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The Big, Bad Wolf: Why UI Fears Bruce Harreld

Unless you’ve been living under Patrick Star’s rock for the past two weeks, you know that the Iowa Board of Regents announced their pick for the university’s 21st president this past Thursday. Bruce Harreld, former faculty at Harvard Business School (2008-2014) and vice president of strategy at IBM, was chosen as Sally Mason’s replacement, set to take office on November 2, 2015.

The decision came after a heated public forum, in which university faculty grilled Harreld regarding his inexperience with leading an academic institution. The public forum grew so contentious that UI’s Faculty Council, Student Government, and Graduate and Professional Student Government issued a joint statement one day later, apologizing for the divisive tone of participating members and the fiery atmosphere of the forum.

This apology didn’t quell the popular dissent brewing after Bruce’s questioning, though. An online survey conducted by the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors showed that 1.8% of faculty and 2.6% of other respondents felt that Harreld was qualified to be president of the university. This pales in comparison to the support garnered by the other three candidates, who all received response rates of 90% or higher in faculty support.

Thus, the age-old argument: “a businessman is unfit for academic leadership” was born again, and Harreld became the “other”—a snaky corporate outsider with no knowledge of and no regard for the rigors of academic administration. Let’s take a step back, though.

From the get-go, Harreld was treated as an outsider who didn’t belong in academia. This isn’t my unique opinion, this is fact, evidenced by the documented nature of the forum, the popularly cited online survey results, and the university community’s backlash against the Regent’s decision. But what of this bitter dichotomy between business and academia? What really is a president’s role at the helm of an academic institution?

According to an article on Huffington Post by Dr. Brian C. Mitchell, former president of Bucknell University, a business and a thriving academic setting are not mutually exclusive.

“There is a somewhat tired debate, of course, about whether higher education is a calling or a business,” writes Mitchell. “The answer is that the two positions must be respected and are not mutually exclusive. A good education is built upon intellectual property. Yet colleges also run with revenue derived by providing excellent faculty, a differentiated and respected academic program, and good facilities. Families—consumers in the business world—pay most of the bill.”

Similarly, Alan G Merten, former president of George Mason University said that business has a special place in the workings of academia.

“People always say, ‘you’re not a business,’” writes Merten. “In a sense, they are right. We don’t have a bottom line, or profits and losses. But there are things done in business that should be done in higher education. We should plan, and be entrepreneurial and action-oriented. Transparency is important. So is fiscal responsibility. A dollar improperly spent is a missed opportunity.”

In general, a president’s job at a university is to fundraise, to increase the profile of the school and address student and faculty concerns, according to officials at the University of Florida.

So what’s the problem with Bruce Harreld the businessman, who envisions outcomes, shared governance and innovation at UI? The problem stems from fear. The fear of corporations, and the fear of outsiders.

Before I address the faculty’s fear of corporate America entangling its dirty fingers in the education sector, let me address the more general—and more damaging—fear of an outsider appointed to insider. The general consensus among the university community is that “businessmen are bad for academia.” But when did the university start advocating exclusion? Doesn’t the university hail diversity as one of its main priorities?

Seemingly, this strange breed of xenophobia barring Harreld from acceptance, goes against university and community standards for an open, inclusive environment for all people.

In fact, the university’s webpage on diversity clearly states, “We understand the link between diversity and excellence in education. At the University of Iowa we embrace our responsibility to create a welcoming environment for all members of our community. This commitment includes all of our students, staff, and faculty as they pursue their goals here at Iowa.”

Before you start scoffing, I must preface this argument by admitting, yes, Harreld is a wealthy, white male (and racial, ethnic and gender diversity was lacking in the final four candidate pool). But does he not represent a slice of diversity, being a businessman in a field of academics? Hypocrisy abounds in this community, as diversity is only taken seriously when the right kind of diversity is displayed.  This isn’t just a question of experience; it’s also a question of acceptance.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I understand the concern. His inability to be truthful on his resume is concerning, and I am in no way coming to his defenses. I simply want the community to listen, look and learn before they condemn others who do not share their degrees.

There is no hiding the truth. Harreld’s six-year stint as a lecturer in the Harvard Business School serves as his only source of experience working in an academic institution. The guy is by no means an academic, but the absence of a Ph.D is not the only reason for alarm. Perhaps, the not unwarranted fear of a corporate businessman coming in to slash jobs and reap profits is what’s really pushing faculty to outspoken dissent. But where exactly does the fear of a businessman in academia stem from? Why do business and academia clash like oil and water?

It is true, adjunct professors are cheaper to employ and faculty are not crazy to fear a loss of tenure while administrators’ salaries seem to skyrocket. While these scenarios are becoming truisms, this argument fails to include an important caveat.

Tenure is a bittersweet blessing for a professor, and more importantly, for a university. Many times, when faculty feel the comforting warmth of a financial safety net, they fall into a vicious trap of complacency. Responsibility and accountability (may) go out the window when you’re guaranteed a piece of the pie for years to come.

Corporate businessmen scare the living daylights out of complacent academics because the comfortable bubble they live in cannot survive the fast-paced, prodding nature of the ever-changing business world. Bruce Harreld is a harbinger of change, and academia, unlike business, is slow to change.

But maybe this fear is good. Maybe, the slow-to-change, bureaucratic blubbering of academia needs to be shaken by the hand of an “other” like Bruce Harreld. The community, along with students, faculty and staff of the university collectively complain about the inherent bureaucracies of the university, until radical change rears its ugly head to scare us back into stasis. So maybe it’s time to change our approach to institutional leadership. Maybe Bruce Harreld—as “unqualified” as he may rightly be—is exactly what this university needs to enact real, quantifiable change.

Instead of viewing Harreld’s appointment as the worst possible scenario for the university and the product of parental punishment by the Regents on a stubborn university, let’s give the guy the fighting chance he deserves. After all, everyone hates the underdog until he wins.

I am in my senior year and last semester at the University of Iowa, majoring in journalism, minoring in English and pursuing a certificate in creative writing. My passions include writing (poetry, short fiction and anything my mind must expel onto the page), working out and spending time with my friends. I stand by the aphorism, "the pen is mightier than the sword" and hope to use my skills as a writer to positively impact as many people on this planet as I can.
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