Sunday, February 04, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 379 - Feb. 4

Feb. 4, 8:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m.

Today there's news and comment about the UI Search Committee and "The SILO Sales Tax for K-12 Schools."

Search Committee: No Undergrads, Few Applicants, Lots of Confidentiality

"The bad news is that there remains concern that the 13-member committee is not broad enough to represent all the facets of the university -- specifically that the committee does not include anyone representing the UI undergraduate population."
-- "President Search II," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 4, 2007

Undergraduate representation. My instinct about the absence of undergraduates on Search Committee II (which I characterized yesterday as a disrespectful disdain the equivalent of a "poke in the eye with a sharp stick") was confirmed in a comment yesterday tacked onto the blog entry containing my Press-Citizen column about college football.

The author, who commented under the name "John Barleykorn," wrote in part:

"As an alum, I would much rather give funds to the sports programs that give me enjoyment and pride rather than the academic programs, many of which treated the majority of students like chunks of meat processing through a system. . . . [Why] should I give to . . . the political science department which I got my BA from [and its] professors who did not want to be bothered by undergraduates[?]"

It's not the first time I have heard similar comments. (I offer no judgment as to whether such feelings are warranted or accurate; my only point is that to the extent there are UI graduates do feel that way their feelings probably contribute to inhibiting the size -- or existence -- of their alumni giving to academic programs.)

Since most institutions (including universities) seem to reserve their greatest enthusiasms and energies for fund raising of various kinds, I thought John Barleykorn's comment worth bringing to the attention of the Regents and Search Committee II.

In excluding any and all undergraduate representation from Search Committee II for what seem to be the phoniest of reasons, they not only look silly and stubborn, they not only totally ignore what is by any measure the overwhelming majority of persons in the UI community, they are also simply reenforcing the feeling that many undergraduates may already have: that the UI simply views them as a source of the cash flow called "tuition," a necessary evil to be tolerated, if that. Having been excluded from Search Committee II is not going to help when, after today's students graduate, they are asked to show their gratitude and affection for our academic programs with generous contributions.

Defenders of the exclusion say, if an undergraduate was permitted to serve on the Committee then others would also want representation. Arguments like that always remind me of my third grade teacher: "But Nicky, if I let you do that I'd have to let everybody do it." And to such arguments I continue to say today's equivalent of what I said then: Search Committee II is too small anyway.

What is this petulant stubbornness about Committee size about anyway? I won't repeat the overwhelmingly persuasive case for larger search committees. If you're unfamiliar with it, you can listen to Jon Carlson's explanation.

Last March (2006) law professor Carlson, who chaired the very successful and widely-praised search committee that produced President David Skorton, and who was selected as one of the first group of five to serve on "Search Committee II," reviewed for the Regents what works best. That includes among other things, in his view, a broadly representative committee that can share the workload. The Regents rebuffed his helpful suggestions borne of experience and followed their own path into a tar pit. (To borrow a song lyric, "when will they ever learn?" Apparently not in time for Search Committee II.) But the ideas are still out there, if you're interested. Start watching at 41 minutes 21 seconds into the 1 hour 25 minute video -- or watch the whole event as you choose. (His remarks run 41:21-48-00.) It's available here:

Before leaving this subject . . .

"Representatives . . . shall be apportioned among the several States . . . according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons . . . three fifths of all other Persons." The Constitution of the United States, Art. I, Sec. 2, Par. 3 (1789).

What's the relevance of that passage from our Constitution? As early as 1789 even African-American slaves were thought to be entitled to at least three-fifths the representation of white folks when it came to taking the census. Of course, I'm not prepared to bear the burden of arguing that students should be accorded the full representation given slaves 218 years earlier. That would probably be asking too much of the Regents and Committee members. I just think there ought to be one on Search Committee II.

Few applicants.

Brian Morelli reported yesterday, "A list 'well into the double digits' of sitting presidents, provosts and other 'well-qualified' people who have applied, been
nominated or been recommended to be the next University of Iowa president, search committee chairman David Johnsen said. [Johnsen] would not specify how many names the list included. 'I am a little nervous to go in that direction,' Johnsen said."

What the hell is this about? The number of names on the list now needs to be classified "Top Secret"? Why?

Because Dean Johnsen is regarded as an intelligent and competent guy, not to mention someone who has indicated a desire for openness, I can only guess that this kind of bizarre behavior -- like the size of the undesirably small search committee, and the exclusion of any and all undergraduates -- has been ordered by Regents President Gartner, or perhaps even full Board action.

But if that is in fact the case I think Dean Johnsen should at least say as much in public, as he has indicated to some degree in the past. (He has said something to the effect of, "This process starts with the Regents and it will end with the Regents.") There would be nothing wrong with that. Just say, "The Regents, whose process in a way this is, have indicated they would prefer we reveal neither the names of the candidates nor even how many there are."

That would be acceptable. It would still sound silly. But at least it wouldn't reflect on the good common sense of Search Committee II and its chair.

By the way, why are the unknown precise number of candidates now only in the "double digits" -- somewhere between 10 and 99? Two months ago -- at the end of the extremely secret Search Committee I -- even that committee felt free to talk numbers. And if I recall correctly, the numbers of candidates were variously identified as in the range of 150 to 160. Once the chair of Search Committee II was selected, not to mention the first five members, wouldn't a top priority have been to immediately email those 150-plus persons to see if they were still interested? How much could have changed in two months? It's certainly possible that the treatment they -- and the UI community -- received at the hands of the Regents would have soured some individuals on that list (as well as others). But how many new names could have popped up in two months beyond those found over the last year of searching? If that was done I guess we can conclude that something between one-third and one-half (at least) of those 150-plus are no longer interested. If that hasn't yet been done it's reasonable to ask, "Why not?"

Lots of confidentiality. I am, as always, prepared to be proven wrong in my interpretation of Iowa law. When blogging I do not take the professional time to do the detailed research necessary to come to well considered "legal opinions" -- nor would I be publishing them in a blog if I did. I sometimes miss relevant provisions. And I seldom take the time to read court decisions or Attorney General's opinions.

But I'm troubled by the view of the law reflected in this report by Brian Morelli, linked below, of what appears to be Search Committee II's understanding:

"When the second presidential search committee met Friday [February 2, 2007], they tried to pin down the language of a solicitation letter that would go to each name on the list. The person could then respond and indicate if they would like to be discussed in an executive session. Iowa code requires job candidates to request that their name be discussed privately, instead of publicly, before a search committee can enter closed session to evaluate them. Johnsen hopes to get enough responses to warrant an executive session when the search committee meets Feb. 23."

I have discussed these issues at length before, and don't want to repeat them now. See "Open Meetings and Public Records, 1. Can meetings be closed for 'personnel' matters?" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XVII - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006; "Search Committee II and Open Meetings Requirements" and "Search Committee II, Candidate Confidentiality and On-Campus Interviews" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 371 - Jan. 27," January 27, 2007.

In sum, the Code presumes as a default that all meetings of a group such as Search Committee II will be open to the public and media. That would, of course, include meetings at which candidates are (a) counted, (b) named, or (c) discussed (with one narrow exception). Period.

The Committee apparently understands that it does not have the power to close a meeting unilaterally; it must have the agreement, the request, of the candidate being discussed. That much is true. However, as such it suggests too much.

The Code expressly states the circumstances under which a governmental body may close a meeting. If the body cannot come within one of those express exemptions the meeting in question must be open. The Code also states that no body is every required to hold a closed meeting merely because it has the discretionary authority to do so. (For example, merely because an applicant for UI president requests -- or even demands -- that his or her name be kept confidential, and that any discussion be conducted in secret, nothing in Iowa law requires the Committee to go along with that demand.)

Thus, even when both the Committee, and the candidate, wish to have the discussion held in secret they cannot do so without a very narrow standard being met, and having been found by the Committee (and a reviewing court, if any) to have been met.

That standard is that, secrecy (a "closed meeting") is "necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual's reputation . . .."

Now one may argue about what the law should be; perhaps any and all "personnel matters" should be discussed in secret. But that's not what the law now says (as far as I am aware, and as I read it). Nor do I believe the Committee can legally throw around that finding ("irreparable injury") with nothing to back it up save the candidate's, or Committee's, self-serving, conclusory assertion. There needs to be some factual basis, if not "fact finding," for that conclusion.

Moreover, even if some aspect of the candidate's record would qualify for secret discussion under the statutory standard, just as with other exceptions permitting closed meetings, the Committee would have to come back into open meeting upon the conclusion of the discussion of those matters. It would not, taken alone, warrant holding in secret the (a) number of candidates, (b) names of candidates, or (c) favorable or neutral information about those candidates. All that could be held in secret would be information so negative in character that to disclose it would cause "irreparable injury to that individual's reputation."

What I find even more troubling than what looks to be a clear violation of the law is the apparent desire of the Committee to perpetuate secrecy in this process, to actually solicit, to encourage, candidates to ask for secrecy. Given human nature most of them will do so -- both because they, too, probably prefer darkness to sunshine, and because they will be seeking to please their reviewers who have made their preference for secrecy so very clear.

The elephant in our board room. I have earlier discussed the continuation of the present Board of Regents and its leadership, in particular Michael Gartner, as "the elephant in our board room." See "The Elephant" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search Held Hostage Day 70 - Jan. 25," January 25, 2007.

Will anyone want to become UI president knowing of this Board's past practices? Knowing that every major group on campus, representing tens of thousands of members of the UI community, has passed resolutions of "no confidence" in the Board's leadership? Knowing that the new governor has indicated no inclination to remove that leadership?

And if they would be willing to kowtow to such a Board do we even want them as president? What's the matter with them? Don't they care? Are they just interested in the job because it will provide them a $100,000 to $200,000 pay raise? Are they really so egotistical they think that they will be able to win over the Board? That they will be able to function as a leader for this University notwithstanding the Board?

Confidence is commendable. Excessive confidence is Iraq.

Are we going to take, and answer, their questions about Gartner? If they ask questions does that count off points -- or add them? Will we volunteer information if they don't ask? IWhat should we conclude if they are totally ignorant of what's gone on here during the last few months?

From Diane Heldt's report, linked below, it sounds like Search Committee II is giving at least some consideration to these issues:

"Another concern committee members said they’ve heard is that a failed first presidential search will keep qualified candidates away. . . . Committee members said they should address problems with the first search in their mission statement . . .. Nat Sutton, a consultant from the Heidrick & Struggles search firm, agreed. 'We have to be prepared to deal with the past search . . . questions will come up,' he said. 'Everybody needs to be on the same page.'’’

It will be fascinating to see how the Committee, and the candidates, tiptoe around this elephant.

The SILO Sales Tax for K-12 Schools

Read the editorials on the "SILO" tax in The Gazette and Press-Citizen, linked below.

Notwithstanding the pro-SILO, self-serving interests of those who trade in real estate, or the rental of real estate, or for that matter all home owners -- interests that publishers would not normally consider antagonistic to advertising revenue -- both papers end up somewhere between critical and opposed to the tax proposal.

The Press-Citizen, for example, while headlining its editorial "SILO Benefits Will be Worth the Cost," linked below, says of the proposal:

"Iowa City district officials haven't done as good of a job this time around making a compelling case for how the funds will be spent and why the district needs the funds now. . . . [The proposed projects] don't necessarily convey a sense of compelling need concerning this tax. . . . [T]here's never a time when the school district can't use more money. Likewise, there is no clear-cut reason in Iowa City why the election needs to take place now . . .."

The Gazette simply says, "The reasons voters should say no to the SILO are . . ." and then proceeds to argue five persuasive points.

Note that neither of these editorial boards -- both of which are generally supportive of the schools in general, and spending on them in particular -- are staking out an ideological, or partisan, "read my lips, no new taxes."

The concerns they express, to which I'll add a few of my own, are:

1. The proposal is unbecomingly greedy. (a) It's a kind of "I've got mine, Jack" move to collect money for local schools from those who must come from outside the school districts to buy, and pay sales taxes, at the malls and shopping centers in Linn and Johnson County.

And, (b) within the District, it is an unabashed effort to shift the tax burden from a relatively progressive property tax system to a regressive sales tax system, to shift the burden from the relatively wealthy who own, trade or rent out real estate onto the backs of those least able to pay (and who must already pay a disproportionate share of their income in sales tax compared with their more fortunate, wealthier neighbors).

To the extent that the SILO funds go to legitimate, real "needs" they will, thereby, reduce property taxes to the extent that they would otherwise have to have been increased to pay for the bonds that would otherwise have to be used.

(c) But, finally, there is the self-defeating argument by the sales tax promoters that they intend to use some of the increased sales tax revenue as a direct transfer to property tax payers. Why self-defeating? (1) It looks like vote buying ("vote for our sales tax and we'll reduce your property taxes") and (2) it dramatically undercuts the argument for the sales tax that it is necessary "for the kids" and to meet the "needs" of the local school systems and that every dollar it will raise is desperately needed by the schools and will be used to meet those needs.

It raises the obvious question: If every dollar is needed for the schools, how are you able to transfer these dollars directly from those who pay sales taxes (but don't own property, and therefore don't pay property taxes) to property tax payers? Analytically, it's difficult to make both arguments simultaneously.

2. Although represented to be a "1% tax increase," it is in fact, of course, a "20% tax increase." (One cent is 20% of 5 cents.)

3. When Iowa City recently voted to approve a bond issue for the schools it was under a carrot and a stick. "We want a sales tax-funded school system, and we're frustrated that you Johnson County folks won't support it. So we'll promise you this: If you'll support this bond issue then we won't put in a sales tax. But if you don't support the bonds we're coming back with the sales tax again." Well, the anti-sales tax folks supported the bond issue, and now are within their rights in believing they have been double-crossed in a way.

4. They got it backwards. The initial enthusiasm was for the money. Only later did they realize that, in order to get it, they better come up with some ideas for how they might spend it. That's not a convincing way to persuade skeptics that there's a real need.

Of course there are things that even the nation's wealthiest school districts (of which the ICCSD is one) could do with more money. Many of those "wants" could actually make some difference in children's education.

But as The Gazette earlier pointed out, there is a distinction between "wants" and "needs" and -- precisely because the list was thrown together fast, after the possibility of an additional $100 or $200 million became known -- the process was not persuasive.

5. Nor has the evidence been presented that the districts have made a real full-bore effort to rationalize expenses, save costs, and look for ways to simultaneously cut expenditures while improving educational outputs.

There has been little or no movement (of which I am aware) toward consolidation. No effort to improve the ever-distancing relationship between the salaries of teachers and administrators. Little or no effort to measure outputs and build accountability into teacher pay and other expenditures.

When I was on the school board there was a rush to talk to architects about the buildings our bond issue would finance. I commented that usually, before one goes to the architect one knows whether they want to build an outhouse or a courthouse. What I meant by that, of course, is that (a) how many kids there will be in school (as a result of job shadowing, or students taking college courses, or cluster schools), (b) what activities are going to take place in school, (c) the extent to which computer instruction is used in the classroom and at home, or (d) whether there will be team teaching and block scheduling -- to name but a few of the possible variables and potential educational innovations -- affect the size and shape of schools and their classrooms.

No one wanted to do that kind of thinking when I was there, and I have no reason to believe anyone has done it since (though I'm the first to admit, since I'm no longer there, I cannot know for sure).

6. One of the advantages of bonding over an open-ended sales tax is that it informs, and forces, both school administrators and the public to focus with relative precision on needs, plans and costs. This sales tax does not.

Few people know with any degree of accuracy what they pay in sales tax for a year, let alone how those revenues are divided among TIF beneficiaries and various public programs. Bonds they do know.

7. As The Gazette points out, and emphasizes, ten years is just too long for a District to plan how it's going to spend that much money. As a result, the public really loses even any knowledge, let alone control, over how that money is spent.

8. It is difficult enough to plan and budget a school district's annual expenditures and reserves with relative stability in both revenue and costs. When either varies radically, whether costs or revenue, and over a short space of time (because the greatest flood of dollars will only come for five years), it can be very disruptive.

When I was on the school board the administration was even reluctant to go after or accept relatively small grants for this very reason. The money would run out and create demands for its replacement from somewhere else. I thought this a short-sighted policy at the time, and it involved far smaller quantities of money. But those experienced in such matters were seriously concerned about it, and the SILO influx of money would be many multiples the problem of any little grant.

9. These have been primarily my comments about the local papers' editorials about the specific sales tax increase proposal called SILO. To the extent anyone cares about my own views on taxation in general, and public support of the schools in particular, here are some very summary comments. (a) Politicians' talk of "taxes" is often a disservice, a diversion away from the public needs, priorities and programs that they (and we) should be discussing. See Nicholas Johnson, "It's Not About 'Taxes,'" October 24, 2006. (b) Depending on how that needs-priorities-programs analysis comes out -- with, hopefully, a focus on efficiency, effectiveness and pay backs -- I have no problem paying more taxes to cover those investments. Without knowing, my instinct is that after that analysis most thinking folks would conclude we would probably all be much better off if we paid significantly more in taxes (i.e., had more public goods). (c) Again, without knowing (tax policy is not my area of expertise), my instinct is that income taxes are probably the fairest form of allocating the costs of public goods (rather than, say, sales or property taxes). (d) As a general proposition I have no problem paying more for our K-12 system -- subject to the kinds of reservations the editorial writers, and I, have discussed, above. In fact, I once proposed doubling teachers' salaries. (e) So, to the extent I have any problems with SILO it is not because I don't want to "Do it for the kids." It is not because I'm opposed to "improving our schools." It's not because I don't want to have to pay more in taxes for those improvements. It's really more a matter of process and fairness, as discussed in the 8 numbered points above.

Something to think about.
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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story, these blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006. Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.) For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006. My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006. And the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References". A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Bog since June 2006.]

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Media Stories and Commentary

Editorial, "School Sales Tax Too Long," The Gazette, February 4, 2007

Editorial, "Our quick take on last week's news stories; President Search II," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 4, 2007

Editorial, "SILO benefits will be worth the cost," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 3, 2007

Diane Heldt, "Undergrad UI search rep looks unlikely; Graduate student already on committee," The Gazette, February 3, 2007

Brian Morelli, "Already long list for UI president; Committee has lots of good candidates," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 3, 2007

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Anonymous said...

They are called universities because they are supposed to provide their students a wide range of knowledge and life experiences (including competitive sports). At a large university most of the students that participate in competitive sports do so though sports clubs or competition between teams from living units. There are few that also participate in intercollegiate competition in both major and minor sports.

There is a very large difference in the cost of operating an intercollegiate major sports program between an upper and lower division. One of the smaller Florida State University proposed moving to a lower division to reduce costs and that proposal was quickly shot down although the cost savings in coaches pay alone was very large.

A major collegiate sports program can be thought of as a cancer. The problem is that an operation to remove the cancer could kill the patient.

Anonymous said...

I want to clarify a few things about my comments. I am a third graduation UI graduate and my grandfather was a well known University offical for many years. I am proud to be a graduate of the University of Iowa. I graduated in 1990, so I am not sure how to compare my experiences to today's students. I value my education. I also had some VERY GOOD professors. Sydney V. James in History and Dee Norton who taught arms control (Yes it was a different world) come to mind.

The University of Iowa graduates thousands of people a year. Many of these people are like I was; a liberal arts degree without any idea of a career direction. A certain amount of students at the top come out with job offers ready. The vast majority of students graduating with BA's do not. The University needs to do more for those people. I concede that the University cannot guarantee success, however it can point students in the right direction. I would suggest to any student today to become a temporary worker first, which allows you to try different fields and still get paid. It is an excellent way to prove yourself to employers as well.

As for sports, I do not see why the success of the academic programs and sports programs need to be mutually exclusive. I would have no problem spinning off Football and Basketball into a corporation owned by the State of Iowa (Much like the Green Bay Packers owned by the people of Green Bay). As for tax deductions, it would just be for "client entertainment expense" rather than academic scholarships. That being said, I still like the fact that my annual I-Club contribution does help with the costs of these students, most of which do not go on to professional sports careers.