When former University of Northern Iowa president Bill Ruud made his last appearance before the state Board of Regents in June, the board piled on the praise.
“Your leadership, your enthusiasm at a time when the university really needed that was really critical in bringing about a positive confidence level at the university,” said Board president Bruce Rastetter.
In his official statement the month before, Rastetter was equally approving of Ruud’s record, noting “his extraordinary service to the University of Northern Iowa and the state. Under his leadership, there has been great progress made at UNI, and he leaves UNI in a stronger position than when he arrived.”
So, it remains curious why Ruud had to go. Officially, the Board didn’t fire him. But, Ruud’s contract wasn’t renewed and he would have had to proceed with no contract. We already know how well that fared for Sally Mason, the former University of Iowa president. If Rastetter was sincere in his words about Ruud, then Ruud would have been the kind of person the BOR would work hard to retain, not put on a short leash with no job security. Ruud’s graceful exit masks the fact that the BOR did a real injustice to him and UNI.
In fact, Ruud left UNI in “a stronger position than when he arrived” and brought about “a positive confidence level” at the university, as Rastetter said, because he effectively healed wounds and improved enrollment after a mess of the Regents’ own making in 2012: closing the university’s laboratory school, discontinuing about 20 percent of the university’s academic programs, and threatening to terminate more than 50 faculty members, all actions approved by the approval of the BOR, and without consultation with the university faculty. Any presumed cost savings of shuttering the main teaching lab of UNI’s education program and eliminating other programs and faculty were more than lost in the injury to the university’s public reputation, the hit to campus morale, and the subsequent declining enrollments.
In less than three years, Bill Ruud overcame those inherited problems and became UNI’s biggest booster to the Legislature and BOR, with a style that was “aggressive without being obnoxious,” in Ruud’s words. This was, after all, the UNI president who signed all of his correspondences to the university community “Purple for Life.”
Ruud’s departure at UNI is just another sign that the state’s Board of Regents has no accountability, particularly under the direction of Board president Bruce Rastetter.
The BOR’s own policy manual sets the standards for their behavior. Most important here is the Conflict of Interest Policy. Section 1.3 A reads, in part, “The duty of loyalty requires Regents to exercise their powers and duties in the interests of the Board and its institutions and not in the Regent’s own interest or in the interest of another person or organization.” The following section adds: “Regents and institutional officials must endeavor to remain free from the influence of, or appearance of, any conflicting interest in acting on behalf of the Board or a Regent institution.”
Here is where Rastetter’s actions often fail to meet the smell test. On multiple occasions since he was appointed to the board in 2011 and became board president in 2013, Rastetter and the Board have violated the appearance of conflicting interest and sullied the reputation of Iowa’s three state universities. The list of evidence keeps growing:
- The Board of Regents has become incredibly partisan, Part 1. It helps to know that Rastetter is a millionaire with holdings in agribusiness and ethanol production. As Politico wrote last year, he is also “the state’s top Republican donor at both the federal and state level.” Moreover, according to Politico, he recruited Branstad for his return run for the governorship in 2010, and was Branstad’s top donor, at more than $160,000. The year after Branstad was elected, Rastetter got his six-year appointment to the BOR. Rastetter maintains a clear line of access to the governor. “Bruce does a good job of staying in touch, at least once a week,” Branstad told the Des Moines Register in 2015. But, Branstad denies his attentiveness to Rastetter has anything to do with the political cash. “It has nothing to do with whether he supported me,” Branstad said.
- The Board of Regents has become incredibly partisan, Part 2. State law requires that of the nine members of the Iowa Board of Regents, “Not more than five members shall be of the same political party.” So when a board position opened earlier this year, Branstad quickly appointed, with no public request for applications, another big Republican contributor (one who gave more than $40,000 to Branstad himself since 2009), Michael Richards. The appointment maintains the “current mix of five Republicans, three independents, and one Democrat on the board,” that meets the legal requirements, but does little to dispel the appearance of intentional partisanship at the BOR.
- As a Regent, Rastetter had partnered with ISU to develop land in Tanzania that would have benefited AgriSol Energy, one of his companies. ISU dropped out of the project in 2012 “in the face of mounting criticism,” the AP reported.
- Rastetter and the BOR hired Bruce Harreld, the least qualified of University of Iowa presidential candidates. The hiring process, which favored Harreld and lacked transparency, is now subject to at least two lawsuits.
- As part of the unusual interview process, Harreld met with four regents (just under the number to make a quorum which would compel the rules of Iowa’s Open Meetings Act) at Rastetter’s own Summit Agricultural Group company offices. No other candidates received such treatment.
- The University of Iowa used a no-bid contract to hire a polling company run by a former Iowa Republican Party chairman.
- Iowa State hired two high-level positions with no advertisements or formal searches. One position went to former state Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen, the other for former state representative Jim Kurtenbach, both Republicans. Rastetter gave $85,000 in campaign contributions to Paulsen from 2012 to 2014, according to the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board database. The decision to hire unadvertised decisions at ISU is exceedingly rare, and requires the ISU president’s approval.
- Whereas Bill Ruud didn’t get a contract renewal after his first three-year contract expired in 2016, ISU president Steven Leath received a five-year contract in 2014 after his three-year contract expired. Moreover, he was offered tenure, as was the hardly qualified Bruce Harreld at UI in 2015. Ruud, an expert in organizational behavior, management, and organizational communication, was never offered tenure at UNI.
- This year, the Des Moines Register revealed that Rastetter’s Summit Farms business acquired and sold 140 acres of property in Hardin county at a discount price to ISU President Leath.
- It was also revealed this year that the Board of Regents paid its CEO, Robert Donley, $338,466 in 2015, “more than doubling a salary cap set by the state Legislature and approaching the base salary of the University of Northern Iowa’s president,” the Cedar Rapids Gazette The Des Moines Register called Donley “grotesquely overpaid.”
- Most recently, the BOR approved a budget that takes $3.6 million from the universities to cover its own increasing expenses, including a new $240,000 a year Chief Operating Officer, to oversee what the BOR itself calls “one of the smallest public higher education board staffs in the nation.”
- Finally, in terms of public feedback, the BOR does not allow citizens to make comments at BOR meetings. Instead, the BOR allows citizens to make brief recorded video statements the week before their meetings. Although the recorded “transparency hearing” comments are sent to Board members and posted to the BOR website, there is no way to know if the Regents watch these videos. A bill to require public comment time at BOR meetings and other BOR-sponsored public forums passed the Iowa Senate nearly unanimously in 2013, but died in the House.
There are three patterns here, all not befitting the Iowa Board of Regents: 1) The BOR functions as a revolving door of political patronage, 2) the BOR is secretive in its dealings, particularly where transparency might bring to light embarrassing BOR actions of cronyism and favoritism, and 3) the BOR seems to treat compliant university presidents with special favor, and those it sees as less compliant with a heavy hand.
Amazingly, given the BOR’s cozy relationship with Gov. Branstad and the Republican Legislature, it is entirely ineffective in reversing the trend of declining state support of Iowa’s public universities, leaving students to foot more and more of of their education.
I have been a professor and an administrator at the University of Northern Iowa for almost 20 years. I write this not as an official representative of UNI, but as a citizen who sees the educational jewels of Iowa’s public universities spoiled by the Board of Regents.
This is not just my assessment. For more than 85 years, the American Association of University Professors has served as the most authoritative watchdog to review universities’ conditions for academic freedom and tenure. The AAUP nearly sanctioned UNI for its ill-considered but BOR-approved program cuts and faculty firings in 2012. Only due to Bill Ruud’s ability to work collaboratively and effectively with the UNI faculty, faculty union, and Board of Regents was UNI able to convince the AAUP that UNI was back on a good course of governance. In 2016, the AAUP sanctioned the University of Iowa, with the sanction “primarily directed against the Iowa Board of Regents” for the flawed process in hiring Harreld. Plainly, the Rastetter-era Board of Regents has compiled a miserable record of overseeing Iowa’s three state universities.
Given the BOR’s pattern of behavior, it is likely that Ruud’s loyalty to UNI first –Purple for Life—was his greatest mistake with this Board. And where lie the loyalties of the Iowa Board of Regents? Not with the citizens of Iowa. Bruce Rastetter’s term ends in 2017, but the rest of the Board’s unanimity and silence on its long list of misdeeds is not encouraging. None of them merit reappointment when their terms end. Unfortunately, the Democratic Senate’s review of appointees every six years is the only governmental oversight of the BOR these days. Six years is too long for a BOR that insists on playing by its own rules, and it will be too late to yield answers to questions like why the Board let go an effective president at UNI.
If Gov. Branstad is unwilling to hold the BOR accountable, it falls upon the opposition party in the Senate to fully investigate the BOR’s actions with formal hearings.
Christopher R. Martin is a professor and former department head in Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa, and is a 2004 recipient of the State of Iowa’s Board of Regents Award for Faculty Excellence.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Des Moines Register, posted August 5, 2016, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/08/05/iowa-board-regents-stunning-lack-accountability/88274504/