Harreld dicusses challenges


(The Daily Iowan/Anthony Vazquez

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld speaks to Daily Iowan staff at on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. (The Daily Iowan/Anthony Vazquez)

By Daily Iowan staff

[email protected]

The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld last week to discuss his first 10 months at the UI, what he’s worked on, and what he’s planning for the future.

The Daily Iowan: We can just start off; if there’s anything you want to say or start off with. If not, that’s OK, but I just thought I’d let you, if there’s anything you want to say.

Bruce Harreld: Well, just the obvious, it’s a great time of year. It’s the renewal of life on campus.

It was kind of nice during the summer. I’ve been on college campuses a lot and summer is a great time if you can kind of get to all the restaurants, you can drive all around, particularly with all the construction here.

On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun to see everybody come back. It’s really special to see everything come back to life.

And here we are this weekend with the first football game and it’s a home game, and then we have how many, you must know, six or seven other athletics events going on, a lot of alumni coming back, a lot of friends, and just amazing weather, blue skies, the humidity’s dropped.

It just feels like a Big Ten fall. So it’s wonderful.

It’s also good [because] we’ve been very busy. We’ve had a number of events in the last couple weeks with faculty mentor awards, we’ve had several retreats with the deans and faculty, trying to get our act together for the next several years so its been a lot of camaraderie, a lot of teamwork so it’s good, it’s a nice time.

DI: Now you’ve been in the job 10 months, so how has it been? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve seen?

Harreld: I think there have been several. I think getting our arms around the overall financial envelope to make sure we know not just from one month to the next but actually out over several years what we’re going to need. Of course, that’s guided by “what are we trying to get done,” and I think we’re starting to come to a pretty strong consensus around several things. The most important is the notion of excellence. We can’t do everything, but what we do needs to be really, really, really good.

Just getting that through, and a consensus on that and figuring out the implications on that. So I think the strategic plan and financial model have been a big step forward. I think calming everybody down as to who I am, and what my values are, and why I really am here. As much as I’ve said, I think it’s taken a while to settle in that I really do believe intently in institutions like this, and they really do have an important role to play going forward.

On the other hand, a lot of funders have been disinvesting, and so we need to get our act together and start figuring out what Plan B is and what our other sources are on the revenue side. I think people largely calmed down and realized I really am committed to it and I’m willing to step up to some of the hard issues we’re facing. So I think all that’s a set of issues and then I think there’s a set of issues we’re facing in terms of campus safety and … getting ourselves to what’s beyond the six-point plan.

I think that’s largely accomplished, but that’s a beginning, it’s not the end. And then also dealing with the housing on campus. [There are] some pretty sticky issues. We clearly don’t have enough, not on campus but also in the whole community, so that affects us all and affects prices. So collaborating with the faculty, collaborating with the staff, collaborating with the students and cultural houses, collaborating with the mayor and the city and trying to open this channels of communication up and building trust and trying to say “look we all share in this together.”

We can continue to complain about things and dial down, or we can start pick the things that we think are really important and celebrate our success and agree on how to make them better. I think we’ve gotten a lot done. And we have a lot more to go.

DI: You kind of touched on this a little bit, but the mood since you first got here and now. Can you talk a little bit about how you think it’s changed and how it feels now?

Harreld: It feels better. It feels better, but. It feels better because I think we’re now talking instead of screaming at one another. I have a good friend who’s a journalist who had a good phrase: “Protests are great, but when is the dialogue going to begin?” He said that a year ago, not about me but other things in the country, and I think it was a powerful phrase, because it’s one thing to protest, and protests do make a statement, but what’s next? And to get to what’s next, I think people need to trust one another and start having meaningful discussions of where their differences are, and why they have differences are, and sometimes they’re legitimate from different points of view, and sometimes they’re illegitimate because they don’t have the right data and so at any rate, starting to work at that.

I think part of my joining the community was caught up in that long history of tension between the state and the regents, and I’m not so sure I had much to do with that, but yet I got caught up in it. And then, I think, having my background in terms of a business person, and clearly, business people must only be here to slash various activities and to resize and often business people “don’t have any values” or “don’t appreciate art” — give me a break.

And so I think we’re beyond much of that and people are starting to see that I have probably more artists in my family than people would realize; I have four Mandarin speakers in my family, so I’ve got a multicultural background. I’ve got, as my wife says, whatever the student issue is, we’ve experienced it, so let’s sit down and work on it. So I think people are calming down. And the “but” I said earlier, is yeah, it’s calmed down, but now we’re working on the bigger issues. And the bigger issues are University of Iowa long term, how do we get to excellence? We’ve dropped in some rankings, we need to get faculty salaries up, we need to get staff’s salaries, we still have some gaps there, we have some new programs that are interdisciplinary in nature and we really need to funds them.

And not just fund them but give them more power and give them more staffing and skills. We have cultural houses. In my book, we have largely ignored the cultural houses for quite a while and over the summer we got focused on that and did some short-term improvements, but now we’re starting to develop a series of visions, if you will, of what a longer-term plan might look like. I spent two nights last week with two of the four cultural houses. I have two more to go and others to talk to, but it seems like there’s beginning to emerge some kind of consensus of what it might look like. That’s the real work, but that’s how we really make a difference.

DI: When you first start a new job, there are always things that surprise you or that you’re not expecting. Is there anything that really surprised you in this role?

Harreld: I think having talked to a lot of people, walking on campus, seeing all the backlash against me and how I was hired and all of that, left me with a sense that the institution had a lot of things that were really lacking, and I think now that I’ve been here I actually think we don’t know how good we really are. I mean there are a lot of things here that are really, really, really good and whether that be space physics or a writing, or rhetoric program, or athletics, or even some of our cultural houses, even thought we haven’t taken care of them for a while, there heritage and their history and the importance of that. So I could keep going; our law school going from pretty OK rankings to pretty doggone excellent rankings, our finance program in Tippie, the pharmacy, the dental school, the medical complex. So we have a lot here and … underneath all that, of course, are really great people and there are a lot of really good people, and yet we sit in an environment [where] all we want to do is complain. And all we want to do is say, “Jeeze, well, we’re just really not.”

I felt like I’ve said publicly that I feel like at times we have a culture of dependency. It’s a culture that says, “Let’s go down to I-80 to Des Moines and ask for more and more money because woe is us,” you know. Instead, I think one of the things that we need to understand is start saying, “No, we could earn our way. We’re doggone good, and people like supporting winners and people with a smile on their face” instead of saying, “Oh, I’m just really struggling,” and so one of the things that’s really surprised me is the depth and breadth of the talent and the programs that are here. And why on earth don’t we polish those off, put them up, and get going with them. That’s good news.

So I’m really kind of psyched for a lot of us and I think as we do that, I think people are starting to say, “Yeah, that may be right.” And in some sense we’ve kind of built ourselves into a corner with some of our less than optimistic thoughts.

That’s a tough way to live. I mean, I’m much more optimistic. Big challenges take great people. We’ve got them, let’s go, let’s focus.

DI: So speaking of big challenges, there obviously is a lot of construction happening around campus; can you give us an update on it and where you hope to see it in the next few months?

Harreld: Let’s peel back the layers. Where I thought you were going, and you stopped short of, my guess is what you were thinking, is there was a period where I lived much of last year off campus, on the western side, still in Iowa City, but every day I came in as the buildings started really coming online, I started realizing, “Oh gee, I can’t even get into campus,” and at night I couldn’t get out. Now, it’s even worse to some extent. Now, I’m living on campus. At one point, I thought that people were trying to keep me off campus because they didn’t want me there, and now it’s like I’m trapped at the house and can’t get off campus because of construction.

And I think we all just need to catch a breath and we’re doing all we can to get ahead of those. I know there are Cambus issues, I know we’re changing the traffic flows on gamedays. But, you know, unfortunately we are where we are.

Two years ago we missed a window for the Dubuque Street construction up through there and raising that because of the floods. It would have been a lot better two years ago, but it didn’t happen for a whole set of reasons, and that’s not the university, that’s the community. So, tough, but it’s what it is. So we’re doing all we can in the short term, putting more buses on, making sure we leave enough time to allow for the traffic. I would advise all students, particularly those in Mayflower, to maybe leave a little bit earlier. I know they don’t want to hear that but that may be the reality of what we’re trying to deal with.

We’re trying to do all we can at Church and Dubuque because of traffic congestions there, there’s congestion out on the western side of campus as well. We’ll keep struggling, change bus routes, change patterns, put more buffer time into, but that’s just where we are. Now, having said that … go to the other side, this is going to be amazing in the next few weeks.

I used to say this, and I’ll repeat it, because you may not have heard it … when I talked to other presidents last year and asked them, Big Ten or other institutions, I’d say “What are you focused on? What are your big terms?” They would almost always go over infrastructure because it was so antiquated. And I would never say this to them, but I was certainly thinking it. Well, we’ve got the other issue, because we’ve got all infrastructure that’s going to be 21st-century infrastructure coming online here now in the next few months, big time.

And maybe there was a silver lining with what happened in 2008 with all the floods and all the wonderful work people here and FEMA have done to bring some of these buildings back to life. But we’re going to have Hancher, we’ve already opened Voxman, we haven’t had the formal ceremonies in each, we have a new visual-arts center. If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably the only place in the world where we have two of these pieces of work done by the same world-class architect side by side, and they kind of play off one another. We’ve got a new dorm opening next year, which we will name next week, publicly. Stay tuned, it’s going to be pretty exciting when that goes. We’ve got a new addition going on the engineering facility, we’ve got Children’s Hospital opening. We’ll have the public openings in the middle of November, then we need to kick everyone out to sterilize the facility for a few weeks and then we’ll have the official opening [in December]. And then the list goes on, because we need to get to an art museum, which we’ve announced, and it’ll be next to the library.

Where I grew up, in Appalachia, when I was growing up, people used to talk about twofers, and twofers were teeth, and we’ve got a twofer in a different context. Which is we’re going to get a relationship, and we’ll be able to put the new art museum next to the library, but also at the same time we’ll be able to improve the library’s … systems and let the two buildings play off one another, put some of the art in the library. And so we desperately need the archival capabilities and some of the labs sitting on the upper floors of the library. This will give us an opportunity to slip some of those investments into the library as well as getting a new world-class art museum.

And then we have Seashore … It needs help. It’s beyond help, frankly, and so we’ve got the regents’ approval to bring that down and start the process of building what will be a new series of buildings that we’ll build a complex on. That’s the East Side campus for a neurosciences center. So we’ll bring some of the research and experimentation. Already in Seashore, we have psychology already in that complex, we’ll keep those there and add to it some of the medical sciences around the brain. And I think that will be important not just because of the building but because of the cultural, what I call scrambling the eggs, because it used to be that that side of the river was the medical complex, now it’s going to be a little harder to say because it’s going to be a little here and a little there, which I think starts bringing us together in a more collaborative way as one institution.

So, now, I think the big gulp is here in the next probably 120 to 200 days. So this year will probably still be tough for traffic patters as we get some of this work done, but I think some of the other work we’ll need to do will probably be confinable, and we’ll be able to get back to our normal lives some time in the spring, I hope.

DI: People have said there are efforts to change the culture on campus by bringing together different disciplines — for example, the art museum and the plans with Seashore — is that your intention?

Harreld: I think the world as I see it, and the people I’ve been working with and the faculty, and the strategic planning team, the word of collaboration comes up a lot, and I’m picking it up in a lot of my comments even here today, because the world they see is one in which the disciplines we’ve had in the past will still be important, but it’s the interrelationship among the disciplines, academic disciplines, that starts becoming interesting.

I was at a dinner last night with some of our top medical researchers because they were celebrating a gentleman who was given an award for being the best mentor to graduate students in the medical area. There were probably about 30 people there. And the topic of conversation became the intertwining of these disciplines, and one person, who is Nobel laureate, by the way, who came here from the University of Colorado and grew up here in Iowa City, he spoke yesterday and came by some of the high schools and here on campus. His point was, he started describing his own lab, and one of the labs he has, and he’s doing medical research, and he listed all the disciplines of the people — graduate students in his lab —  and you couldn’t find the “medical” word in there. They were engineers, they were biologists. And as you went through this, we all kind of said, “Wow, we really have scrambled these eggs.”

So yeah, I think from a strategic perspective, a lot we’re going to be facing, going forward, is making sure the right people rub shoulders together, and it’s a natural phenomenon rather than having to get up and walk someplace else, and it’s a physical effort. And actually I think sparks might fly creatively and from an innovative perspective.

In that context, I believe architecture makes a difference in those types of things, and we ought to use architecture to our advantage. And also, location, obviously, is a piece of that. So, yeah. I think we’re facing a world in which we’ll respect the disciplines, because you need to have the groundings. At the same time, we’ll celebrate the interrelationship and intermingling.

Several places around the country have done similar things. It’s a little bit, in a crude way, it’s like an art museum and a library will be the third institution around the world that has formally put them together, in a way. One place is in Scotland, and one place is in Germany, I believe. You don’t do those things as accidents, you do them purposefully. And then they start interplaying with one another, and great things happen, so that’s our expectation. And at the end of the day, if no great things happen, and we’d just have our silos, we’d be great at that as well. But I think we’re looking for something special on top of that as well.

DI: In past interviews with us, you’ve talked about the possibility of moving money from the Athletics Department to other areas on campus. Where is that conversation now?

Harreld: It’s continuing to evolve. The basic thought is that I think every pocket of the university should have its own philanthropic activities. We have Dance Marathon, for one. It’s going on its 23rd year, and gee — good Lord, the students have enough that they do in their lives, they certainly don’t have a lot of excess cash, and they certainly don’t need to spend all the time they do on Dance Marathon, but yet they do. I think it’s been wonderful for the students. One of the things you learn with philanthropy is sometimes, as you give, you get more than what you actually give out of it in terms of experience, and support, and friendship.

So it’s in the same context — I say we need to have that set of philosophy. That’s a core part of our culture. We need a continuant. So hey, athletics, what is yours? And what is it you should really support?

And I think part of that is fiscally, part of it’s with your time, and they are actually fully embracing that. They’ve had several discussions, and they already do, to a large extent, with our student recreation facility. They manage that, they run that, they staff that. So they’ve already stepped up to that. Do they want to do that more? What about endowing certain faculty chairs? People who really teach a lot of student-athletes and really support them. What about campus safety? What about some of the cultural houses? So I’ve stayed out of the issue of picking it, because I think part of the process of helping them get there is that they own it.

So all I’ve said, is “What is it?” They’re working it, and I think it will happen, there’s no doubt. By the way, we’re not the only institution in the United States that’s been doing it. Ohio State’s been doing this for quite a while. Several other institutions, I think Purdue does some of it. Purdue’s program is much smaller; I think its Athletics Department is probably $70 or $80 million in total, and ours is more than $100 million. Ohio State is $160 [million]. I think it’s just being holistic, and systemic, so stay tuned.

DI: How do you see the Athletics Department expanding?

Harreld: Excellence means you take care of what you got, and you don’t go further until you make sure what you’ve got is really really strong. We’ve got 24 sports, I think we’re continually accessing it, but there are no plans to go beyond 24. We’ve got to be very very careful because some of the sports are pretty expensive to add. So, no, I think we’re quite comfortable where we are in terms of numbers. On the other hand, the fan experience can continue to improve, the performance on the field, the coaching, the recovery times, the sports medicine side of all that for the 24 sports we have, we can continue to improve on.

DI: Do you see any improvements that could be made on sports facilities?

Harreld: To the best of my knowledge, there are no plans that I know of, but I’m sure they’re working it. I know there’s some discussions that’ll come up here in the next week about the golf course Club House, it’s pretty antiquated; I think that’s in the docket, the beginning part of that. We’re one of the few Big Ten schools that only have one golf course. The Club House is pretty antiquated. So yes, that’ll get done. There’s been some discussion about the Olympic sports out in the Coralville area north of campus out that way, on how to continue to improve those facilities. But, nothing like green field, big major. I’ve had some frustrations, just me personally, this isn’t quite a sport, but it just feels like to me that our Hall of Fame is too far from campus. You can get parking out there, but yet it doesn’t seem to get the foot traffic, so where else should it be, could it be? We’ve got some incredible things to say about sports and the history of sports on this campus, and it just seems like it’s a little too removed from us. Things like that … but these are adjustments.

DI: So switching tracks a little bit, a few weeks ago, the UI chose to disband the Bias Assessment and Response Team. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Harreld: I’ve met with members several times. There was an article that came out three weeks ago, roughly, that said the headline to some effect was that we decided not to move forward with the BIAS assessment or response team. But then if you read down into the article, it got deeper and deeper and deeper into the nuances that the team is actually working on. So I saw the headline, and I called someone and said, “What meeting did I miss?” I didn’t know we had made that decision, and indeed we had not made that decision. Sometimes, I’ve learned in journalism, that the people who write the articles are different from the people who pick the headlines. I think the headline was a misfortunate representation of where we are.

This is a tough set of issues, and the country’s dealing with it. And it’s an issue of First Amendment freedom of speech, there’s academic freedom, there’s creating positive student learning environments, as well as microaggression and how we deal with that. And all of that is in here.

I think if you actually go to any one corner, and leave other issues behind, you can say, “I know how to do that.” But the question is how do you three or four of those things all at the same time. And, it’s not easy. And then on top of it, the most important thing, which I’m really proud of what we’re doing, relative to some of the things, and I have to be careful now when I read about what other institutions are doing, I’m actually reading with some degree of jaundice because I know what happened with the headline, and maybe what I’m reading is also not true.

But we’re doing it in a very collaborative, very careful process with all elements of shared governance. So in the team that’s been working on this, the administration has been in it, the faculty have been in it, the staff have been in it, the students have been in this process, and on top of it, we have a couple subject matter experts here at the law school and a couple other places who really do know what they’re talking about when get to creating positive teaching environments, First Amendment issues, so they have been working it since sometime last spring. So we will do something, the answer is not going to — to use a double negative, might wanna get rid of the double negative — we will do something.

And we don’t know what it’s going to be, I know they’re getting closer and closer. What it will be called, I don’t know. I’ve said this to people who are working on it, that notion of a bias assessment response team sounds a little aggressive and a little in your face. I’m not so sure I’d pick those same set of words to describe this because clearly there needs to be some process for the adjudication for dealing with people who feel they’ve been offended. On the other hand, how far that goes into the classroom and see, here we go, into those issues, we’re working it, we’ll get through it and we will do something. So the notion that won’t is not true.

[Editors note: The UI did not disband BART because there was never the specific organization to begin with. Last January, there were talks of creating such a group, and that is when the process began.]

DI: So you mentioned how this is an issue across the country, did that affect how you view the issue at our campus?

 Harreld: I’m still curious, and I don’t fully know effects of Chicago and how I think about these things is that the University of Chicago might not be at all good here in Iowa City. Or what’s good at the University of Iowa might not be good for Iowa State, because they’re very different cultures and very different campus, and I think we need to find our solution to this.

When I read the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, specifically on Chicago, I was fascinated that it seemed to be the administration through the Provost’s Office, that the letter came from. It didn’t seem to me that other elements of the shared governs process were in that letter and had been worked through that. If that’s right, we’re not going to let that happen here. Subsequent to that letter coming out last week some time, it seems that their campus, the faculty for example, are now into the conversation and are troubled by the letter, which again suggests to me that they didn’t work it as a team.

That’s not what’s happening here, we’re working it as a team. It reinforced, in my mind, the difficulty of the issue and the importance in working it through the entire shared government, communities, in a collaborative way. It was also reinforced in my mind that we should rush this. If we actually say: “No, we got to get it out because everyone really needs it,” and we end up making some mistakes here, it’s not healthy. I think some of the biggest mistakes that organizations make is that they come to premature decisions, and then they have trouble executing them because every says, “Oh, that didn’t quite work.” So we need to get through the whole process.