Business expert picked as next University of Iowa president

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Posted: Sep 03, 2015 7:06 PM
Business expert picked as next University of Iowa president

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The University of Iowa's governing board on Thursday named a corporate management expert with little higher education experience as the school's next president, an unusual choice meant to shake up the culture of the state's flagship academic institution.

The selection of J. Bruce Harreld, a former senior vice president at IBM and lecturer at Harvard Business School, immediately outraged professors who had overwhelmingly rated him as unqualified. Nationally, the pick could spark debate over whether business experience alone is enough to lead a major public research university.

The Iowa Board of Regents picked Harreld over three traditional candidates, Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz and Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein. He will replace Sally Mason, who retired last month after leading the university since 2007.

Board President Bruce Rastetter, a businessman and appointee of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, said Harreld was a proven leader, team builder and strategic thinker. He said the selection sends the message that the "status quo is unacceptable" at the Big Ten school of 31,000 students, saying Harreld is an innovator who would improve academic programs and confront financial challenges.

"We really believe we have a great university but we want to see that opportunity become larger and greater going forward," Rastetter said.

Harreld said he was honored, calling his selection "a watershed moment for a great institution." He said he has a lot to learn and was ready to work with those critical of his credentials.

"I'm the first to admit that my unusual background requires a lot of help and a lot of coaching," Harreld said.

He said he had a history of managing institutions through "major strategic headwinds" such as those facing higher education.

"While I am a little different, I think I have a lot of the skills that will be necessary for success at this institution," he said.

But the pick didn't sit well with some of the 1,400-member faculty, who accused regents of orchestrating a rushed search to minimize scrutiny of Harreld.

"People are shocked and stunned," said psychology professor Bob McMurray. "It's clear that this person has very little support on campus or in the community. He's going to have a really hard time doing his job."

McMurray helped conduct an online survey of faculty, staff and other constituents that found that less than 3 percent rated Harreld as qualified, compared to 89 percent and above for other finalists. He said the campus is worried Harreld will support regents' plans to shift some state funding away from Iowa to the other state universities they govern.

During a forum Tuesday, Harreld told a skeptical, at times hostile crowd that his experience transforming businesses such as IBM would help the university improve its academic rankings, navigate intense competition for students and top academic talent, and make do with a shrinking level of taxpayer funding.

Harreld, 64, will begin Nov. 2. The board gave him an annual salary of $590,000, $65,000 higher than Mason earned, and a five-year contract that could add an additional $1 million in deferred compensation.

The board interviewed the four candidates and deliberated 90 minutes in closed session before voting unanimously for Harreld.

Nationally, it remains rare for major universities to have someone without an academic leadership background as president. Non-academics have included military leaders such as Texas A & M president Bob Gates and University of Texas System chancellor William McRaven and former governors Mitch Daniels at Purdue University and David Boren at University of Oklahoma.

Unlike those picks, Harreld doesn't have a high public profile or any prior ties to the university or state. But he touted his 13-year career as a senior vice president for strategy and marketing at IBM, where he helped the technology company rebound from near bankruptcy in the 1990s by streamlining operations and finding new business opportunities.

He was previously part of the team that expanded the Boston Market food chain nationwide and a Kraft Foods executive who oversaw brands such as Tombstone frozen pizza. He was considered an expert in information technology and branding.

From 2008 to 2014, he was a lecturer at the Harvard Business School, teaching courses for MBA students. He earned his MBA there in 1975, after earlier graduating from Purdue with an engineering degree. He's married with four adult children.

Harreld said that he was recruited by members of a search committee to apply. Harreld spoke by phone with Branstad in August to ask "about the governor's support for the university should Harreld continue through the process," Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said. Branstad made the call after Harreld made an inquiry through Rastetter, Centers said, adding the governor didn't speak with any other candidates or endorse anyone for the job.