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Public hanging of non-performers and culture change resistors was done in order to send a message . . ..
-- Bruce Harreld on ensuring employee compliance at IBM because "culture is a critical control system" [see footnote for source and occasion]
Some say the best hires for university presidencies are those with experience as university or college presidents, vice presidents, or provosts. Others believe these are essential requirements.
Bruce Harreld, the fourth of four finalists following a national search, held his "public forum" that afternoon. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson]
This is a matter of some urgency for the University of Iowa, as the Regents will be picking the next UI president tomorrow, September 3.
But it is perhaps also a useful case study (as they say at the Harvard Business School) for colleges and universities elsewhere. This is neither the time nor space to be itemizing all the challenges confronting higher education today. But there remains a current of anti-intellectualism in America always quick to suggest that the universal solution for challenged governmental or non-profit organizations is to simply become more "business-like."
Here, then, are one person's reflections about the potential role of business executives as university presidents.
Admittedly, universities cannot be administered like Fortune 500 corporations or branches of the military. Among American institutions, they are sui generis, with missions, values and history unlike any other (think faculty "tenure," and a century-old "shared governance" tradition). However, that does not mean a mix of experience that included familiarity with business might not be useful for a university president.
But neither does it mean that any and every person with business experience would make a great university president -– or even a passable business leader. While they should not be peremptorily dismissed from consideration, they need to be subjected to a more creative and in depth evaluation than the more traditional candidates.
It is said that many persons go through as many as a half-dozen careers in their lifetime. Assume hypothetically that one of our UI law school graduates accepts U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court clerkships; a tenure-track position at a major university’s law school; private sector corporate law practice; a couple appointments from the U.S. president to head agencies; the chair of a non-profit organization; and then combines a national column, lecture business, radio commentary, and role as TV host, before returning to law school teaching. Nothing in that range of experience would qualify them to function as CEO of a major corporation, but the combination of government administrative experience, plus the legal representation of major corporations, would at least be of some relevance.
Similarly, a comparable range of experience for a business school graduate, including at least some interaction with university administrators, would be of some relevance when they were considered for a university presidency.
Assuming someone with business background is to be considered for a university presidency, what should his or her thorough vetting require? What would a decision tree look like? What are the minimums that should be required in terms of familiarity with education in general and higher education in particular?
Prestige. A celebrity-class name is neither a prerequisite nor a sufficient reason for a hire. But a Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), or Jack Welsh (General Electric) -- like General Dwight Eisenhower’s not totally satisfactory term as president of Columbia University, 1948-52 -- could bring a kind of “wow!” factor to a university.
However, it should be noted, Jeff Bezos graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Warren Buffett attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, holds a B.Sc. in business from the University of Nebraska, and a M.Sc. in economics from Columbia. Jack Welsh earned a B.Sc. from the University of Massachusetts, and a M.Sc. and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois.
Reminiscent of Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s rejoinder to Senator Dan Quayle in the 1998 vice-presidential debate (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”), “Bruce Harreld, you’re no Jeff Bezos.” No fault in that; he never suggested that he was. Few of us are a Jeff Bezos. But it does mean that whatever else Harreld may offer the University of Iowa, and State of Iowa, he does not bring the additional prestige of a business celebrity.
Educational Minimums. It may not be necessary for a university president to have been a university president, or provost, elsewhere, but it is not unreasonable to require at least some education-related administrative experience.
Harreld has literally no administrative experience at any level of our educational system, from K-12 schools through our largest public, research universities. He has never held even a tenure track position at a college or university, and would not meet the UI College of Business requirements for one here (status normally provided university presidents who qualify). He has produced little writing that might be considered serious "scholarship." His bio reflects an engineering degree from Purdue, and an M.B.A. degree from Harvard, but no suggestion of academic distinction. Not incidentally, as a "business candidate," he also has no CEO experience with major corporations, and such business experience as he possesses has created a mixed record.
His teaching experience has been limited to that of an adjunct or lecturer at Northwestern and Harvard Business School, but there is no indication of his assuming any administrative role, however menial, at those institutions.
Relevant values. Lacking much in the way of educational credentials, one might look to a business candidate’s history of action and speech with regard to the values of the academy. What can Bruce Harreld point to from his past to indicate that he respects and values the work of academic researchers, scholars, and professors, the mission and contribution of liberal arts education -- indeed, any of the missions, goals, and accomplishments of higher education beyond those of a business college -- not only to a state’s economy but to its culture and quality of life?
There is, of course, an overlap between some of the functions and necessary skills within for-profit and non-profit organizations, such as accounting and human resources practices. But there are also major differences, such as values and goals. What do we know about Harreld’s understanding, respect, and advocacy for non-profit institutions -- as distinguished from the contributions from America’s largest for-profit corporations?
Skills Allocation. It is true that one can no more expect a president of a university than the president of the United States to possess all the knowledge, skills, and expertise -- or even energy -- required to carry out their job. They must rely on others, such as personal staff, vice presidents, or in an academic setting, deans and department heads as well as individual faculty and staff members.
However, in my opinion, a university president needs to be an educational leader, setting the tone for an educational institution. It is far easier, and cheaper, to find those skilled in data management, accounting practices, wealth management of endowments, media relations, building maintenance, marketing and branding, and all the other requisite professions and skills. It is both more difficult, and inappropriate, to try to outsource, hire, or contract for, educational leadership, vision, mission creation and execution. That should be a university president’s job one, a job that requires a depth of knowledge regarding higher education.
It makes no more sense to rely on a business person to go through on-the-job training in order to develop competence as a university president than it would be to pluck a distinguished, tenured scholar-professor with no business or administrative experience out of a university and make her CEO of a mid-sized corporation.
Business Record. If the primary qualities of a business person chosen to be a university president is their experience in business, it seems only fair to put that record in business on the table for thorough review.
So far as the record reveals, Bruce Harreld may be a wonderful person -- kind to children and dogs and a good neighbor. Notwithstanding an hour and a half listening to him, we've never met, so that experience plus the written record and newspaper reports is all that's known.
But based on that business record, set forth immediately below, I would be hesitant to hire him even as a corporate CEO, let alone the president of a major American research university. Here is how the Gazette's journalist, Vanessa Miller, reported in the September 2 edition what she had found out regarding Harreld's business experience:
He was president and member of the board for Boston Market Company in Golden, Colo., from 1993 to 1995, working with five partners to grow the organization from 20 stores in the Boston area to more than 1,100 stores nationally, according to his CV.Vanessa Miller, "Fourth University of Iowa presidential candidate: Bruce Harreld; Candidate is managing principal at Colorado-based Executing Strategy, LLC," The Gazette (online), August 31, 2015; hardcopy: "Peer Praises Business Skills of Harvard-Educated Executive," The Gazette, September 1, 2015, p. A1.
In 1995, Harreld was listed as a defendant in a lawsuit accusing him and other corporate leaders of insider trading and conflict of interest. That initial lawsuit was dismissed, but plaintiffs persisted and the case eventually settled.
From 1983 to 1993, Harreld was senior vice president and division president of Kraft General Foods in Northfield, Ill., leading the $2 billion “frozen foods unit,” which included Tombstone Pizza, DiGiorno, Budget Gourmet, and Lenders Bagels.
According to the CV provided by the Board of Regents, Harreld lists himself as managing principal for a firm called Executing Strategy LLC, out of Avon, Colo., advising public, private, and military organizations on “leadership, organic growth, and strategic renewal.”
But no business with that name is registered with the Secretary of State’s Office in Colorado, and representatives with an Avon-area chamber of commerce said they have no knowledge of the business. An Executing Strategy LLC was registered with the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2009 under the signatory James Bruce Harreld, but it was dissolved earlier this year.
Harreld, according to public records, on Feb. 6, 2013, filed three mandatory annual reports for the business for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012. But no reports have been filed since, and the secretary of the commonwealth on June 30 took action to dissolve the business, which listed its services provided as consulting, strategy, implementation, marketing, and turnaround advice.
Harreld’s LinkedIn profile currently lists him as a corporate adviser in the Greater Denver Area and working for General Motors from 2015 to present -- although the CV provided by the Board of Regents doesn’t include work with General Motors.
Public Forum. Tuesday's [Sept. 1] public forum did not go well for Mr. Harreld. It may not have been his fault. He may not have been adequately briefed on what he needed to know, and what he should suspect.
For starters, unlike the other three he had neither adequately researched the University of Iowa nor prepared a formal, coherent, written statement. Unlike, say, a Peter Drucker, he has not written any business literature of note. However, he has read it, and business magazines, and is comfortable with corporate-think, its current fads and consultant-speak jargon. But that was not enough to create a coherent presentation, sprinkled with specifics from higher education. (All candidates were asked to present a "vision" and "mission" for the University, and the first three prepared such narratives. Harreld's vision? Four words: Iowa should go "from great to greater.")
You had to feel sorry for the guy; "deer in the headlights" comes to mind. Whether he would ever have been able to do well in such a faculty setting is not clear, but he was certainly not able to do so Tuesday afternoon. One had the sense he hadn’t even watched the online videos of the prior three candidates -- what clearly could have been a competitive advantage offered him by whoever scheduled their presentations.
One of the worst exchanges was his response to law professor Shelly Kurtz's question as to whether Harreld could imagine himself agreeing to return $47 million to the Regents to distribute to Iowa State and Northern Iowa (as was done by the past UI president). Harreld said he could. He seemingly didn’t even grasp the most basic political/organizational fact that it is the UI president’s job (as viewed by most faculty and others) to represent the university’s best interests -– not to turn back $47 million if the president thinks the State of Iowa might better spend it elsewhere. Once the legislature, or Regents, makes their decision, however foolish, you either resign in protest or accept it and move on. But you don’t simply "start off backing up" and capitulate without a fight.
Conclusion. This is but one case study. Clearly, the take-away is not that those with business experience should never even be considered as possible university presidents. It is that there is no magic in business experience as such -- any more than there is magic in having had some kind of academic administrative experience.
The question, as with any candidate, is not whether a given past experience (or race, gender, or other categories) is either qualifying or disqualifying. It is whether this experience of this candidate contributes anything to his or her capacity to be an acceptable and effective president of this university.
A final lesson is that however transferrable CEO abilities may be from one industry to another very different industry (such as John Sculley going from president of Pepsi to CEO of Apple), they are not smoothly transferrable into higher education. Before someone with business experience is selected as a finalist for a university presidential search, for the sake of the candidate as well as the institution, there should be confidence that their knowledge of and commitment to the values of higher education are such as to enable that smooth transition.
That was not the case with Bruce Harreld at the University of Iowa. Of course, if Harreld is nonetheless selected by the Regents tomorrow, well, that raises another set of issues and questions, doesn't it.
Nicholas Johnson, "Hiring Candid, Courageous University Presidents; An Exchange with UI Presidential Finalist, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov," August 29, 2015 (with links to the 2006-2007 blog essays about the last Regents presidential selection fiasco)
University of Iowa Presidential Search Web page for Bruce Harreld (with link to the video of his public forum)
Jeff Charis-Carlson, "UI Finalist: A Non-academic Can Run a University," Iowa City Press-Citizen (online), September 1, 2015, 8:16 p.m. CDT; as hardcopy: Jeff Charis-Carlson,"4th UI Finalist Pays His Visit," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 2, 2015, p. A1
Vanessa Miller, "Fourth University of Iowa presidential candidate: Bruce Harreld; Candidate is managing principal at Colorado-based Executing Strategy, LLC," The Gazette (online), August 31, 2015; hardcopy: "Peer Praises Business Skills of Harvard-Educated Executive," The Gazette, September 1, 2015, p. A1.
Vanessa MIller, "Fourth University of Iowa Presidential Candidate Drilled; ‘Why did you even apply?' Asks Audience Member," The Gazette (online), September 1, 2015, 9:37 PM; hardcopy: Vanessa Miller, "Public Vets UI Finalists; Now It's Up to Regents," The Gazette, September 2, 2015, p. A1, and Vanessa Miller, "Forum Grills Last Finalist; Harreld Says UI Must Adapt to Changing Circumstances or Fail," The Gazette, September 2, 2015, p. A2
Jeff Charis-Carlson, "UI Survey: Harreld Viewed as Least Qualified UI Finalist," Iowa City Press-Citizen (online), September 2, 2015, 12:23 p.m. ("In a survey conducted by the UI chapter of the American Association of University Presidents, only 1.8 percent of faculty and 2.6 percent of other respondents answered “yes” to the question of whether Harreld was qualified for the position. The other candidates — Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein and Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz -— all had more than 90 percent of respondents view them as qualified . . ..")
Vanessa Miller, "Feedback Rolling in on University of Iowa Presidential Candidates; Board of Regents Set to Name President Thursday," The Gazette (online), September 2, 2015, 4:07 PM
Footnote: Bruce Harreld,"Lessons From the IBM Trenches: On Culture,"Special Session with Bruce Harreld, Harvard Business School Chronicles: Advanced Management Program 182, Posted 15th May 2012 by Vince Abejo (from his outline:
"Culture is a critical control system, it needed to be managed actively
Actions speak louder than words, and is the most effective way to set the culture-Public hanging of non-performers and culture change resistors was done in order to send a message, but this was done sparingly
-Public rewards were communicated across all levels of the business in order to encourage and reinforce behavior"