IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — University of Iowa president-select J. Bruce Harreld has faced and erased doubts about his qualifications before, but this time could be tougher.
Many faculty, staff and students blasted Harreld's surprise appointment as Iowa's 21st president Thursday, saying the businessman with little experience in higher education was by far the least qualified of four finalists. They fired off statements and took to social media to express outrage at the Board of Regents and Harreld, who faced similar skepticism about his background 20 years ago.
Many were surprised when IBM recruited him in 1995 from the fast-growing Boston Market restaurant chain to be its top strategist. Critics asked why the struggling technology company would put its future in the hands of a chicken salesman. But according former colleagues, the IT and marketing expert had a successful 13-year run. He's credited with helping turn around IBM by working with teams to find new business opportunities that brought in billions in revenue.
"He's been down this path before. He's not concerned with being different," said Florence Hudson, a former IBM colleague. "He can rise above the controversy."
Hudson predicted Harreld would overcome opposition the way he did at IBM: by listening carefully to all constituencies and working with them to make good decisions. She said she believed people would come around once they saw his leadership, strategic thinking and innovation.
At IBM, Harreld built "the most remarkable set of growth businesses inside the company," said Donald Laurie, managing partner of Boston-based Oyster International, who used to take clients planning startups to learn from Harreld's innovative approaches. He said Harreld shook up IBM's culture and drove the company's growth by putting its most talented executives on startups rather than in charge the company's traditional businesses.
"He had a sensational run and helped turn around of one of the great companies in this nation," Laurie said. "He's one of the two most exceptional executives I've ever had the privilege of working with."
Harreld is famous for his ability to develop strategic plans and execute them in a way that brings people with him, skills which will transfer to a university setting, Laurie said.
But critics said they doubted Harreld's corporate skills will help him overcome a power struggle between its faculty and governing board. His major experience in higher education came as a Harvard Business School lecturer from 2008 to 2014.
"His problem is he comes in with no knowledge, no significant support on campus, and a cookie-cutter approach," said professor Katherine Tachau. "I don't think he can succeed."
Harreld drew howls of derision at a campus audience on Tuesday before he was named, when he cited crowd-sourced Wikipedia as the place he looked for national rankings of university programs.
Harreld, 64, pledged to reach out to critics after the Board of Regents named him Thursday to replace Sally Mason, saying he would spend the next two months before taking office Nov. 2 listening and learning. On Friday, the Purdue alum sought to win over Hawkeye football fans, visiting with Hayden Fry at a festival honoring the beloved former coach.
For now, Harreld has plenty of skeptics at the university, which has felt under attack from the school's governing body. Campus leaders resisted a regents' plan to transfer tens of millions of dollars to the state's two other universities, which lawmakers rejected this year. This week, the campus reacted angrily to a regents' proposal to seek millions more in state funding for Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa while holding Iowa's funding flat. Regents have argued the other two schools need more because they educate a higher percentage of Iowa residents.
Harreld said Tuesday he could envision scenarios in which he backed such funding plans. The disclosure that Republican Gov. Terry Branstad had spoken by phone with Harreld — but not the other three finalists — only deepened suspicions that his appointment had a political agenda. A spokesman said Branstad didn't endorse anyone and would have supported the university no matter who was picked.
A union representing graduate teaching and research assistants said Harreld's appointment shows the Branstad-appointed regents were trying "to destroy public education at the University of Iowa."
"Harreld is completely unqualified for the position," the group said.