The quiet approach

J. Bruce Harreld, the incoming president of the University of Iowa, seems to be quietly easing into the job. Since his appointment to the post to replace retiring president Sally Mason, Harreld has been meeting behind closed doors with various university groups – faculty, staff and some students as well as members of the business community.

Those opposed to the choice of the former executive from IBM over candidates with university experience on their rsums have been anything but quiet. Faculty members have grabbed as much attention as possible to express dissatisfaction with the board of regents’ selection. They went so far as to pass a non-binding resolution of censure against the regents, the governing body of Iowa’s public universities. When the regents meet next week, a protest is planned outside the meeting facility.

While faculty and students didn’t get the person they wanted – it wasn’t their call after all – Harreld has been publicly silent. Until this week, when he released a public letter to the university community.

In it, he offered an explanation as to why he accepted the job. He writes about Iowa: “We are creative and collaborative, inspired by this place and its history.”

He says he supports such things as tenure because it’s a tool to bring out the best in college professors, which in turn helps educate future leaders. And he believes his business expertise will be an asset with the coming challenges facing higher education that have nothing to do with what happens in the lecture hall.

“Higher education stands at the threshold of changes driven by increased competition, diminished federal and state funding, increased tuition, rapid technology shifts, and questions about its value,” he wrote. “At Iowa, I have met people with the will to tackle these changing circumstances head-on. Our campus and community are ready to meet those challenges with creativity and commitment, and I want to help us chart our future.”

Harreld has many skeptics to win over – or replace – as he assumes the president’s post in a couple weeks. His first public comments, though, should be received positively by those who have a stake in the future of the university.