Regents discuss presidential search

BY BEN MARKS | JANUARY 22, 2015 5:00 AM

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With University of Iowa President Sally Mason having announced her impending retirement, the state Board of Regents will begin to search for a new president with some ideas about the person the group wants to hire.

At a meeting Tuesday, the regents discussed how the future presidential search would look, especially in comparison with the regents’ past searches, including the controversial 2006 search, which was extensively criticized for its lack of transparency.

“We are excited about working with the faculty on [the search], and we intend to conduct the search very similarly to how to what the board has conducted in the last two years,” Regent President Bruce Rastetter said.

In 2012 and 2013, the regents hired Presidents Steven Leath for Iowa State University and William Ruud for the University of Northern Iowa, and Rastetter said he believed the Faculty Councils on both campuses were pleased with the inclusivity and openness of the searches.

“When you’re talking about a president of a large public university, you’re talking about someone who has all the authority of the mayor of a medium-sized city, and we’d certainly never allow a board of 15 rich business people to select our mayor for us in a secret meeting,” said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Student Press Law Center.

LoMonte, an advocate for more transparent college president searches, said when college presidential searches aren’t transparent, several vital aspects of the search process are missed, including the ability to properly match a candidate to the university.

“In this day and age there’s no question that the person needs to be a skilled fundraiser, needs to be able to build relationships with the business community and donors,” he said. “But at the same time, they need to be a person who relates well to young people and respects them.”

LoMonte also said, because of that business need, there is a tendency to compare a president with the CEO of a corporation.

“But that’s a dangerous comparison,” he said. “Because a CEO is only answerable to the board of directors, while the president is answerable to the entire community.”

Despite the planned similarities with the previous two searches, Rastetter stressed the different needs the UI has in comparison with the other universities.

“All three universities are different and unique in their own right,” he said. “Certainly, the large medical center the University of Iowa has, the number of grad programs are different, and that will be taken into account as we take our time forming the search committee.”

Regarding the UI Hospitals and Clinics, Regent Robert Downer noted Mason’s initial lack of experience with university medicine during the open session, saying, “President Mason did not come to the University of Iowa with extensive experience in so far as academic medical centers are concerned.”

In the failed 2006 search, the regents rejected all four finalists, saying none of them had suitable experience to run a health-science campus. The UI community met the decision with a scathing reaction.

Downer did, however, go on to thoroughly praise the progress Mason made with the UI Children’s Hospital and science colleges.

Ultimately, LoMonte said, what he has seen throughout the country is the relationship between the faculty and president can be very fragile, and that relationship can be broken before it has begun.

“Decisions made behind closed doors are rarely made for the benefit of the people who are shut outside,” he said.

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