Sunday, November 26, 2006

UI President Search VII: The Answer

This, the seventh entry in this blog series about the UI presidential selection, opens with my thoughts about the solution to this mess.

[If you scroll on down you will find the usual opening -- "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search" -- with its links to the prior entries, their links to the full text of newspaper stories and other relevant material from the prior 24 hours, and summaries of the main focus of each of the prior entries. As always, it also concludes with the "Media Stories and Commentary" section, with links to the stories of the day -- today the revelations of Regent Bob Downer -- and my comments about those stories.]
The Answer

As with President Bush's efforts to re-think an exit strategy for Iraq, the deliberations of the James Baker commission, and a group of the best and the brightest of the Pentagon's officers, I think it is time we start putting some options on the table for how to get ourselves out of our own little Iraq war here in Iowa -- the Regents' botched efforts in conducting a search for a new UI president.

You're right: I have no responsibility for this mess, did not participate in it in any way, and no one has asked my advice. But that's never held me back in the past, and I've always followed the farmer's suggestion, when asked by a city slicker what he could do to help: "Grab a plow and start plowing." Right now Iowa needs all the hands on plows we can find.

Having collected and uploaded to the Internet via this blog what I believe to be the most thorough collection of relevant material from the past 10 days, having grieved and agonized over possible solutions (see paragraphs 3-6, under "Michael J. Hogan," in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search V," November 24, 2006), and given my past experience (see paragraph 4, under "4. What are the necessary qualifications for UI's President?," in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006), the following proposals and analysis may, at a minimum, prompt a discussion that can produce even better ideas from others.

So what do I think we need?

We need a solution that will preserve as much dignity as possible for Governor Vilsack and Regents Gartner and Wahlert -- "the Board leadership" -- and the UI constituent groups, especially if they go ahead with their "votes of no confidence" in the Board's leadership. We need to reassure all of the UI's stakeholders -- which includes every Iowan -- of the integrity of the search process, and that the efforts of the search committee and all who participated in the process -- along with the money spent -- was not in vain. And, like re-building the infrastructure and prospects for democracy in Iraq, we need to both be seriously and successfully about, and appear to be about, building from scratch rational governance models, and mutal respect, between the UI community and the Board of Regents. I believe this will take years, not months, and that the current situation is much more serious than any of us realize in terms of the UI's ability to maintain its national reputation, and its ability to attract and retain research funds, faculty and staff, international and domestic visitors and students.

So how do we go about that?

1. Regents Gartner and Wahlert need to announce their resignations from the Board. Now. The effective date is less important. It can be tomorrow, following the 5:00 p.m. meeting in Cedar Rapids. It could be at the end of this year, December 31. Or it could be the day Governor-Elect Culver is sworn in. The important thing is that the announcement be made as promptly as possible.

I will not repeat here, even in summary fashion, a list of all the accumulated grievances going well beyond just the search process. Many are mentioned somewhere in the stories and commentary to which these blog entries have linked. But trust me: It's a long list, with a unifying theme in terms of Regents' behavior.

I do not propose these resignations lightly. There are no good solutions to our dilemma, but this I now believe to be "the least worst" first step.

Others who have suggested this course have communicated that a sense of animus, or retribution, may be driving their suggestion Regents be replaced. That is not my motive -- indeed, quite the opposite. I have known, and known of, Michael Gartner for years. I do not wish him harm. I just think things have reached the point that his resignation is now his, and our, only option.

Properly handled, the resignations of these two can minimize the harm to themselves -- along with the festering boil that their continued service inflames, and the public relations black eye it gives to the State of Iowa in general, and the UI in particular, that grows a deeper purple with every passing day. If they can do this on their own, without the appearance or reality of intervention by Governor Vilsack or Governor-Elect Culver, it will be a great favor to the governors as well -- someting Gartner should want to do. (See
Marc Hansen, "Vilsack Image 'Iowanonymous' -- But It's Early," Des Moines Register, November 19, 2006, for Gartner's support of Vilsack's fund raising and presidential bid.)

Few administrators have demonstrated more loyalty to their appointees than President George W. Bush. And yet even Bush, after FEMA Director Michael "you're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" Brown's handling of Katrina, ultimately accepted his resignation. Even Bush, after repeatedly saying that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would stay as Secretary through the end of Bush's term, notwithstanding what Jon Stewart calls the "Mess-o-potamia," ultimately accepted his resignation. In both instances the way it was handled enabled both to cite the controversy surrounding them, rather than "incompetence," as the reason they were choosing to leave.

Similary, the Regents' resignations need not involve the two Regents' mea culpa. Governor Vilsack can accept their resignations with "deep regret and appreciation for their great service." He can defer to Governor-Elect Culver for their replacements -- thus totally distancing Vilsack from the start to finish of this disaster.The Regents can say that they did what they believed to be in the best interests of the State of Iowa and its Regent institutions, that there was progress in those institutions during their term of service, but that precisely because of their commitment to the welfare of those institutions, given the current controvery they realize that the best service they can perform at this time is to resign.

OK, but what's next? Where is the next UI president going to come from?

2. The Regents should select whomever they believe to be the best of the four finalists who emerged from their search process.

In my judgment, and the reason I made it paragraph 1, the resignations of the Regents' leadership are an essential preliminary to doing anything about replacing Dave Skorton.

So long as they remain on the Board I'm not sure we will be able to find anyone willing to serve as UI president under these circumstances -- or, if we are, should we want anyone who would be willing to walk into this situation just because it pays well.

One of the reasons candiates are, or should be, wary, is that it will be extraordinarily difficult for a new UI president to have, or build, the relationships he or she needs to function in that position so long as the president is perceived as someone who sees nothing wrong with, and is willing to do the bidding of, the Regents' leadership.

This is more than a way out of our dilemma, it is also, I believe, the only realistic course available.

Consider what we've been through: a near year-long search, utilizing one of the nation's top search firms, with input from one of the best-connected faculties and other stakeholders of any American university, the expenditure of hundreds or thousands of hours and probably at least a couple hundred thousand dollars total, the utilization of a "Criteria Check List" prepared by the Regents with additions from the search committee, a distinguished group of individuals on the search committee, and an advisory committee to the academic representaties on the search committee, a winnowing process that produced what even Regent Gartner described as "wonderfully accomplished people" -- as one would expect such a search would produce -- followed by interviews of the top 7 by the full Board of Regents and some members of the search committee, from which the top four were overwhelmingly supported and ultimately selected.

Even under the best of circumstances it is highly unlikely that a new, second search would produce better candidates than those produced by the search we've already conducted. And these aren't "the best of circumstances."

The odds are high -- especially if the Board leadership remains, but even if it doesn't -- that a second search would find us dealing with very wary potential candidates, reluctant even to apply, and others substantially less "wonderfully accomplished" than the ones we've already found.

Even if it were not the only option, going with the results of our first search has the added advantage of asuaging the members of the search committee, UI constituencies, and the world that's watching, with the message that what has happened was but a bump in the road rather than complete demolition from an IED (improvised explosive device) planted by a couple insurgent Regents.

It also has the advantage of maintaining face for the Regents. They are still left with the legal responsibility for selecting the UI's president, and from the pool that was produced by the process they put in place, and followed to the end in producing what they represented were good and qualified candidates -- up until the 11th hour. They might even stick with their secrecy (and therefore, presumably, not have on-campus visits -- even though I would think that a mistake, and that they ought to do what they can to encourage the final four to willingly reveal their identities). They could simply make the final selection from the final four without any additional process, arguing that if we're going to stick with the first search we also should stick with its conditions and promises of confidentiality made to the applicants

This could be done at the Regents' meeting now scheduled for mid-December in Iowa City, if not before. Because the faster we can get this unfortunate scenario behind us, and have a new president ahead of us, the better for all involved.

So, that's my proposal. What's yours?

This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search

Today's (November 26) is the seventh installment in this blog's report and commentary regarding the continuing saga of the Iowa Board of Regents' efforts to find a president for the University of Iowa. Here are links to the prior six: Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006; Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search II," November 21, 2006; Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search III," November 22, 2003; Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search IV," November 23, 2006; Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search V," November 24, 2006; Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VI," November 25, 2006.

Each contains links to the full text of such relevant reports, media stories, blogs and other commentary as I have found. Together I believe them to be the most complete collection available anywhere on the Internet. However, note that the references are not repeated from one entry to the next, so the lists in all the relevant blog entries must be checked to get the full collection.

The entries also contain some commentary of my own. For example,
  • The first contains, among other things, a summarized version of the facts, and a relatively long essay in paragraph 4 entitled, "What are the necessary qualifications for UI's president?"
  • The second includes my effort to identify eight separate categories of issues involved in these stories, provide a bit of legal analysis of Iowa's open meetings law, and reference a little history from Regent Michael Gartner's past.
  • In III I deal with the implications of the revelation that, among the reasons for rejecting the four candidates recommended by the search committee, these Regents, bedeviled by ties to health insurance company Wellmark in the past, may have nonetheless preferred the candidate they did because of her ties to a related health insurance provider. This story, of course, has implications for Governor Vilsack's presidential race, and the beginning of Governor-Elect Culver's term.
  • The fourth includes a contributor's list of Regents-Wellmark ties, and comment about what the Regents'-authorized search committee "Criteria Check List" reveals about the lack of early Regents' concern about health services experience, and some of the problems with search firms.
  • The fifth focuses on the UI's Provost, Michael J. Hogan, and what his rejection by the Regents (as one of the final four) reveals about the failures of the Regents' process.
  • In number VI the primary focus of the news, and my commentary, relates to Governor Vilsack's announcement of his meeting with Regent Gartner and UI officials in Cedar Rapids tomorrow, November 27.

Regent Robert Downer

Today was Regent Downer's day, what with his column in the Des Moines Register, along with Erin Jordan's story, as well as a story in The Gazette -- all of which are available in full text from links below, under the heading "Media Stories and Commentary."

The highlights are as follows:

1. Downer confirms what all have suspected: Skorton's being run off by the Regents "was due to Skorton's heresy in giving a notice of termination of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics/Carver College of Medicine contract with Wellmark. . . . [S]ince then . . . there seems to be an unusual level of emotion that has attached to issues involving UIHC."

On November 22 I wrote (
Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search III," November 22, 2003):
It is far too early, and I am far too inadequately informed and inherently disinclined, to be coming to conclusions. But if it is true that Governor Vilsack was willing to put a represenative of the health insurance industry on the Board, knowing it would make for a conflict of interest in the Board's negotiations with the UI hospitals, and if that contributed to David Skorton's mistreatment and departure (as a result of his standing up for the UI's interests vis-a-vis the insurance industry), and if Vilsack has received significant campaign contributions from the health insurance industry (as governor and as a presidential candidate), and if his appointments to that Board, and instructions to its members, related to the interests of that industry, and if the heavy-handed way the Board has handled the search process was driven by similar pressures, and if the Board's favoring the selection of Deborah Freund is in some way a part of this same scenario -- involving the removal of UI opposition to health insurance rates and payments by appointing an insurance-friendly UI president (rather than trying to serve the industry through Board appointments) -- all of which have been suggested in one way or another by others much more knowledgeable than myself -- then there is a much bigger story here than anyone (or at least I) ever imagined, a story of Pulitzer Prize-winning proportions. Clearly, that's a lot of "ifs." But they at least ought to be pursued and debunked, if that proves to be the proper disposition.
This is the context in which Downer's revelations, or confirmations, take their meaning. To which he notes, and adds, the irony that "Skorton possessed the qualifications that the board majority now says it needs in a U of I president."

2. Downer also describes the now-infamous last 30 hours of the search process: "Regents on the Search Committee had repeatedly told the board it would have an excellent field of candidates from which to choose. . . . This was my understanding through the conclusion of the interviews on Nov. 11, and again when the board's executive session resumed at noon on Nov. 14. However, a mere 30 hours after that meeting, these 'outstanding candidates' were found to be lacking."

3. Never has a dash conveyed so much meaning as when he writes, "It is possible that the new U of I president - if one is ever selected - will be paid . . .." (emphasis supplied) If one is ever selected?

4. Finally, he acknowledges, "Many [UI] faculty have stayed, despite higher salary offers at other institutions, because of a supportive environment, a great community in which to live and expressions of appreciation for their work by colleagues, alumni, donors - and, until now, regents." It is this that gives at least justification, and even real need, for the proposed votes of "no confidence" in the Regents' leadership by UI constituencies.

Both Erin Jordan and Scott Dochterman expand on these themes.

Governor Vilsack

We will know better by tomorrow (Monday, November 27) evening, after the 5:00 p.m. meeting between the Governor, Michael Gartner, and UI representatives just how seriously the Governor believes this crisis is -- for him.

One blogger on the Des Moines Register's blog site commented, "This responsibility for this fiasco lies directly at the feet of Governor Vilsack, who selected the Regents. If he does not fix this before he leaves office–by demanding the resignation of several regents and publically stating that their approach to this was terribly inappropriate – I will never support him in his presidential bid. His regents may be his Michael Brown and the search may be his Katrina. Such poor judgment is not competent presidential material.

Another writes, "Ever since John Forsyth was appointed to the BOR, I have been looking for some indication that the Regents actually have a clue about what their role is vis a vis the state universities. It seems this particular groups wants to exploit the resources of the universities for their own aggrandizement (read “insurance industry”).

"In my opinion, this all comes down to whether or not our state’s flagship university will be 'the University of Iowa' or 'the University of a Small Group of Powerful Rich People Who Live in Des Moines.'

"I promise you, this will be an issue when Vilsack runs in the Iowa caucuses."

Comments, "U of I Presidential Search,"
Newsroom Online, Des Moines Register, November 23, 2006

Look, these are the comments of only two people in a state of nearly three million, and I don't even know who they are. But I do think there are analogies to President Bush's handling of Katrina and FEMA Director Michael "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" Brown. Just consider these passages from Brian Morelli's November 21 report of Governor Vilsack's initial reactions to the Regents-created Katrina that hit Iowa City.

"Gov. Tom Vilsack, through his spokesperson Jennifer Mullin, said time is needed for parties involved to reach out to each other so they can move forward to find the best possible person to lead UI.

. . .

Mullin said it would be unusual for the governor to step into the situation.

"It is not something he would get involved in. The governor appoints very capable people to handle these types of situations," (emphass supplied) Mullin said of regent appointees, all of which Vilsack appointed.

"Regarding possible open meeting violations, Mullin said Vilsack does not have all the details.

. . .

"He doesn't know all of the details of these meetings, so he can't say one way or another if regents failed open meetings laws," Mullin said, noting that Vilsack said four attorneys advised the regents.

"The attorneys did not include Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, his chief-of-staff Eric Tabor said."

Brian Morelli, "Fallout Continues From Regents' Decision; Groups move toward no confidence vote; Vilsack won't step in," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 21, 2006.


Media Stories and Commentary

Editorial, "Do search Iowa's way: In the open; Honor public's expectation for government in sunshine," Des Moines Register, November 26, 2006

Robert Downer, "Regent Questions Treatment of Skorton, Halting of Search," Des Moines Register, November 26, 2006

Erin Jordan, "U of I seeks remedy for unease; Those wanting a university president with experience in health care had one until they drove him away, one regent says," Des Moines Register, November 26, 2006

Lynn Campbell, "College leaders fare well elsewhere; Some who left Iowa now among nation's highest-paid, survey shows,"
Des Moines Register, November 26, 2006; but see, in this connection,
Nicholas Johnson, "Pricey Presidents' Added Cost," The Daily Iowan, March 7, 2006

Scott Dochterman, "I.C. regent wants search continued; Downer’s was 1 of 2 votes to keep going," The Gazette, November 26, 2006

Editorial, "Regents Condense Iowa City Meeting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 26, 2006


Joe Gardyasz, "High-tech tug of war," Des Moines Business Record Online, November 26, 2006 ("[Regents President] Michael Gartner was very persuasive that the money should go through the regents directly and not through the IDED board.")

Rod Boshart, "The man who would be president; Vilsack’s friends, colleagues say he has what it takes," The Gazette, November 26, 2006


State29, "Iowa Measures its Penis Size According to a University President's Salary," November 26, 2006; "Pre-Turkey Roundup," November 22, 2006; "Michael Gartner is a Cranky Guy in a Bow Tie," November 21, 2006.
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