It was the first week of classes at the University of Iowa, and my school had already called the Threat Assessment Team on me. Actually, on me and the Yes Men, an activist duo who impersonate corporations and other powerful organizations. They call their method “identity correction.”
For their latest action, on Aug. 26, Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno worked with University of Iowa campus community members on a satirical press conference at the Iowa City Public Library, where they impersonated two representatives from the firm Pappas Consulting. This firm has been hired by the Iowa Board of Regents to conduct a series of “efficiency reviews” for the purpose of cutting costs, and jobs.
Using the pseudonyms Bert Schwingler and Morton Oorst, the Yes Men announced several modest proposals: allowing the campus community to hold direct elections for the Iowa Board of Regents, opening up tenure-track lines to all adjuncts, and redistributing upper-admin salaries to create living wages for all university workers. The Yes Men also announced that UI would adopt an open-border asylum policy for all Wisconsin university employees negatively affected by the actions of Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker, who made headlines this summer by effectively eliminating tenure at state universities and slashing state university budgets.
But UI may not seem like such an attractive alternative these days. As the Yes Men performed at the press conference, the Iowa Board of Regents was in the final stages of selecting the next UI president. In a very unusual arrangement, the regents chose not to renew previous president Sally Mason’s contract two years ago; since then, she had been working “at will” on a day-to-day basis. If some observers worried that this arrangement would render her a tool of the regents, those fears were confirmed when Mason endorsed an ill-conceived regents funding plan that would significantly cut UI’s budget, infuriating many on campus.
Now, Mason is out: Eight days after the Yes Men’s visit, the Iowa Board of Regents unanimously voted former IBM and Boston Market executive Bruce Harreld as UI’s next president, despite Harreld having no university administrative background. He did work as an adjunct senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, but that’s the extent of his college workplace experience.
On the résumé Harreld submitted to the regents, he listed his current job as the managing principal for the Colorado-based Executing Strategy, LLC. This company “confidentially (advises) several public, private and military organizations on leadership, organic growth and strategic renewal.” However, that business doesn’t exist. The Colorado secretary of state has no record of a company of that name.
On Sept. 1, during a public forum that was part of Harreld’s on-campus interview and visit, I asked Harreld to explain this discrepancy. He replied that Executing Strategy was a company name he previously used and that he accidentally listed it in his current work history.
“Shame on me,” Harreld said. “I too quickly pulled it from out of my head and put it on the résumé. There is no Colorado corporation. I live in Colorado. That’s my post office box.”
His résumé also neglected to list the co-authors on his publications, attributing them solely to Harreld. The only part of his résumé that didn’t contain a glaring error was Page 3, which consisted almost entirely of personal information such as “Four adult children who all have advanced degrees” and “Elder, Presbyterian Church.” Given Harreld’s business background, one would think he would have taken more care with his résumé when applying to be the president of a major university.
Harreld’s public forum did not go well, to put it mildly. His rambling 35-minute presentation contained little more than vague generalizations and repeated catchphrases such as taking UI from “great to greater.” At times he rolled his eyes and looked exasperated while facing questions from students, staff, and faculty. When a UI staff member asked him what initiatives he might have planned to improve workplace morale, he replied, “I don’t know that I have any. Now what? Staff? I dunno. … What more would you like me to say?” Harreld then ended this exchange with an abrupt, “No, I’m done. OK? If you don’t mind.”
When he was challenged by a UI alum on a fact that he got wrong about the university, he admitted that he got the incorrect information from Wikipedia—hardly the professional research you’d expect from a potential university president. And when asked about former UI president Mason’s six-point plan to curb sexual violence on campus, he replied, “I read the six-point plan. I can’t remember all six points. Shame on me. I have a two-letter plan. N-O.”
Less than 3 percent of students, staff, and faculty who were polled by the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors believed that Harreld was qualified to be president after watching his public forum. There were three other finalists: Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein, and Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz. More than 90 percent of respondents view each of them as qualified.
Harreld said that members of the search committee, which included three regents, recruited him to apply for the position of university president. Board President Bruce Rastetter—a “kingmaker” in Iowa politics, as well as a pork and ethanol mogul—put Harreld in touch with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who spoke with him on the phone back in August. (Harreld was the only candidate to speak with the governor.) Just after the four finalists were announced, the regents unexpectedly dissolved the campus-based search committee and outsourced the process to a private firm, Parker Executive Search. Two days after Harreld’s open forum, the regents unanimously selected him to be the 21st president of the University of Iowa. Starting Nov. 1, President Bruce Harreld will earn $590,000 per year with up to $1 million in deferred compensation during his five-year contract.
Despite all this, search committee member Sarah Fisher Gardial, dean of UI’s Tippie College of Business, dismissed concerns about Harreld’s hiring in a Gazette article as “conspiracy theories.” In the same article, she went on to insist that the committee reached “un-coerced consensus” on the four presidential finalists. In an email exchange with me, she reiterated: “I stand by my experience — not just opinion — that the search committee conducted an inclusive and non-coerced process resulting in the four finalists.” (In my reply, I pointed out to her that when someone repeatedly states that consensus was uncoerced, it tends to raise red flags.)
To summarize: The Yes Men posed as fake representatives of a consulting firm the regents hired, and the Threat Assessment Team was called in. Bruce Harreld flubbed his own résumé, offered a ham-handed response to question about sexual assault, cited Wikipedia, and was openly dismissive in an exchange with a staff member—and he was invited to be UI’s new president. Perhaps I should apply to be president of Boston Market.