Q&A: UI President talks retirement plan, decision to reopen campus, and the spring semester

The Daily Iowan sat down with University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld on Tuesday where he discussed his retirement, the decision to reopen campus this fall, and what he expects the spring semester to look like.


Ryan Adams

President Bruce Harreld speaks during a virtual interview with The Daily Iowan on Sept. 29, 2020.

DI staff

President J. Bruce Harreld: A few years ago, I extended my contract and I have been worried, as some of you may have heard me talk about, that we don’t do succession planning very well at the university. And so, I started thinking a lot about how long it would take to find a successor for my position. And I got the point of view that takes nine to 18 months normally [to] find a president, to run a presidential search. I started asking people might it take longer or shorter now. And certainly got the view that it was certainly not short. And so, I started working this summer with the Board [of Regents] to say that we should start that process now. And we, in the way we have tended to do in the past, and I don’t mean this at all a disparaging way, but we’ve tended to announce an interim, somebody resigns or retires, then we—and none of you are old enough to have watched this—but then we announced an interim president who then is in the job for nine to 18 months. A lot of things come to a halt during that period, in my opinion, and we can do better. So, what the board will announce on Thursday, is the start of a process to find my successor. There will be a search committee. They have identified, with my work, two people on campus to co-chair that search, and I’ve agreed that I will stay exactly where — I’m doing what I’m doing until a replacement is found. And if that takes what you say tomorrow, they found a replacement, then we’ll figure out what I do next, and there are all sorts of things I could do. And if it takes two, two-and-a-half years, there will be at the back end of my commitment and it won’t be a problem. And so we’re in that zone, that’ll get announced on Thursday, and I didn’t want you [The Daily Iowan] to and I asked you to embargo that so the board in Iowa will make that announcement and I don’t want you to trip that up so to speak. But I’d be glad to take questions. Is there anything there that didn’t make sense? Just so you know, I’ve been communicating this to all the deans and everybody else on it, by and large, most people say ‘thank you because we’ve had disruptions in the past with these types of transitions.’ And so now, I think the other thing that I didn’t mention that that could well happen, should happen, is we won’t have a specific timeline. We can search the country, the world for a great leader that fits us. And if that takes a little longer, we have the time. So, I’ve committed to stay with the board, all the way through my contract. Actually, I’ve even committed to stay longer if that’s necessary. I frankly don’t hope [or] want that to be the case, but it anyway, that’s what will get announced on Thursday.

The Daily Iowan: Yeah. Okay, so you agreed to your contract extension a year ago. Were you planning on continuing and what changed?

Harreld: Oh, I’ll still be here. I’ll still be here. I think what changed in my mind. I originally thought I needed to have this discussion with the board and this announcement probably nine months from now, to start the process. And then COVID-19 came around and I started talking to other people in the industry, saying, what’s, what’s happening with searches at the presidential level. And most people said, well they’re taking a lot longer. So, I think I started saying, with the board, we’re going to the board saying, maybe we should just start sooner, rather than later. In a sense, nothing’s changed, other than [COVID]-19, and it may have changed the mobility in the market for presidential searches to see.

The DI: Just to clarify, when you signed your contract extension in 2023, until 2023, so you’ll still be here until 2023.

Harreld: Yes, if I’m wanted. So, I want to be very careful. I don’t want to get in the way of the new president and the new president doesn’t need to have me kibitzing, unless they would like me to, but also the board has raised whether I’d be willing to work on some issues at the board level, strategically. If there’s a sub period, we don’t know, and I said, let’s deal with that when we get there. You know, as I said a moment ago, sort of colloquially, it will not be tomorrow that we’ll find a new president. I think the fastest anybody has thought about it has been a year. And I think most people think it’s going to take upward of two. I have about two and a half years left, so we’re, this is, this is within the realm of possibility that I will be here in some, I will be here in some capacity, I’m pretty sure throughout that an entire hiring period. Will I be president the entire period? I doubt, I think we’ll find a new president pretty quickly and get them installed. Now of course, even if we found somebody tomorrow, they also need to make the transition in wherever they are. So, you’ve got to factor all that into it. But I think the bigger issue, that I just want to keep coming back to, is I think, we now have the luxury of not doing it in a rushed fashion. And we can actually have a permanence of our strategic plan, we need to update it. We’re going to continue that we don’t need to start from scratch, we can move that forward. We’ve got P3 and how we allocate the monies, we’ve got an awful lot to go through here for the next, at least, year, in terms of how the campus operates during this pandemic. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s going to change in the next few months. So, we’ve got to prepare for the next semester, looking largely like the one we’re in. So, at any rate, we can keep, we have a smoothness, if you will, rather than another crisis for a campus.

The DI: And what, as this presidential search process is going on, what is going to happen to some of the other positions that are also interim positions?

Harreld: Keep moving. That’s the other nice thing about this. Everything will just stay on track. Nothing is going to be put on hold. I’m still the president and a number of some of those positions, I don’t think any of those will actually report to me at this point, but those stay will keep moving. We have a couple dean positions, DEI, they’re going to keep, keep moving.

The DI: So, those won’t be put on hold?

Harreld: No, no, no. In fact, I will argue that’s a good example of why we want to do it this way.

The DI: And are you concerned, with the coronavirus coming to light and racial justice protests, are you concerned with the appearance of jumping ship or the timing of your announcement of retirement?

Harreld: Yeah, yeah, but I’m not jumping. I mean, so I think at the end of the day, I think somebody will find a way to try to spin this and put some conspiracy behind it but it’s just not the case. And if I were not going to be here tomorrow, not going to be here at the end of the year, I’m not going to be here next year, then, yeah, but that’s not the case so it’ll calm down. I think we have to, you know, if we got further into my tenure, and started finding that we were now say 18 months left and it might take longer than that to find president and successor, now we’re into interims. So, let’s use this wisely. So, yeah, I’m concerned about it but I think most people understand it and actually say maybe this is the right way to do it. I’m trying to innovate and use my position as the, as a model for how we should be doing it.

The DI: What comes after this? What’s post-UI president for you?

Harreld: For me?

The DI: Yes, for you.

Harreld: I have some commitments to family and other folks that I need to live up to, while I still can. I’ll turn 70 later this year. So, you know, I’m at the twilight end, so I have some other personal commitments I need to live up to but there’s not another job. I’m not going anyplace. And that’s part of the luxury of this to do it this way, but I do have some commitments I need to fulfill, but they’re not, they’re semi-professional, I’ll put it that way, but that’s all.

The DI: When you first took the position, as The DI has reported before, you’ve often said that you’d bring the UI from great to greater. With the backdrop of coronavirus budget cuts, racial injustice, protests, do you feel like you’ve done that?

Harreld: No, I think we still have a long way to go. And in fact, if you took a look at the rankings here, U.S. News’ report, I’m sure you folks looked at it, you can see in a lot of key places with our overall score—the peer review and peer ranking of the university, the graduate retention rank—I can keep going, all those years we improved and improved meaningfully. And on the other hand, when you look at the financial resources overall per student per faculty member, and as well as alumni, giving rate, we’re moving backwards. And so, I think this issue of fiscal support, once again I hate to keep going to that, but the, the P3 will help, but this year the state decided to deappropriate us once again and freeze tuition. So, we’re, we’re fighting a battle up against a number of institutions that are much better funded than we are. And that, that takes a toll, after a while. And as I’ve said several times, we’re currently, the way we’re operating right now, is more expensive than it is normally, believe it or not. And so, we still got some work to do. And, in particular that has to do with the way in which, the sources for funding, and the state has been a mediocre partner. I mean they, they refunded every department across the state, except the Board of Regents, this year. And they’re sitting on a $340 million ‘Rainy Day Fund,’ and decided to cut the Board of Regents by $8 million. That really, really hurts. So, we still have a lot of work to do. And, but I think we’ve made some pretty good gains in a number of areas — we got much richer student body with, you know, 25 percent of our students now are underrepresented minorities and/or first generation students. We’ve put some good support systems in place, frankly we haven’t put enough of the support systems we need to have in place for those students. We still have mental health issues on campus. You can really see it during this crisis, we’ve probably tripled or quadrupled, we were still out of, out of capacity in that area, and I can keep going there are a number of areas and those, those directly impact our graduation rates. And while we’ve improved in graduation rates, we actually weren’t one of those schools that have, given the, the SAT scores, high school grades, etc. etc. of your incoming class, what percentage of them, statistically, that we think should graduate in four years. And then they compare us to what actually graduates. We’re net positive. UCLA for example is negative. They take really high-quality students and don’t graduate them at the rate that would be predicted. We’re actually net positive, so we’re doing some things, [there’s] a lot that we’ve done. We’ve opened up a p3 for funding purposes, who [that] can’t quite seem to get out, because the state is deappropriating, so we’ve still got a lot to do, a lot to do. I would not declare victory on anything at this stage.

The DI: What would you say are five lessons that you’ve learned as president? What would you say, define the Harreld years?

Harreld: Oh, I, I really, I’m going to let you do that. Right? I think there’s a reason historians are good at what they do. And I think looking back on your own, is just sort of spinning. And I really don’t want to get into. I think, dramatically, if forced to, which will force me, dramatically improved relationship with the state Board of Regents. In spite of what I just said, but funny. I think the opening up of a billion-dollar P3. I think the change in the resource allocation process that puts a lot of that responsibility in the hands of the colleges, rather than trying to do it at the top of the university, centrally. And I think with that comes another point which is, I think we’re a lot smarter today about how we allocate resources than everybody getting X percent across the board. We’re now making decisions to reinvest in space physics, writing, hospital research. I think you would look statistically at the dramatic increase in our research grants, [that] have gone up — go get the numbers and take a look — say roughly 400 million to over 600 now. Again, I don’t think that’s appropriate for me. I think that’s for you and others. And I’m not sure any of us can do that in the next year or two, I think that the test of time should look back on this and say, “What was the key accomplishments and disappointments of this era?”

Harreld: Since I’ll be around another couple of years, you can ask that [in] a couple years I mean, it’s not like I’m going anywhere.

The DI: Yeah. So, you talked about how wanting to have a longer period of time for the Board of Regents and the UI to search for a president, was, could you take us through, I guess your, your thinking this summer? Is this connected to, this announcement, connected to [anything]? I think a lot of people will think that this announcement is connected to the coronavirus or to racial justice protests. Can you just take us through your thinking on this?

Harreld: Yeah, I think the only, only element the CV-19 plays on it may have lengthened the time. I got advice from a lot of people that the typical search time for a presidential search, people advised me, is nine to 18 months. That seems to bear up, everyone’s around that one-year period. And then when I asked the question as to under this environment, do you think it’s shortened or lengthened? And everyone said oh it’s going to be lengthened, and they had different reasons for that so that’s what was the key piece to me because now we’re running into the end of my commitment. And I think it’s, therefore, time to think about it sooner rather than later. Is that the social justice and unrest on campus? No, not at all. Not right.

The DI: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in looking for a new president?  You’re, as you came into the University of Iowa, there was some dissent. What can be, what should be changed throughout the search process or what can the next presidential search do to get a new candidate?

Harreld: Well, I think the, first and foremost, this year, I think the board has already started to deal with, which is, clearly I report to the Board of Regents, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m part of this community. So, I think that the first thing that needs to happen is the board needs to let the university run the process and find and define what they’re looking for. Now, the board can have input to that, that’s understandable but it shouldn’t, the first draft of that should be at the university level. And I’m very convinced and very comfortable with the two people that will be named as the co-chairs, who have already agreed, as far as I understand, to do that, are going to be spectacular. [They] have been and are going to be recognized as spectacular leaders of that process. So, I think the first step, is the university needs to take the first steps and the definition of that. I think the second is the connection to the strategic plan. We’ve been, and I think there’s some degree of consensus, that the strategic plan we’ve been working under is sound, though the, the four key areas of student success and research and engagement, supported by diversity, equity, and inclusion, in the way in which we work together, those four areas are absolutely the right areas. We have gaps, still, in each of those, and we’ll be announcing some opportunities to use the P3 money to fund some of those gaps, but so why I say that, though I think the second step is finding the leader who is good and who helps fill those gaps. I think it needs to be, you know, you don’t just go look for a new president, you need to connect it to where you’re trying to go. So, I think the connection to the strategic plan. I think the overall transparency in the process is going to be very, very important for the community. And I think, to actually make sure and this, this goes back to where we started, I think we lose transparency when we try to rush the process. And I think we hopefully now will have time to do that in a thoughtful, careful way, not only on campus but also taking a look at the vulnerabilities, accomplishments of people in, wherever they come from. So, I think those are the key elements of making sure we understand where we’re trying to go connecting leadership skills to that, and then, giving the time to gestate and find the right person and not try to do it in a rushed way. I think there’s a fair amount of work out there on these types of searches that when they get rushed, they create gaps and, and don’t fill the position as well as they could or should. So, and I think embedded in that will be a core issue that I certainly got embroiled in. And I think the country is still going through it, which is this issue of do you need to, how much academic experience? Do you need to have a career that’s been dedicated in the academy? Or actually, a career where you’ve moved back and forth, or something that’s totally different. And I think there’s still, I know more of a lot of leadership studies right now that are going on in the education space, trying to answer that question. I’ve been interviewed, others have been interviewed, I’m sure, and I think that’ll be a core question — to come back to the strategic plan, and what what type of leadership skills we need. And that’s why we’re going to have a search committee, they will wrestle with that.

The DI: Are you concerned at all about the cost or the appearance of the cost of the search process and consulting firms that can be an expensive process at a time when universities are struggling financially?

Harreld: Let’s look at the other side of that coin. Because of the cost, we’ve actually cut corners to find the next leader of the university. I don’t like that argument, I think we have to–this is too important for the long term success of the institution, and the advantage of a search firm is that it dramatically increases your access, and it dramatically improves your ability to help a potential candidate, understand how they might fit in. So, I’m a big advocate of using search firms. I understand they’re expensive. On the other hand I think it’s an expense well worth it. 

I answered that like I know what the answer is, but I don’t in the sense–that’s going to be the search committee’s decision whether they want to use a search firm or not, it’s not preordained, they’re not being told they have to.

The DI: Looking at schools with bigger endowments Harvard, etc., they kept all their classes online. If the UI had a stronger financial footing, would you have brought students back to campus?

Harreld: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s costing us more to do what we’re doing, than if we were just all online. We reconfigured all the classrooms over the summer–the air handling equipment. We put up plexiglass. Anyone that has been in classrooms knows that. We’ve got all the same employees. We have all the maintenance costs that we have for all of our classrooms, so we didn’t mothball our campus. We kept it open and we went online. As I said earlier, 78 percent of our classes now are online. And here’s the problem I kept dealing with, with the CIMT in crisis [Critical Incident Management Team]… is that we have such a large percentage of our population being first generation or underrepresented minorities. The data says that they tend to drop out. In a normal environment, at a higher rate than if we actually go online, what would their persistence be, and all the data says lower. So, the concern I had was, ‘hey if we really care about the underrepresented generation and first generation students, then in fact, we need to find a way to have it both ways, and let people have a choice.’ 

The trick was our labs and our studio arts courses because if we dropped and said we’re not going to have certain courses you can’t have online. We just don’t know how to do it yet. Maybe we’ll figure that out. But as of right now, there’s certain courses that we can’t put online…  and if we take that out of the equation students are going to get behind in their academic careers. How do we make that up? I don’t think we have good answers for that so yes, we would do exactly where we are right now. 

Was it for the money? I listen to this ‘profits versus people’ stuff all the time. We haven’t made a profit around here since I’ve been here. It’s a question of how much we’re willing to lose. The right answer is that we’re willing to lose an awful lot of money, to keep people, and students’ academic careers moving forward. 

That was the key issue in my mind and the CIMT. Fortunately we had a group of epidemiologists and medical and public health experts and facilities people working all across the summer. That said, you know, it’s kind of interesting. But we think we know how to do that and we kept using the hospital and clinic system as an example. 

We’ve kept most of those people very very safe and working in very hazardous conditions – around CV-19 [COVID-19] positive patients and we had very little transfer… we’ve had very little transfer from the student generation to the faculty. I mean, the number of faculty that have gotten the virus is less than two handfuls. When you actually do the contact tracing, it’s not from in the classroom.

I speak for myself, I think we all thought that the residence halls were going to be problematic. We’ve had cases but not very many. The real issue we had was in the off-campus scene and with the governor’s help, we stepped up and have done that longer. Sarah Hansen, Vice President for Student Life says that these are wicked problems. Just taking a simple answer and shutting things down could have been really damaging for a number of your peers’ academic careers and to the point that maybe they would have dropped out. 

I’m not sure, I haven’t seen a correlation like that but I’ll accept it, that schools with larger endowments want more online. I’ll accept it. I don’t know why they did that. I would just say one thing I’ve learned about this virus– a couple things. One is that it’s a lot different here than it is on the coasts. So trying to compare what we’re doing here is dangerous. It is also different at different points in time. The other mistake I’ve fallen into and have to keep reminding myself is, I can remember back in March and April saying ‘oh, this will be over’… we’re now six to seven months into this and here we are still. You are in a mask, me and all of us online. We’re still going through this. We can have another discussion about whether we should and how we got here, but most importantly, whenever I’ve assumed that the vaccine will be here soon and protect all of us. I think that’s dangerous thinking, so I had to assume that we can have students not have those labs and not have the studio courses. I was also swayed by… a lot of my former students every year when students are graduating, I call them and say, you know what’s next and how’s it going. So this last spring… in early May I called my graduating cohort… they said, you know, I’m getting through this, but it’s really hard to learn this way and spend eight or six or hours a day doing it this way doesn’t seem like I get the same interaction from my peers in class that I have relied on. So, I just came away saying, if there’s a way to do this safely at any cost, we should do that. And I, hopefully, knock on wood, I think we’ve been able to work through it. And no students have been in the hospital. 

The DI: Could you give us an idea more of what you think the spring semester is going to look like?

Harreld: I don’t know 100 percent, but I know the Provost and the CIMT have been discussing that. I think we need to assume that there’s not going to be a vaccine. So maybe well into the summer, if then. And therefore, I think it’ll look largely like what we’re talking about now, what we’re going through right now. As you know, we’ve made some adjustments to spring break… we wanted to keep people during the winter safe as long as possible, bring them back as late as possible. We pushed that back and then we got into how do we actually get as many weeks of classroom or online experience in key courses, and started figuring out if there are some hard stops in the spring. We couldn’t postpone the academic year deeper, so we took that weekend in the spring and canceled spring break. I don’t have all the data in my head, but I’ve seen most of our peers doing exactly the same thing. I know it’s problematic and then I get into why did you do it when you did it? We did it so everybody would have enough time to make adjustments in their families. So, other than that adjustment…We’re going to be still doing a lot of masks and social distancing and all the rest. 

The DI: Some alumni and parents of student athletes have been critical of both you and Gary Barta since the decision was made to discontinue four sports at Iowa. What could have been done to save those sports and now that fundraising is in the process for those sports, why aren’t those being reinstated or returned?

Harreld: Oh, let me see if I can unpack that question. It’s a tough question. I mean, first of all, I guess the basic answer to your question is not to have lost the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournament and Big 10 championships in spring. Secondly, not have canceled or now dramatically shortened the football season. Because, simply put, those two sports fund all of the other sports. 

The minute we got into the cancellation of the basketball tournaments and then the shortening from 12. Now we’re down to eight or nine games within the Big 10 with no fans. No fans in the stadium is roughly, I think about $20-$25 million dollars a year. Just the fans not the media at the TV contracts. So, once we got into this calculus of shortening those two sports or canceling them, we started looking at scenarios. We had 24 sports and 23 wins in women’s, men’s basketball, and football then financially subsidized all the rest. So once we got into that zone, we had to do something. We haven’t raised — there’s not a fundraising. We had to figure out how to cancel sports. We’ve laid off people in athletics. We put people on furlough. We’ve actually taken coaches’ contracts who we have legal contracts with and asked them to take their salaries down just as I did several months ago. On top of that, after we closed four sports, we’re going to borrow money to keep the other 20 sports still going. We’re going to have to borrow tens of millions of dollars. To pay that money back, we had to reduce our operating costs, hence we closed four sports. 

So, then what we did by closing those four sports was, first, we looked at a variety of factors in terms of Title IX. We looked at it in terms of how successful they’ve been, how deep their donor bases get and could we raise the money. Those four sports cost us or we subsidized about $4.8 to $5.3 million a year. So, when we start talking about fundraising we would have to raise enough money to put in an endowment, that will throw off let’s just say $5 million a year. So it’s not once, it’s every year. And again, I asked a lot of our alumni how much money that would take, and somebody the other day said $100 million. That’s maybe on the high side, but it’s not a couple of million. A couple million would only cover half of one year. So, we have a really deep hole and we’re trying to dig out of it. I think one other thing is important to admit, which is in 2007 I believe, the Board of Regents in Iowa said that athletics needs to be an independent unit fiscally. In many other institutions, their money flows from academics to support athletics. In 2007, they said that can’t happen at the regent universities. So, people say, ‘well why don’t you just send money over there.’ Well first of all, we don’t have any money to send over there as we all know. Even if we did, we couldn’t, so we had to figure out a way to solve it within athletics. That’s where we are now in negotiation with banks to loan us tens of millions of dollars. We will have to pay that money back interest in principal over let’s say 10-15 years. So we needed to actually reduce our operations in one way, and hence needing to close sports. I am very sure that as people are running around saying we can raise the money, be careful. I saw a group raise $1.7 million-ish and were pretty proud of it… you got to at least put another, maybe 40 times that. I think probably what everyone said is that, ‘we were really surprised that you didn’t involve us in the process’ and, I’m sorry. We have done a lot of work in a lot of different areas across the summer. This will not be the last. I mean, you probably have seen Stanford’s closed 11 sports. Minnesota close, four or five. There’ll be a lot more in the Big Ten and across the country that actually need to do something like this, and quite frankly we decided we wanted to do it early to help our student athletes in those four sports. That sounds a little strange, but there’s going to be a rush for students and some sports to transfer as the University of Iowa drops ‘x’ sport… we wanted to get ahead of it and give our athletes a chance if they want to continue their athletic careers to find another home. If they don’t, then we also agreed we’d support their academic careers at the University of Iowa, and in scholarships until they graduate. So, tough dynamic, very disappointing and very difficult. I mean, the last six or seven months in terms of athletics – the hospital we didn’t touch on the fiscal crisis that they were going through back in March, in April. I think we did an interview, back during that period and we’ll talk somewhat about that. The issues we faced around social justice, the issues we faced was how do we figure out a way to open our campus safely. I’ve never seen anything like this confluence of issues. Fortunately, we’re coming out of it pretty good. I mean, even with the rankings. You know, I can argue the rank and I don’t want to spin it here, I suppose, but, you know. We held our own in the public rankings. So, we’ve actually improved a little over the last couple years, and gotten better in the public markets on the national public and private. We were tied with eight other schools. And in that time we dropped. I don’t know, maybe we’re at 80th and not 88. We’ve got a lot of work to do and got to get at it, hence, all the other things we’re talking about.