IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A majority of University of Iowa governing board members have described under oath how they secretly recruited Bruce Harreld weeks before hiring the businessman as president, circumventing the Iowa Open Meetings Law, court records show.
Five of nine members of the Board of Regents met Harreld — a former IBM executive and Harvard Business School faculty member — in back-to-back-to-back meetings on July 30, 2015, as part of a push by then-Board President Bruce Rastetter to persuade Harreld to apply.
In depositions made public Monday, regents testified that they set up the meetings using private email accounts, held multiple gatherings to avoid having a board majority present at once, and never discussed the substance of the meetings with anyone afterward. Rastetter testified the meetings were held at his private business in Ames rather than the board office because it was more convenient, adding that he didn’t view them as “an official Board of Regents matter.”
Harreld applied the following day. Weeks later, the board voted to hire him over three more traditional candidates despite overwhelming opposition from faculty who said he wasn’t qualified. The revelation that five regents met Harreld before he applied, a courtesy given to no other candidate, fueled criticism that he received special treatment.
Former university employee Gerhild Krapf alleges in a lawsuit that that the regents’ friendly gatherings with Harreld violated the open-meetings law, which requires boards to give advanced notice and open their meetings to the public. The regents — who could be fined and ordered to pay attorneys’ fees for any violations — were deposed this month.
The regents’ lawyers say their serial gatherings with Harreld didn’t amount to a meeting under the law because a majority was never present simultaneously and no action or deliberation occurred. The regents asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying that “volunteer public servants are being subjected … to potential personal liability based on meritless allegations.”
Krapf’s attorney Gary Dickey argued Monday that the case should move forward because the regents’ testimony shows the meetings were “carried out with the specific intent to avoid the requirements of the Iowa Open Meetings Law.” He said Rastetter feared an outcry that could doom Harreld’s candidacy if it was revealed but also knew it would be illegal for the board to meet Harreld privately.
“He apparently didn’t like either option, so he created a third one: musical chairs,” Dickey wrote. “Thankfully, the law cannot be so easily manipulated.”
A hearing is set for next week.
Rastetter testified that he had been urging Harreld to apply on the recommendation of businessman Jerre Stead, a top university donor. Harreld was on the fence and asked to meet with regents to gather information. Rastetter used private email to arrange the meetings, adding that he wasn’t required to retain his emails under board policy.
Rastetter said he decided that Harreld should meet with four of eight remaining regents, two at a time, “to specifically make sure we were in compliance” with the open-meetings law. Rastetter picked up Harreld at the airport and dropped him off for the meetings, lobbying him to apply during the ride before leaving.
Regents Larry McKibben, Mary Andringa, Milt Dakovich and Katie Mulholland testified they’d never heard of Harreld before but left impressed. Harreld bonded with Dakovich about their time as fraternity presidents, praised Andringa’s manufacturing company and discussed efficiency initiatives with McKibben.
When revealing the meetings in 2015, Rastetter said they were intended to give Harreld information about the board’s expectations for the next president. But Mulholland, who was the board’s president pro tem and a search committee member, testified that she didn’t address that topic because, “I didn’t think that was appropriate.” A retired school superintendent, she said she knew the meetings were designed to avoid open-meetings requirements.
Still, at the end, “I urged him to seriously consider applying.”