IOWA CITY — When J. Bruce Harreld’s name showed up on the confidential list of candidates for the next University of Iowa presidency, search committee member Jerre L. Stead recognized it.
“I remembered him right away,” said Stead, a Colorado-based businessman and UI alumni who has made major donations to the university, including a $25 million gift to the college of business and a $20 million gift to the UI Hospitals and Clinics.
Stead said he first encountered Harreld earlier in his career, in 1993, while he was working for National Cash Register and Harreld was with Boston Market Company. Stead said he recalls being impressed with Harreld, the team he was on, and its vision for the then-small business.
Harreld’s company ended up using NCR equipment in its 1,300 Boston Market restaurants, according to Stead and media reports. And Stead praised the completeness of the Boston Market strategy.
“I was very impressed with the vision,” he said.
So when Stead — as a member of the search committee charged with identifying finalists for the UI presidency — saw Harreld’s name among the candidates, he wanted to give him a look. Stead said he wanted to vet him and make sure he was prepared and qualified for the job.
But, based on his past experience with the businessman, Stead said he was cautiously optimistic.
“I thought he would be a valuable person to consider,” Stead said, praising Harreld’s background as a “great strategist and great leader” with both Boston Market and IBM. “I thought, this is an interesting background for us to think about.”
Stead said he believes a former business executive is an appropriate fit for a university presidency based on three factors. First, he said, today’s higher education landscape requires a creative and transformative thinker with good leadership and management skills.
“The world is changing quicker than ever before, and it’s going to change faster,” he said. “Having someone with experience in changing and transforming is critical.”
Second, Stead said, organizational and management skills are essential. And third, according to Stead, is the need for “fresh eyes.”
“You want someone who comes in and has no ax to grind with anything and comes in to look at what the potential is for the future,” Stead said. “Those are the top criteria we needed to be looking for.”
Harreld’s academic teaching experience at Harvard Business School and Northwestern University, paired with his executive experience leading Boston Market and IBM, made him a good fit, according to Stead.
“I think we made a very good choice, and I think time will tell,” Stead said. “But I think we are fortunate to have him.”
Stead said he was disappointed with the way members of the UI community treated Harreld during a public forum Tuesday, at which he was peppered with harsh questions about whether he was already offered the job, if he had inappropriate relationships with regents, and why he even wanted the position.
“I really hope everyone gets rid of the rumors and treats him with the dignity they would want to be treated with,” Stead said, adding that he’s been impressed with the way Harreld has handled the criticism.
“If people waste their energies on trying to stop him from being successful, that would be a really sad thing,” he said.
But many members of the faculty expressed outrage at his hiring, and UI professor and Faculty Senate President Christina Bohannan said it could take time to “heal” from the “difficult search process.”
“Many faculty feel that we were asked for our feedback, but it was not given much weight in the decision,” she said, referencing a survey of 760 campus constituents that showed only 2.5 percent of the faculty respondents found him qualified for the job.
The UI graduate student union also issued a statement denouncing the appointment, saying it shows “how far the Branstad-appointed board is willing to go to destroy public education at the University of Iowa.”
“Harreld is completely unqualified for the position,” according to the union’s statement. “We are opposed to a president who cannot effectively advocate for raising the quality of education at the University of Iowa, and who is neither qualified, nor equipped to fill the position.”
But Harreld on Friday was already making the rounds on campus and around town, including visits to a Hawkeye football practice and the annual FRY Fest in Coralville. He rubbed elbows with Hawkeye legend Hayden Fry and told those he met to cut out the formalities.
“I’m Bruce, she’s Mary, let’s just be friends,” he said, referencing his wife, during his stop at the morning football practice.
In addressing the athletes, Harreld praised them for balancing academics, athletics, and their responsibility as UI community members. He also asked for their help.
“I’ve been going around the campus the last 48 hours and there is a firestorm of issues around sexual abuse,” he said. “And here’s the deal, you guys are leaders on this campus. If you see something, do something. Please.”
Harreld offered to provide help, if any of them need it.
“You are the sort of people who could rally begin to make a difference in this whole issue,” he said. “The men that are here need to send the message that it’s not right, and we take action.”