Rebuilding “Iowa Nice” in Shared Governance: From Sanction to Collaboration

A faculty senate committee works to address governance concerns.
By Sandra Daack-Hirsch, Frank Durham, Russell Ganim, Edward Gillan, and Justine Kolker

In 2015, following the departure of a president whose tenure had been marked by its own share of controversy, Iowa’s board of regents announced the selection of Bruce Harreld as the twenty-first president of the University of Iowa, despite staunch, vocal opposition from the faculty and other campus constituents. The disputes that ensued involved the faculty senate, the local AAUP chapter, and the national AAUP and prompted a renewed focus on the importance of shared governance on our campus.

A University Sanctioned

In Iowa, the primary responsibility for selecting public university presidents falls to the state board of regents. The board is tasked with establishing a reasonable timeframe for the search; ensuring the confidentiality of the candidates; adhering to policies regarding affirmative action and equal employment opportunity; and ensuring the participation of various institutional constituencies, particularly faculty, who play a critical role in determining the criteria used in the selection process and in reviewing the final candidates.

In past presidential searches, the board has honored these policies. However, the 2015 search process veered into uncharted territory when the board named Harreld to the presidency following a search process that had been designed to prevent meaningful faculty participation. In response to the board’s actions, the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance conducted an investigation and recommended sanctioning the University of Iowa, concluding “that the Board of Regents of the state of Iowa, in selecting the chief administrative officer of the University of Iowa, seriously infringed Association‐supported standards of college and university governance.” (Sanction by the AAUP is distinct from AAUP censure: whereas sanction is imposed on institutions for infringements of governance standards, censure is imposed on administrations for departures from principles of academic freedom and tenure.)

UI faculty senate officers and members of the faculty council (the executive committee of the faculty senate) immediately objected to the impending sanction and sought to prevent it. In April 2016, four of these officers wrote to the AAUP, strongly urging against sanction on the grounds that the “AAUP typically has imposed sanctions for pervasive patterns in which faculty were denied any meaningful role in academic governance, even as to fundamental faculty functions.” They pointed out that the UI has an exemplary tradition of shared governance. The faculty senate enjoys considerable autonomy in fundamental faculty governance functions and historically has played an integral role in decision-making at the university.

Despite this protest, on June 18, 2016, delegates at the AAUP’s 102nd Annual Meeting, which included delegates from the UI, voted unanimously to sanction the University of Iowa. At that time, the UI was one of only seven institutions under AAUP sanction. UI faculty senate officers believed the sanctions imposed on other institutions were for much more serious breaches of governance standards. They issued a statement asserting that the sanction against the UI was misdirected and that the university should not be held responsible for the actions of the board of regents.

When the faculty senate reconvened in the fall, a senior program officer in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance attended a senate meeting to address faculty concerns about the sanction. These concerns centered around fault and responsibility for remedying the sanction. The sanction could not be primarily directed against the Iowa Board of Regents, because governing boards are not sanctionable entities under the Association’s standards for governance investigations. As a result, responsibility for both the sanction and its removal shifted to the UI. The senate resolved to address the sanction by creating an ad hoc committee that would work with the faculty council, the president, and the board of regents toward removal of the sanction.

A Seemingly Impossible Task

The ad hoc sanction-removal committee (which was chaired by Sandra Daack-Hirsch and also included the other authors of this article) began to meet regularly in November 2016 amid a general climate of mistrust and uncertainty at the UI. At this point, the faculty’s relationship with the board of regents was at an all-time low. The faculty senate had registered a vote of “no confidence” in the board over its “blatant disregard for the shared nature of university governance.” The UI student governance groups also voted “no confidence,” and the staff council issued a statement of disappointment. Eight faculty governance groups at other Big Ten universities signed letters of support for the UI faculty senate’s stance. Faculty members across the UI campus were at odds with one another, and the tension was palpable. Some felt that while the presidential search should be condemned, the university should strive to work with the newly installed president. Others felt that efforts should be made to obstruct what they believed to be an illegitimate presidency. Public protests ensued in the president’s office, at board of regents’ meetings, and during campus forums.

As members of the faculty senate’s ad hoc committee, we felt hamstrung by our limited ability to take action to remove the sanction. Because the sanction was imposed against the university, but was largely a response to actions of the board—which controls all presidential searches for the three public higher education institutions it governs—it was unclear what a group of faculty members at the UI could do to address the issues identified in the AAUP’s report. No other institution had been sanctioned primarily for the actions of its board of directors, so there was no clear precedent to guide the way.   

Despite these challenges, we formed a plan. To start, we conducted a critical analysis of the AAUP’s investigative report, documented trends in presidential search committee processes and composition at the UI for the past twenty years, and examined processes used in the most recent presidential searches at Iowa’s two other public universities, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. These initial steps were critical, because they provided focus, clarified the problems we would need to address, and helped us identified the players who would need to be involved.

The AAUP report laid out key issues that became the focus of the committee’s work. These included inadequate faculty interactions with the search committee, lack of transparency in meetings and in the selection process, concern about candidate qualifications and diversity, the sudden and premature disbanding of the search committee prior to on-campus interviews, the failure to solicit search committee reviews of candidates, and the decision to disregard clear campus sentiment for and against specific finalists. In addition to these problems, the relationship between the faculty and the new president, as well as that between the faculty and the board of regents, were matters of special concern. In the case of the board, the report noted, the relationship was in need of repair.  

The committee’s analysis of successful UI presidential searches conducted in the recent past, as well as those undertaken at UNI and ISU in 2016–17, indicated that searches typically involved significant faculty participation. For example, in its search for the new presidents at UNI and ISU, the board followed an open, collaborative process that emphasized transparency and shared governance. Faculty members at both institutions were pleased with the search process and accepting of the outcomes. In both cases, the board involved faculty members in the decision-making process.

Building Relationships

While it was imperative that the members of the local AAUP chapter be involved in the sanction-removal effort, relationships between some members of the faculty senate and the local AAUP chapter were strained. Some faculty senators resented Iowa’s national AAUP delegates for their decision to vote in favor of the sanction. Likewise, some AAUP members were highly critical of faculty members who had been on the presidential search committee in 2015. We brought the two groups together for a meeting, which created a private space for the airing and discussion of grievances. Even though this conversation was uncomfortable at times, it allowed the group to move beyond assigning blame to focus their efforts, instead, on what could be done to remove the sanction. The group agreed during the meeting to create a best-practices document for future presidential searches that was based on the sanction-removal committee’s analysis of the AAUP report. The sanction-removal committee would write a first draft that would be subsequently shared with local AAUP members in an iterative process.

The sanction-removal committee made a key decision to invite the board of regents into the process of developing the best-practices document. In spring 2017, two representatives of the board—Sherry Bates, a regent, and Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the board—agreed to join the ad hoc committee. The inclusion of these individuals was strategically important, because they provided valuable insight on the board’s search processes and implementable policies and practices that increased the likelihood that the board would agree upon and approve a best-practices document. Working together also helped improve the UI faculty’s relationship with the board. Throughout the process, the sanction-removal committee provided regular progress updates to the faculty council and senate, and faculty senate officers kept the administration apprised of our progress.

Best Practices

The sanction-removal committee’s efforts are reflected in the best-practices document we developed to guide faculty engagement in future presidential searches. The document is a synthesis of principles and best practices for hiring university presidents that purposefully draws from a range of sources to reflect values shared by faculty and governing boards. These sources included the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated by the AAUP, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), and the American Council on Education; the AAUP’s statement Faculty Participation in the Selection, Evaluation, and Retention of Administrators; guidelines for best practices in presidential searches developed by faculty at Saint Louis University; the committee’s analysis of previous Iowa board of regents searches for University of Iowa presidents; a review of the board’s policy manual requirements;  the AGB’s Complete Guide to Presidential Searches; and the AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Shared Governance.

Our best-practices document aims to ensure that future presidential searches will uphold the principles of shared governance and that faculty members will provide input to the board. The document accomplished the dual objectives of emphasizing to the board of regents the importance of faculty involvement in presidential searches and demonstrating to the AAUP that the UI and board of regents have together developed guidance aimed at producing successful outcomes in future presidential searches based on an open, collaborative approach that recognizes the principles of shared governance. Moreover, the collaborative process through which we developed the document itself demonstrated the kind of “joint effort” called for in the Statement on Government.

An equally important outcome of the committee’s work is the positive effect it has had on relationships among faculty, senior administrators, and regents. Despite the problems with the search process, these developments appear to have opened a new chapter of trusting, respectful, and open communication.

This spirit of collaboration is evident in the process followed in developing the UI’s 2016–21 strategic plan, which rested on open deliberation involving a wide variety of stakeholders over several months. After receiving input from these groups, the board approved the strategic plan in fall 2016. Its values and principles have laid the groundwork for current campus-wide initiatives involving the budget and future academic organization.

The improved climate for shared governance is also apparent in the ongoing practice of holding faculty meetings with the board of regents at each regular on-campus board meeting. Bruce Harreld accepted the presidency with a commitment to shared governance and is engaged with the faculty. Faculty senate officers meet regularly with the president and his senior advisers, the provost, and the finance and operation team. Interaction among UI faculty and members of the administration occurs at a high level in strategic planning initiatives, budgeting, campus reorganization, searches for senior administrators, and other activities.

In collaboration with the local chapter of the AAUP, the board of regents, and senior administration, the faculty senate was able to repair the harm done to the university’s reputation by the sanction, and to do so in a way that allowed all parties involved to move forward in the spirit of collegiality. The work of the sanction-removal committee also helped us achieve our ultimate objective: on June 16, 2018, delegates to the 104th Annual Meeting of the American Association of University Professors voted unanimously to remove the University of Iowa from the list of sanctioned institutions.

Sandra Daack-Hirsch is an associate professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Iowa; Frank Durham is an associate professor, Russell Ganim is a professor, and Edward Gillan is an associate professor—all in the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Justine Kolker is an associate professor in the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry. All of the authors served on the faculty senate’s ad hoc sanction-removal committee.