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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The University of Iowa's new president has hired a consultant with business ties to Board of Regents president Bruce Rastetter to improve his public communication skills.
UI President Bruce Harreld is paying for the services of Eileen Wixted, a crisis communications consultant known for making people look good on television and in public presentations, out of his own pocket. The arrangement bypasses the open records law and the school's communications staff, which is being overseen by a $20,000-per-month consultant.
The relationship came as Harreld sought to get past the controversy surrounding his September hiring, which was condemned by groups representing faculty and students. Critics argued that Rastetter and other members of the school's governing board gave Harreld, a former IBM executive, favorable treatment throughout the search.
Colleagues in similar positions recommended media training to Harreld and he didn't believe the university should cover the cost since it was a personal skill he needed, university spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said. The private arrangement wasn't meant to conceal Wixted's role, Beck said.
Harreld picked Wixted on the recommendation of more than one person, Beck said.
Harreld released a statement Friday saying, "I felt it was important to work with an Iowa firm and heard from several people that Wixted & Company had a strong reputation and good sense of the Iowa media landscape."
Wixted said she isn't sure who recommended her, and a Board of Regents spokesman said Rastetter was traveling and unavailable to say whether he was one.
"I really admire the fact that he self-identified, 'this is an area that I don't have a lot of experience in and I need to improve,'" Wixted said.
Media training is a necessary exercise for government agencies, but it's "very strange" for one executive to pay for it out of his own pocket for himself, said communications consultant Claire Celsi.
"To not disclose how much they are paying for that or not have the process vetted or bid on is unusual," said Celsi, a Democrat who called Wixted "top-notch."
Wixted works for clients in nuclear power, health care and agribusiness, including Rastetter's corporation, Summit Farms.
Wixted helped Summit Farms respond to questions last year about $480,000 in no-interest loans it had received from a program based at Iowa State University, which critics called a conflict of interest for Rastetter. Her West Des Moines-based firm was a sponsor of Rastetter's Iowa Agriculture Summit this year that brought presidential candidates to Iowa for interviews with him.
She's also done some work for regents' institutions. She was hired for behind-the-scenes communications advice for University of Northern Iowa when regents approved the closure of its teaching laboratory school and numerous academic programs in 2012.
Wixted initially denied that she'd been doing any UI-related work when asked by the AP. But when asked about her arrangement with Harreld, she confirmed that she had been working with him as a "private client" after he gave her permission to discuss it. She declined to disclose her fee.
Wixted said she conducted "on-camera media coaching sessions" for Harreld before he assumed the presidency Nov. 2, focusing on the "mechanics of being interviewed by broadcast media." She hopes to do more.
Wixted said she didn't advise Harreld on strategy and messaging, leaving those functions to UI. Since July, the university has been paying Terri Goren of Atlanta-based Goren and Associates $20,000 a month to oversee its Office of Strategic Communication on a part-time basis. Goren's contract, which called for her to develop a communications plan for the new president, ends Dec. 31.
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