The Ed Biz

Quite a controversy surrounds the appointment recently of businessman Bruce Harreld, who has no academic background, to the presidency at the University of Iowa — one of the Midwest’s premier universities. The article from the DesMoines Register tells us, in part, that despite overwhelming opposition from the faculty and the university community at large,

. . . Harreld was named UI’s 21st president Thursday in a unanimous vote from the Iowa Board of Regents. In so doing, they chose a former business executive with no experience in university administration, whose resume lists as his present employer a company he has since acknowledged no longer exists.

Harreld has also admitted he’ll have a steep learning curve for the job, and that his “unusual background” will mean he’ll need a lot of teaching, coaching and mentoring from those who criticized him. It’s good he acknowledged that, and gracious to extend the olive branch. But considering he’ll earn $590,000, plus $200,000 annually in deferred compensation, on-the-job training shouldn’t be necessary.

The rather large salary is impressive, but it pales in contrast with that of the football coach, Kirk Ferentz who makes in excess of $4 million. His staff makes just under $3 million. And given Iowa’s place in the 14 member coalition called the “Big 10,” football is most important. But also given that education has become a business (at all levels) where success is measured in numbers, it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to appoint a man to the highest office at the university whose background features the selling of computers and chickens.

I have found in my own experience that an academic person doesn’t always make the best college president — since his or her job is to cuddle up to money and politicians and try to balance budgets. Academics aren’t trained to do that sort of thing. And we also happen to be generally introverted and ill-at-ease in large groups, making small talk with small minds. But there is a principle buried somewhere in this story and it has to do with the propriety of asking a man (or a woman) with no academic experience whatever and no degree higher than an MBA to run one of the nation’s largest universities which is supposed to be a “community of scholars.”

So what we have here is the question of honesty — admitting that education is really all about money — as over against the propriety of naming an inexperienced business man, no matter how successful he has been, to the presidency of the University of Iowa. In this case the waters are muddied a bit by the fact that this man’s knowledge of the University of Iowa came from his reading of Wikipedia, his resumé highlights his experience selling computers, Kraft Food,  and Boston Chicken and also “lists as his present employer a company he has since acknowledged no longer exists,” not to mention that his appointment was apparently promoted by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a friend of the new president. No wonder 98% of the faculty opposed his appointment — to no avail.

I’m all for honesty and admit right up front that it might make perfect sense to appoint a businessman to be president of a university. But to appoint one whose knowledge of the university is so scant, requiring, by his own admission, considerable effort on his part to learn what he needs to know — no matter how much money he is paid — seems a bit of a stretch. In any event, the best of luck to the University of Iowa and its new president. We’ll see  what happens when the chickens come home to roost. (Sorry).


5 thoughts on “The Ed Biz

  1. 98% against is something that may come back to haunt. Higher Ed has some concerns, but starting with credibility will make it easier to make change and understand what that entails. It should also be noted there is a definitive push by conservative groups to embellish conservative principles in education. The NC System CEO is being fired for no explicit reason. The Board Chair is having troubled masking the politics involved. BTG

      • I am fine with a business person coming in, but they need to have the buy-in of the faculty and administration to help make changes needed. There are many good examples of alumni, who have returned to help their alma mater after successful business careers. They were already involved through donations and stewardship. They tend to help on promotion and merchandising, while cutting some costs where appropriate. Colleges have way too many VPs of something and tended to have extremely generous benefit programs, that dwarf private industry. The latter has changed some, but still exists. This is one reason these adjunct professors are getting hired as independent contractors as they don’t want to pay huge benefit costs or have more tenured folks.

  2. Good points, BTG. This guy may have to spend his entire time as president just convincing faculty to say hello to him; very unlikely he’ll make much real headway. And it may not be him necessarily — although saying publicly that he learned about the university through Wikipedia doesn’t help — but the process and the ties to the governor. If you’re going to make this kind of a hire, common sense would seem to say the regents should have made this as much of if not more than of a courtship of the faculty as the new president. Sometimes, it has worked — or at least hasn’t failed — to bring an outsider into this kind of position. But they need to have the appreciation of the community of scholars and life in an academic setting that Hugh mentioned. Apparently, though, decisions like the Iowa hire are becoming more of a trend.

    • Thanks, Dana. You took the words right out of my mouth (as it were). The problem is not that this man has a business background. The problem is the way he was hired and his incredible ignorance of the place where he was about to work! As I said in the post, I have seen a number of academics “promoted” to the presidency who fall flat on their faces. But BTG is right: there are way too many administrators and support staffs at our universities who have nothing whatever to do with educating the students and pull in high salaries.

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