College Presidential Searches Become Latest Arena for Partisan Politics

Posted By Derek Johnson on December 17, 2015 at 9:26 am
College Presidential Searches Become Latest Arena for Partisan Politics

In recent years, a disturbing trend has emerged at public universities. As higher education becomes more integral to American life and professional success, college presidential searches and campuses have become yet another partisan playground in our increasingly polarized society.

A series of high-profile battles over the selection of a handful of polarizing college presidents has raised questions about the public officials and bodies responsible for selecting them. In the past few months, the presidential search process for the University of Iowa and UNC have come under fire as protestors and critics – many of whom work for or attend these same universities – cry politics. Charges abound that the politically appointed boards that oversee public universities in these states have acted overly secretive, non-collaborative and ultimately manipulated the search process to arrive at a pre-determined selection.

“There’s just a lot of favoritism happening,” said Brad Pector, a University of Iowa student and one of the founders of a group protesting new university president J. Bruce Harreld. “It seems like there was a lot of warming up for Harreld before he came.”

To be clear, universities have always been hotbeds of political activism. From the anti-Vietnam war protests to the French June Rebellion depicted in Les Miserables, for centuries, young, idealistic students have been passionately manning the barricades for one issue or another.

But this latest round of battles feels different, more top-down. Partisan boards and legislatures are now leveraging their oversight powers over public universities to install leaders with like-minded ideological backgrounds, but little experience in higher education and even less backing among campus stakeholders. The selection processes for these candidates have tended to be so secretive that they undermine the credibility of any incoming president. When details have emerged about the process, it tends to reinforce this narrative.

In speaking about the University of Iowa selection, former president of the Iowa Board of Regents Michael Gartner commented on the politicization of the regents in recent years. Though, there are laws designed to ensure the board has a balance of Republicans and Democrats, Gartner said current president Bruce Rastetter has gotten around that requirement by appointing independents or freshly converted Democrats who lean towards the Republican majority on most issues.

“Of the current board makeup, while there are five registered Republicans, I suspect there is just one true Democrat,” said Gartner.

That “one true Democrat” is Dr. Subhash Sahai from Webster City. Sahai is the only regent who expressed concern and regret over the selection process, telling Iowa news channel KCCI in October that “maybe we dropped the ball.”

Debate is over

It’s not at all surprising or even objectionable that these bodies would want presidents who reflect their views and priorities. It’s a normal part of the political process, even if most boards have mission statements and laws designed to be politically neutral.

Furthermore, the widespread perception among conservatives that college campuses have become bastions of liberalism that do not welcome or tolerate other points of view has many on the center-right cheering what they see as a long-overdue course correction. In this same vein, university presidents like Harreld and Margaret Spellings at the University of North Carolina are widely viewed as agents of change, and a certain amount of resistance from entrenched stakeholders is inevitable, regardless of the candidate.

What is shocking is the extent to which these groups are no longer talking or negotiating with each other. The Iowa Board of Regents has claimed that the faculty and students are against any candidate who does not come from the ivory tower, especially those from the business world. But, if the regents wanted a president with a corporate background, they could have presented multiple candidates from the business world and chosen the one most acceptable to the faculty and student body.

The professors might still have crowed about a corporate takeover, but by rejecting multiple business-oriented candidates throughout an open search process, they would have proven the regents’ point and ensured a much smoother confirmation process.  Instead, they chose one business-oriented candidate to go with three traditional candidates, then ran the process in such a way that left little doubt about who was going to come out on top.

“I think it’s pretty clear they and the governor that appointed them have an agenda for Iowa and the universities. An agenda that is being pushed nationwide by more conservative constituencies,” said Shelton Stromquist, a professor emeritus at the University of Iowa.

Stromquist said that agenda includes “a kind of corporatization of the university” that would involve “continuing declines in public funding, [and] increases in tuition-based and private funding as an alternative, increasing the number of [non-tenure] faculty, increasing their online presence to compete in the marketplace of so-called online universities, and ultimately letting economic development drive educational priorities.”

The UNC Board of Governors had a similar choice between negotiation and confrontation after jettisoning incumbent president Thomas Ross earlier this year. From the start, the preference for former Bush administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was well-known. An open process that considered multiple candidates might have soothed the concerns of critics, and since the board is the only body that votes on the matter, it could have still chosen Spellings at the end.

Instead, once again, there was an extremely secretive process that appears to outside observers as having been designed to pre-select a chosen candidate. Supporters argue that certain factions at UNC would never accept someone like Spellings as president, but it’s difficult to imagine how a more collaborative process wouldn’t have at least mitigated some of the PR damage. The non-collaborative nature of the process would end up costing board president John Fennebresque his job, as he resigned in the wake of the outrage.

“Among other things, in your short tenure, you have blocked board members from accessing university staff for public information about the system, botched President Ross’ termination, hired an incredibly controversial search consultant and barred two-thirds of the board from participating in the hiring process,” wrote former North Carolina State Senator Thom Goolsby in a letter to the board’s president.

Prospects for reform dim

The fact that both presidents are widely viewed as having a mandate to reform their institutions only metastasizes this problem. As it stands now, both the University of Iowa and UNC system have presidents walking in the door shrouded in controversy and with little support on-campus. It will be exceedingly difficult for either to effectively enact reforms without some level of buy-in from the faculty or administration. What’s more, the flawed selection process has caused these constituencies at both schools to view their incoming leaders as “fruit from a poisonous tree,” as Goolsby put it.

This is made even more difficult by the fact that university presidents tend to have surprisingly few defined powers. To the extent that they do influence university policy and culture, it tends to come from consensus building and persuasion.

“The fact is, a university president spends at least 50 percent of his or her time raising money and probably 5 percent — at most — on academic affairs…the president has to be a generalist — dealing with alums and athletic directors and legislators and regents and parents and government agencies and mayors and donors and God knows who else,” said Gartner.

Whether these new presidents can push through the kind of reforms favored by their political patrons remains to be seen. One thing that is clear now is that, like redistricting, judge appointments and a host of other supposedly politically neutral public goods, university presidential selections are on the verge of becoming another arena of partisan politics.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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