Regent ‘anger’ raises more questions

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While standing by the selection of a new University of Iowa president, one member of the Board of Regents has expressed his concern that the process was flawed.

Speaking Thursday at the second of a two-day meeting on the University of Iowa campus, and less than 24 hours after demonstrators publicly asked regents to resign their posts, Subhash Sahai admitted he was “pissed” when he learned about previously-undisclosed meetings between a single candidate and five other regents and search committee members.

“I want the people at the university to know that we had impassioned, intentioned and rigorous debate,” Sahai said of regent deliberations. But he also admitted that at the time the selection was being debated he was unaware that some members had met privately with only one of the four finalists.

A group of around 200 people including University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff call on the Iowa Board of Regents to resign during a meeting of the board at the IMU in Iowa City on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015.
A group of around 200 people including University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff call on the Iowa Board of Regents to resign during a meeting of the board at the IMU in Iowa City on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

After hearing about the meetings, Sahai said he asked President Bruce Rastetter and President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland if the eventual winner had been predetermined. The two told him no decision had been made.

And while he says he does not doubt their word, Sahai continues to lament the optics surrounding what happened. (Dar Danielson of Radio Iowa has posted audio of Sahai’s remarks.)

Sahai’s short speech, no doubt intended to ease frustrations, has added to the questions that must be addressed by Rastetter, Mulholland and Gov. Terry Branstad — who also participated in an undisclosed, private telephone conversation with only one presidential candidate.

How did Rastetter decide which regent members would be invited to meet with the candidate?

Were other members also unaware of these meetings?

Was knowledge gained during the private meetings brought to the debate table in support of the candidate?

Were other candidates offered similar opportunities?

Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter looks on as a group of around 200 protesters including University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff entered the IMU during a board meeting to protest the decision to hire Bruce Harreld as the next UI President and called for the Regents to resign in Iowa City on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015.
Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter looks on as a group of around 200 protesters including University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff entered the IMU during a board meeting to protest the decision to hire Bruce Harreld as the next UI President and called for the Regents to resign in Iowa City on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

As I’ve noted previously, the Board of Regents is under no state mandate to use an open selection process. The group had the right, if they so desired, to move the proceedings behind closed doors. Instead of doing so, the body chose a more transparent process, leading University of Iowa faculty and students to believe they had a role to play. Then select regents secretly and purposefully violated the spirit of the process they created.

And, based on comments by one of the regents who took part in an undisclosed meeting, some members still don’t grasp the violation of public trust.

Larry McKibben, also responding Thursday to earlier protests, noted he’s received praise for the presidential selection and insinuated, based on the number of demonstrators, that most in Iowa City aren’t concerned. By refusing to tackle the actual issues being raised, McKibben exposes his own bias.

While some demonstrators seek the removal of the newly named president, the vast majority are frustrated by a process that gave unfair and preferential treatment to a single candidate. Many more are concerned the perceived bait-and-switch actions by regents members and a complicit Gov. Branstad will make it more difficult for other regent institutions to draw qualified, exceptional candidates in the future.

That’s what happens when ethics are suspect and people no longer believe you are acting in good faith.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 24, 2015. Photo credit: Adam Wesley/The Gazette