Hiring a Non-Academic, Ex-IBM Executive to Be a University President Is Actually a Great Idea

Hiring a Non-Academic, Ex-IBM Executive to Be a University President Is Actually a Great Idea
Story Stream
recent articles

In this photo taken Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, left, chats with J. Bruce Harreld, the new University of Iowa president, at a news conference at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa. The University of Iowa's governing board was issued a stern warning that selecting Harreld as the next school president would badly damage its relationship with the faculty, according to an email released Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. (David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

RCEd Commentary

The faculty and its representative polity have loudly expressed their displeasure over the unanimous selection of former IBM executive J. Bruce Harreld as the next president of the University of Iowa.

Various local news reports highlight that Harreld “has no university administrative background,” that his selection will “destroy the goodwill” between university staff and Iowa’s Board of Regents and that many faculty members “feel betrayed and angry” by the board’s decision to hire a candidate with negligible support among students and faculty. This state of unhappiness likely culminated Sept. 9 when the faculty senate passed a (symbolic) vote of “no confidence” in the Board of Regents. Clearly, many people on or around campus are frustrated with the board’s disregard for their recommendations. Yet all this negative publicity fails to address the central question: Is Harreld a poor choice to lead the University of Iowa?

The best answer is “probably not” given the current predicament of higher education. Let’s look at three key factors.

The costs of education are rapidly rising. In the 1963-1964 academic year, the total cost of tuition fees, room and board for a four-year public institution was $6,966 annually in inflation-adjusted figures, according to a recent Vox report. The cost for a private college was $13,575. By the 2012-2013 school year, the total cost of attendance at public institutions had risen to $17,474 and $35,074 for private institutions.

Among other theories, “organizational dysfunction” and “broad economic factors” are listed as the root causes of public research universities’ dramatic increase in spending.

What are the consequences for students absorbing the ever-increasing costs of higher education? According to figures from 2011-2012, the average indebted graduate of a bachelor’s program borrowed $29, 384 – a significant increase from a decade earlier.

“Every American willing to work hard should have a shot at higher education,” President Barack Obama has said. With a decade of debt hanging over their bank accounts, this dream simply will not be worth its cost for many students.

Federal funding prioritizes the wrong things. There exists a systemic problem that traces its cause back to misappropriated federal funding. Easy access to low-interest student loans has created “perverse incentives,” which ultimately help to sustain under-performing private and public universities, according to University of Texas at Arlington professor and attorney Oliver Lee.

Federal funding also incentivizes academic research over classroom performance. Professors at public research universities (University of Iowa is one of 108 “very high research activity” schools) are encouraged to advance their professional research initiatives at the expense of their students, funneling $33 billion each year into research grants, but spending just $79 million on promoting quality teaching – that’s $0.24 for better education for every $100 on academic research.

Because the federal government fails to measure the impacts of its funding, public universities have a responsibility to implement objective metrics to gauge professors’ performance. Steady executive oversight and hands-on supervision, according to J. Bruce Harreld in the Harvard Business Review, is one of the ways learning organizations build for the future.

The modern reality is that higher education needs firm, thoughtful leaders who have proven themselves capable of managing complex organizations. Extensive experience in academia is not a requirement. Harreld, formerly the president of Boston Market Co. and a vice president at IBM, will find himself in good company with other distinguished academic leaders from non-traditional backgrounds.

Current University of Texas system chancellor and former Special Operations Command commander Bill McRaven is one such example. And former Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels drew significant criticism for his lack of qualifications to lead an institution of higher learning when he was selected to serve as president of Purdue University in 2013. Both leaders have already shown a willingness to tackle the tough issues, such as student loan debt, tuition increases and sexual assault on campus. The combination of a fresh perspective and extensive decision-making experience could be a big advantage for Harreld and the University of Iowa.

Woodrow Wilson is credited with saying that Washington D.C. was a snap after eight years as president of Princeton University (1902-1908). The lower the stakes, the more intense the politicking, or so the saying goes. The University of Iowa may have found someone who raises the stakes and, in the words of Oliver Lee, will look long and hard at the university system and “tear it up from the foundation.” Anything less will perpetuate a culture that resists oversight, rejects accountability and, as evidenced in Iowa City these past few weeks, revels in its own discontent. Perhaps businessman/academic non-initiate Harreld is a sensible choice after all.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles