, it definitely has been really challenging," said Mackensie Graham, a law student and president of the UI Graduate and Professional Student Government, noting that her organization has clashed with the university's handling of COVID-19 . "Right now there's definitely multiple points of distress affecting different constituencies on campus."

"I definitely don't envy any of the high level administrators at the University of Iowa right now," she added. "They have a lot to deal with."

Details of search process to come

Past estimates project a budget shortfall of some $70 million due to the pandemic, which compounds years of funding cuts by the state legislature. Like so many higher education institutions, the state’s flagship research university increasingly relies on student tuition to cover its costs as public funding steadily declines.

The next president can expect to inherent many of these issues: the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn, and the more long-term crisis of how to fund higher ed.

Richards, the board president, has committed to conducting the presidential search process “fairly and transparently," and says that process will allow for open forums and feedback from the campus community.

“While details need to be worked out, we will hire a search firm, and form an inclusive and diverse search committee. There will be meetings held about the search with various constituent groups, including faculty and students,” Richards’ statement reads in part. “As in the past, names of finalists recommended by the search committee will be made public, and candidates will attend open forums where they can address the university community and answer questions.”

Looking forward to the search, Graham, of the GPSG, says she's counting on an open and transparent process, and hoping for a candidate who's a strong advocate for the campus.

"Somebody who will really commit and openly lead on topics of equity and inclusion, again that open and transparent piece, and then advocating for student health and safety, as well as continued investment to the Board of Regents," Graham said. "We've seen continued defunding by the state government, and so I think a president who is really going to go to bat and say, 'hey this is a really viable and valuable investment for the state of Iowa to continue to invest in our students and our institutions'."

Yockey, the Faculty Senate president, says he hopes the university will once again look for a leader from within academia, rather than from the corporate world.

"I'm going to be looking for someone who has considerable administrative experience in an institution of higher education," Yockey said, "someone who could be tenured at the full professor level."

The Board of Regents is slated to meet next Monday to formally accept Harreld’s retirement and to discuss the search.

Editor's Note: this story was updated on Oct 1. at 6 p.m. to include comments from the University of Iowa Graduate and Professional Student Government.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter