Graduate College Dean John Keller tapped to be interim University of Iowa president

The state Board of Regents announced Thursday it has asked the current co-chair of the presidential search committee to be the interim University of Iowa president from mid-May until the new president begins — likely in the late summer or early fall.


The Daily Iowan; Photos by Ashle

John Keller speaking in the UI Senate Chambers on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017.

Sarah Watson, Executive Editor

Outgoing dean of the graduate college John Keller has been tapped to serve as the interim president of the University of Iowa after current President Bruce Harreld leaves campus May 16. 

In a letter to campus Thursday, Harreld announced his departure date from the UI would be May 16, earlier than initially expected, and the regents would appoint an interim to fill the gap until a new president started. The regents anticipate culminating the monthslong search process with a new UI president selected April 30. Harreld won’t continue to be employed on campus or continue to be paid after that date, a regents spokesperson told The Daily Iowan, foregoing millions of dollars in salary and deferred compensation.

Although the new president will be able to pick their start date, Keller said he is anticipating the next president to begin their tenure in the late summer or early fall, meaning he will fill the role of interim president until that time period. 

“I’m thrilled that I was asked,” Keller said in an interview with the DI. “I think it’s a very humbling request that the board made for me to serve in that role. I’m very grateful for the opportunity.” 

The arrangement for an interim president cropped up in the last few days, Keller said, so he wouldn’t know details such as his interim salary until closer to a Board of Regents meeting April 14, when the regents will finalize the appointment. Keller had previously announced he would transition from his role as dean of the graduate college to a position in the Provost’s Office as a special assistant and professor in the College of Dentistry. 

“I had no inkling of this at all to be honest with you — very, very recent developments,” Keller said, when asked if he’d anticipated stepping into an interim role. “…This has been a kind of a whirlwind change in thinking and strategy on how to maneuver my career over the next three to four months or whatever the length of time is.”

The announcement of an interim is a change from previous indications from Harreld that he intended to stay on to show a new president the ropes if that’s what the new president and the Board of Regents preferred.

In a December interview with the DI, Harreld said he wanted to retire early to avoid an interim presidency and ensure a smoother transition. He would stay at the UI until his contract was up in 2023, or longer, if wanted.

“I will stick around,” Harreld said. “I don’t think the committee should feel rushed… I want them to take their time to find the next great leader for the institution, and then I will help that individual transition into their role. And that could take a week, that could take a month, it’s up to them.

“I do believe there’s some value — when I joined, there was no one to really introduce me to a lot of people, not only on campus, but also in the state, and even across the country, to major donors. And I am more than willing to do that. That will be up to my successor. And she or he will determine, and if they say, ‘Thank you, but not needed’ — fine.”

In his announcement to campus Thursday, Harreld said Board President Mike Richards requested Harreld remain president through May 16, “which will allow the new president the opportunity to begin at a date of their choosing.”

Harreld pointed to former UI President Sandy Boyd as his “north star,” citing Boyd’s personal memoir A Life on the Middle West’s Never-Ending Frontier: “I returned to the university with the conviction that old presidents should never be heard and seldom seen,” Boyd wrote in the memoir.

Keller said he’s preparing a discussion list with the president and provost offices to go over what could come up during his interim presidency, including plans to reform campus security.

“Whatever comes up that needs my attention, I’m certainly prepared to work on those issues,” Keller said. “And if there are decisions that need to be made in a short period of time. I will be fully prepared to make those decisions. You know, with the thinking that you don’t want to come in and make any crazy calls or do anything really wild that’s going to affect what the next president has to take on.”

Keller, who is also the co-chair of the presidential search committee, said he’s confident the “very robust applicant pool” will yield many qualified candidates for the role of next head Hawkeye. 

“My own opinion is that we will be challenged by eliminating it down to the 10 and down to the lower number to bring to campus,” Keller said.