Q&A: UI president talks VP for Student Life search, Marching Band safety, P3 approval

In an interview with The Daily Iowan, UI President Bruce Harreld talked about student voices on tuition hikes, the university’s reasons for searching internally for a new VP for Student Life, future Cy-Hawk relations, and the P3 agreement.


Ryan Adams

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld talks with The Daily Iowan during an interview at the Adler Journalism Building on Feb. 13.

DI: At the Feb. 5 Board of Regents meeting, some students, a few of them from the University of Iowa, protested tuition hikes and support for underrepresented students on campus. They shared that higher education access is limited with tuition rising, particularly to underrepresented students — creating a barrier. So, what is your response to those concerns?

Harreld: Well, they have all the right in the world. It’s really interesting because I frankly did not recognize any of our students. Clearly a couple said they were students of ours, and they clearly spoke up, so I’m not challenging that. But, I think one of the issues I’ve noticed is when I ask them where they’re from, they’ve been from other universities or other colleges in the state. So, I’m really not so sure. I counted 32, and I don’t know how many of them are from the University of Iowa. I will say the message was heard loud and clear. We share many of their concerns. It was ironic that earlier that same day, if they had been there, they would have seen the comparisons on tuition across the regential system, and not just tuition, but total fees and all the rest. You would see that we were one of the lowest in each of the colleges and universities and regential systems in their peer groups. And then you will have also seen that isn’t all just about tuition. There’s a major portion where we talked about net tuition, because there’s a significant amount of student financial aid. Sometimes in debt, sometimes not in debt. You have also seen data on where our students are in terms of debt, relative to other institutions across the country, and said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s a real issue. I’m as frustrated and concerned about it as the students are.’

RELATED: Protesters break up Iowa regents meeting asking for tuition freeze

But on the other hand, to say that it’s egregiously high as some of the statements were made, I just think it’s just not true. And then, I always want students to understand there is a direct connection between the rankings and quality of instruction and faculty pay. All those things are connected. And I heard [on] one hand some of the some of the protesters saying we need more of this in terms of student support, but yet we need to pay less over here. It’s a problem. You can’t have it both ways. So, again, they have all the right in the world to do that. But, it’s highly disruptive. A number of things needed to happen that day in terms of more votes that need to be taken as a result of that.

Are we going to have a shared governance system? Are we going to have a student government, undergraduate, graduate — is there going to be a Faculty Senate? I think we all believe intently that those are important things. Those individuals need to find a way to get their voices into those processes on campus. That frustrates me quite a bit. The fact that they in some sense think they can go around those processes. Let’s just say we had done anything about what they were concerned about. Have we now undermined our student-government group, or graduate-professional student group? That worries me a lot. And I think, at least on our campus, they work really hard to consider these various issues.

We had a discussion the other evening, asking questions about affordable housing in the city, and the city has reached out and asked our student leaders their thoughts on that. Is it that we want, to go around that process, and have people just pop in and put their concerns on the tables? So, I think these are legitimate issues that they’re raising, but I also think we as a community have to ask ourselves, ‘What are we not doing to give them a voice in the process? Do they not know it exists?’ So, good for them. We obviously have some issues, and we will work on them.

DI: Particularly after the #DoesUIowaLove Me movement, was there anything they shared particularly about white supremacy on campus and discrimination that they’ve experienced that concerns you?

Harreld: It all concerns me. Any any degree of discrimination, [any] hate or distasteful, disrespecting language, concerns me. As I read the tweets and actually talked to a lot of our faculty about some of the tweets that went on and Facebook postings and all the rest, around Iowa, I didn’t interpret interpret only as white supremacy. There was a broad set of issues there. There are a lot of comments, inappropriate comments from my perspective, and my faculty colleagues who know how I feel about this, made by professors or instructors in a class to students and they surfaced that they were not all about white supremacy. A lot of them had to do with pronouns, one saying that calling an individual ‘they’ is not appropriate English. Really? We worked really hard and I think we’re pretty proud of our use of pronouns on this campus.

So, it was much broader than just one particular area. And I think that was once again, I thank people for speaking up. Those thoughts and concerns, and some of the things we did after that, worked its way into our DEI action plan. It has worked itself into more training. We’re having a conversation, and I think part of all this is having a good conversation. That’s where the process starts. We’ve hired a few more people. We’ve agreed to be more aggressive in training at my level throughout the campus. So, we’re embarking on that. We’ve hired a training firm which specializes in this area. The top 80 people will go through an eight-week program. I’m not exactly sure when it starts, but it is starting soon. So, I think these are important dialogues. I think the challenge always is how we take that type of input and turn it into constructive behavior and learn from it.

DI: The UI is looking for a new VP for Student Life. How do you think the university community should move these conversations forward in relation to the new position for VP for Student Life for someone new coming onto campus who might not know as much about that? How do you suggest we continue these conversations in a productive way?

Harreld: They need to happen in each element of each pocket of our community. But, I’m hesitating because it’s likely that the Vice President for Student Life will be from within our community. One of the reasons I decided not to go on a national search was for the reason we’re stout and starting to focus on it. We don’t need to have someone join us and spend six months or a year to come up to speed and get to know people. We will have somebody from our midst, hopefully. We’ve kind of started with that search process. But in other positions, all your points are well taken. I think what we need to do is when somebody joins our campus, we need to help educate them.

We’ve actually got some of this pretty well documented now, because if you go back, we have a long history of student and university-wide surveys on a number of these issues. So, we can analytically see our thoughts and concerns in a number of areas and see how they’ve improved. I think we’ve also got action plans and strategies in a number of areas. So, we need to orient new people to our campus.

But I also think it also falls on the new leaders that we put in these positions, if they’re sitting in their office and don’t get around, and don’t go to various groups and engage and listen in small groups and big groups, so it has a lot to do with who we hire. Hopefully we’re hiring people who are collaborative and are comfortable working around campus. But then I also think of the shared governance teams. We have a set of committees in UISG, GPSG, Faculty Senate or Staff Council. New people need to get involved with those, and I think that’s part of the process. So, a lot of it is just behavioral one-on-one. It’s important, very important.

DI: Following up on the internal search decision, why for this position, specifically, did you want an internal search — given Dr. Shivers came here from another campus, and she brought energy that people really appreciated to that role?

Harreld: We’ve got a lot of people here with a lot of energy, too. So, there’s several factors. One is the issue we just discussed, which is someone who knows us really well, and we know pretty well, as well, so we don’t have that startup time. Even Melissa had that startup gap, if you will. So, that’s one, too. I really do believe that one of the long-term issues for our campus is how we develop new leaders. This may be an academic issue across the United States, where we actually have a tendency not to hire and promote from within. We actually go to the outside and bring a new leader in. Then we go through this phenomena, where they’re coming up to speed, and we’re coming to speed to get to know them, and they become productive. Now imagine what happens to the people who were here the last 10 years, and they actually see somebody coming over the top of them. Actually, in a sense, we’re stifling that growth of the development of people. Said another way for, are we saying that if you’re really good in your particular area, the right way to get to a senior position is you have to go to another institution? I don’t buy that. I don’t think any other organization tends to work that way.

So, the issue of succession planning, and development of a rotating of people, I think is a really important issue for campus, and for all major institutions. Then the final piece is I didn’t wanna lose any time. I think we have a whole set of things that are really important, of turning the student-life organization into much more of an aggressive, supportive partner in terms of academics, and those in some ways we put a line between them. I think we need to bring that wall down, and they need to collaborate in so many different areas.

So, I wanted somebody I want to get to it quickly. I want to get to it in my tenure, and I want to get to it and start changing the dialogue about the ability of developing our leaders. I think what’s interesting, we’ve already … gone through four candidates in the last two weeks. We’ve now seen them. I’ll just speak for myself that I have been really pleasantly surprised, not only with how they presented themselves and [their] thoughts in a public forum, but I’ve also met some in some cases, and I knew them pretty well. In one case I’d never met the individual, but they are really good. So, we’re actually opening the door. If you want to be a diverse and inclusive campus, shouldn’t it start with your own community, in a sense? So, for all those reasons, that’s why we did that.

DI: Does this mean with other searches going forward, you plan for more internal searches?

Harreld: I think we should really ask the question. I’ve actually said it to the board. Let me make it really clear. I’ve said to the board, ‘Do you want me, even to consider developing people to replace me?’ and I think you should. If you do, [then] it needs to start with this type of change in the recruiting process. Now, the next thing is, will it be all of them? No. Will it be some? Yes. How and when it’ll be, I don’t think we should get into hard and fast rules in this particular area. But, here is a place where it was really important to move pretty quickly, and in my quick scan of the institution, I thought we had some pretty good candidates and, boy, do we. So, stay tuned.

I think we should really ask the question. I’ve actually said it to the board. Let me make it really clear. I’ve said to the board, ‘Do you want me, even to consider developing people to replace me?’ and I think you should.

DI: Going back to the VP for Student Life search specifically, there have been some questions at those forums about the candidate’s role, should they be chosen for the job, in a predominantly white President’s Cabinet. With you, of course, being the leader of that core group of administrators, how would you ensure that the next VP for Student Life feels supported in that space, and that they also serve students from all backgrounds — whether they’re one of the candidates from an underrepresented community themselves, or whatever the situation may be?

Harreld:  If they’ve got an open mind, have an appropriate skill set, and have a broad set of collaborative skills, they’ll be fine. I think in a lot of this, we’re trying to find another Melissa, and I think that is a mistake. Melissa is Melissa. She’s wonderful. But now we need to find somebody else that can actually do the job here. So, now we’re focused on how we have just an overly white cabinet. We’ll be fine. So, if this is the only position on campus in the senior leadership that will actually improve our diversity, we’re really in trouble, and I don’t buy that. Behavior is most important. Representation is important, but behaviors are by far more important.

DI: Do you think that promoting from within will also help with retention of administrators?

Harreld: Of course, and I would hope. I can’t guarantee that, but if in fact all we’re doing in the upper echelons is going on the outside and bringing new people in, and [saying] ‘you’re really a talented, talented up-and-comer, how long are you gonna stay here?’ So, I don’t think it’s all that simple. I think we have compensation issues in key places. I’m a huge believer, and have not been able to get added enough, of rotation of assignments. We have this notion that someone is just a student life person to come back to this. I think we should be getting people in the senior positions who actually have taught and have led in other areas. An HR person who maybe should be from the faculty. You’ll see actually some of the Student Life candidates have been faculty members.

So, I think we shouldn’t pigeonhole people, both in terms of diversity, in terms of ‘Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I don’t care and support other groups on campus. And if I don’t, then we’ve got a problem with me and we need to help train me and develop me.’ At the same time, I think your point that only putting people in where our only choice is from the outside, and then bring them in, at some point, why would you stay? So yeah, I think it’s a real issue, and they’re all connected. Again, we tend to now go into extremes, we say, ‘Oh, then we can only develop and recruit them internally,’ or ‘we can only develop externally.’ Calm down. I think it’s a mixture of skills.

DI: Shifting gears a bit, but also at the Feb. 5 regents’ meeting, there were discussions about the Hawkeye Marching Band’s physical harassment investigation being concluded. Can you share more specifics about the conversations that have happened since the whole Sept. 14 Cy-Hawk game, with Iowa state officials?

Harreld: I did spend time a couple weeks ago with the marching band. When it occurred, we got together and we said, ‘Look, let’s wait until after the season,’ because the band still had more activities, and let’s let things come down and let the campus police and safety do their own investigations. But clearly, we need to do a better job of keeping our band, our athletes, and our fans safe. And, it is not only just in Ames. Yeah, it was a bad day in Ames, with a lot of rain delays, and all the rest. But you know what, that also happens in Iowa City, and you heard people saying that. So I said, ‘Okay, fine. If it happens in Iowa City, shame on us.’

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So, we got together, a couple times we shared game-day safety plans. So, we have a plan of what we do, starting about Wednesday of every home game, and then Thursday and Friday, and then we have the game on Saturday, and what the safety force and security force is. It’s pretty thick and it’s pretty detailed, and we gave them ours. It’s pretty specific as to who goes where, where the band goes, where the security officers are. It’s not a public document for that reason, but then they gave us theirs. We both edited and critiqued each other. We then got together, and had two subsequent face-to-face conversations, talking about the details of what happened.

About four weeks ago, we had another session where we got together and that was now a session with both band directors, both police departments, campus safety heads, both athletic directors, and both presidents. The eight of us got together and talked for several hours about every specific facet and how we could improve it. I would say there were a whole set of what I refer to as logistical issues of where the band should park, how the bands may want to go into the stadium and exit the stadium, what type of security force will be put around here and there.

One of the issues which was really kind of fascinating to me is that when … any of us ever go into another stadium, we don’t understand the logistics as well as our home stadium. So if something happens, you don’t know where to go — left or right and various places — and you can actually get yourself into a little bit of trouble. So, here we are with a band, and we’ve just agreed that wherever we are, the home team will have a logistics person, not connected with the band, obviously. So when our band goes to Ames, there will be somebody from Iowa State, who’s assigned to work with the band, and they’ll understand when they go where and have a communications device so they can call ahead. So, I would just say there were a whole bunch of pieces like that that we agreed on.

RELATED: Hawkeye Marching Band alleged physical harassment investigation closes with no charges

Then, we agreed I think on something even more important. This is not just an Iowa State-Iowa set of issues. We had a bad day and we can do better, and we will get all the details right and keep working at it. But you know, the country seems to be having a challenge on how to behave during these types of events, particularly rivalry games. So, we agreed to come together and start doing what I refer to as sort of public-service comments. We sort of are asking our fans and helping our fans understand what we do and don’t think is acceptable behavior. President [Wendy] Wintersteen and myself, or Jamie Pollard who is athletic director at Iowa State, and [Iowa Athletic Director] Gary Barta, we’ll lash together and be visible on game day, maybe do some announcements, maybe do some editorial pieces. This will probably go for three or four or five years. We’re actually going to challenge our fans to actually be Iowans, and to be supportive of Iowa, and to exhibit to the world Iowa behavior, what we would call ‘Iowa Nice.’ But we also know it has an edge, and we can work on how to keep that edge away, and then let the teams just battle it out in the field. After the game, come back together as Iowans and say, ‘What a great day we had.’

So it’s those types of messages, and I think we need to lift ourselves out of as a country. We had a really good conversation and I actually would thank my colleagues from Iowa State, and President Wintersteen. But this is really pretty important stuff. And I should say one of the things we really spent a while talking about, we want to keep playing the game. And so … everybody wanted to keep playing the game. Even our band members wanted to keep playing the game. … But so, then it behooves us to do it the right way, and to learn from it. And, and we will.

RELATED: Q&A: UI President Bruce Harreld discusses diversity head’s resignation, contract extension, Cy-Hawk game

DI: Is there confidence in the future of Cy-Hawk now?

Harreld: Yeah, we’ll see. Let me put it another way. I will put the challenge to all my Hawkeye friends to step up here and do this the right way. I say that because the next rivalry day is in Iowa City. So why don’t we learn how to do this right, if we can actually get through the next game without doing anything disrespectful to ourselves or to others. Then I will be confident we can get through this. We’ve got, I think, on both sides we’ve had an awkward past, shall we say, and we need to learn how to do better … let’s write this up, let’s lead here please, and keep the game that’s well worth keeping, but not if it leads to what we saw over the last couple of years. I really do applaud leaders on both sides but particularly at Iowa State. They recognize that they stood up, they’ve been great collaborators. If I hadn’t been interrupted at the [regents’] meeting I was going to really spend some time talking about some of this more publicly. And I have a sneaky suspicion that President Wintersteen would have been as well but we were cut off.

I will put the challenge to all my Hawkeye friends to step up here and do this the right way. I say that because the next rivalry day is in Iowa City. So why don’t we learn how to do this right, if we can actually get through the next game without doing anything disrespectful to ourselves or to others.

DI: At the forums that were held with the community after the P3 agreement was signed in December, there were some concerns raised from the community about Wells Fargo’s ties to the fossil-fuel industry. There’s a report that Wells Fargo had invested nearly $152 billion in the fossil-fuel industry since 2016, which was second only to JP Morgan, and one of the consultants used was Wells Fargo. Of the sum paid to the consultants, Wells Fargo had the largest share of that at around $11 million. So, did the UI investigate those ties? Was the UI aware of those fossil fuel ties to Wells Fargo?

Harreld: Yeah, we didn’t hire them for their fossil-fuel expertise. We didn’t hire them for their sustainability expertise, we hired them for their understanding of the P3 marketplace. And helping us understand the nation, the worldwide marketplace and to help us market our interest. At no point did any of those issues ever enter into any of our discussions. In fact, they were … excellent, all the way through the process. So we hired them through their ability to manage this sort of process. Now, if you get to the selection of the entities like ENGIE, and their competitors, we were spending a lot of time thinking about their sustainability record and helping move us along on that path, but the in terms of the bankers and their advisement in the management of a process — no, not at all … You could ask the same question for Jones Day as a law firm and I really don’t even know the answer. They work for utility companies. My guess is yes because they’re a pretty significant law firm, but no, we didn’t ask. We asked them, we hired them for their legal expertise, [and] Wells Fargo for the banking and management of this type of process over several months. And by the way, we had two members, one graduate one undergraduate member on the selection team — students, graduate and undergraduate, and they were from the sustainability charter committee. Not once did any, any of us, including them, even raise that [concern].

DI: Given the P3 was touted for sustainability and advancing the university’s commitment to being coal free, because the 100 Grannies who were there at the forum, but they were concerned just about this money going back to the fossil-fuel industry—

Harreld: I respect their concerns all day long. Do we ask a faculty member in mechanical engineering if they’ve ever have worked on a power plant, or do they ever — of course not. We hire them for other purposes. I’ve worked in power plants. I swept the floors for hours in power plants … We hire people for their specific expertise … If we had cut off Wells Fargo — we actually interviewed, I believe, and I could be wrong, this has been almost a year and a half ago, we interviewed, I believe, four different banks. And my guess is all four of them have done substantial amount of work in the utility industry. But that wasn’t the criteria. The question is how many P3 deals they have done? These are really pretty novel and complex transactions. How many worldwide bidding processes have they managed? How good were their contacts? How could they help — how good were they in helping us understand how to put together the story of what we were focused on? And they helped us immensely [in] sustainability. And in getting that in the selling document, if you will, and getting that, capturing that, and making sure that message got out around to all the prospects of, you know, close to 100 prospects. So that’s why we hired the bank. We didn’t say ‘have they ever worked for a utility company?’ No, heavens no. Nor would I. I want the best player in the world on these things. I can take care of our own sustainability issues. And that’s what our group did. So, should I never work, should I never drive in a state with a coal-fired power plant? Avoid those states? I mean, come on. That’s not how we hire people. I respect their concerns, however.

I want the best player in the world on these things. I can take care of our own sustainability issues.

DI: Administrators have said the deal will generate $15 million per year from the P3 endowment once those funds pull through after not this coming fiscal year, but fiscal 2022. I was wondering what would happen if the endowment generates more than expected? Say it pulls through $20 million in a year. Would those excess payments go toward the P3 payment more quickly, or how would that get awarded?

Harreld: The payment [is] more like it’s a mortgage and we’re paying it down? Is that your question? … So, where did we come up with $15 million? You know that we had that $14 to $16 million gap every year in our Strategic Plan. And that’s how we got to the $15.

And, and where did the gap come from? We have a Strategic Plan created in 2016. It had originally three key platforms and we had the fourth of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We now then have started a model relative to our peer group; what they’re spending in each of those areas projects that we would like to launch. And we’ve come up with an aggregate number as I recall, it’s about $33 [or] $34 million a year. And then we have tuition and state appropriations, and about a $15 million gap. Every year, by the way, from 2016 to now. That’s where it came from.

We then, we didn’t really know the value of this P3 transaction so we went to the marketplace with Wells Fargo, talked to many, many firms and ended up through a bidding process of getting the $1.165 billion. Then we will take some of that money to pay the consultants remote, a lot of it … upwards of $140-some million. Actually, we have bonds, and we’ll set the money aside to pay off those bonds. And that gives us about $999 million. And then we will put that into this endowment, the 501(c)(3). There’s a board of directors for that group. The university will go through its strategic plan and various projects in proposing for withdrawal out of the endowment … we are investing the money relatively conservatively to make sure it doesn’t go up and down very much … In good markets to your point [and finally getting] into your question — it could be higher. And when and if that occurs, the board will make a decision of what the payout should be for the next year, and it could be higher than $15 [million]. And if it’s $18, because of a good year, then $18 [million] will be spent, right up against the strategic plan — we’ve got a long list of activities. And so … we’re not going to take it outside. The entire amount of money is dedicated. In fact, it’s written into the governance laws of the 501(c)(3) that its purpose is to fund the strategic plan at the University of Iowa. Now, what may change is – keep in mind – that right now we’re updating — we’re starting the process across campus, which will take us a better part of next year … and our next year of the strategic plan.

So our strategic planning was originally 2016 to 2021, now we’re starting the process of writing the strategic plan for 2021 to 2026, so you could see that strategic plan, and more nuanced elements and open the door up for some other things. I don’t want to predict that because they haven’t gone through the process, but we’re not going outside of the strategic plan in terms of boundaries. And yes, it could go up and,  heaven forbid, it could also go down if we had another period of 2008, or [2009]. When the markets crashed, that board could decide that it actually wants to take the annual payment for some future year from $15 million to $12 million, just to be safe during that sort of period. It’s a little bit the same way that our foundation works.

RELATED: University of Iowa president talks importance of resources in funding strategic plan

DI: So the intention would still be all Strategic Plan?

Harreld: Oh, yeah, we’re not going out of that zone. And actually the board will make those decisions, not the university, but their mandate is to focus on the strategic plan on purpose. The two things I worried about the most was: were we mature enough in our resource allocation process to spend the money wisely? I mean, think about the opportunity we now have to really move the needle in terms of this university, in terms of performance, graduation rates, retention rates, student success. Some of the Student Life things we just barely touched on earlier in the conversation. We have some. We have a lot of work to do. And it’s not just the university, its colleges as well. So there’s a whole set of activities … We have a unique opportunity to now fund those. And imagine what would happen if we squander it and don’t spend it the right way. I mean, this would be devastating.

So, I spent a lot of time thinking about the path forward for the strategic plan — how do we align things? And the second area was to make sure to get myself comfortable that the state wouldn’t use it to continue to deappropriate us because we don’t need the money anymore.  Remember the conversation — we have a gap. Because this is funding a gap, it isn’t like funding in excess it’s not like we have a lot of resources. And so I get quite comfortable that we can continue to tell that story in an appropriate way for the state to support.

RELATED: Iowa Democratic lawmakers question risks of UI’s potential public/private partnership

DI: How do you alleviate concerns that others might bring up about state lawmakers de-appropriating?

Harreld: That’s what I was referring to. Several ways, I mean, I think we’ve told our story pretty well. I think we need to continue telling it. And at the same time I think I’ve said this publicly, and I’m now going to say it again, that we need to be more proactive and actually inspecting the people who want to run for office in this state as to — do they support higher education or not? What’s their stand on public higher education? The country has been disinvesting like 39 states the last I checked have de-appropriated over the last decade. And I find that just totally, it’s a real problem. And so I think one of the answers is, when people run for office in the state, I think we should be asking them. Where do you stand on this? And, by the way, if you stand for continued de-appropriations because you think the universities are X, and don’t need the support, then maybe I’m not going to vote for you. And I’ve been saying that to my faculty, colleagues, my staff colleagues, students who are voting age. Come on, let’s do our work here as voters, start standing up. Ultimately, I think that’s the key defense. By the way, Sandy Boyd gave me that idea, because I was talking to him one day [and] he said, ‘Oh yeah, we used to bring them to campus in August — people running in the state — and we’d have a big — out on the Pentacrest — we’d have a big session where we asked the people running for office, what’s your view of public higher education? And since then we listen. And then we’d determine people who wanted to support.’ I think we need to move back to that and be much more proactive about it. That’s how I answered that.