The President and The Yes Men
"Quick question," I asked the newly-minted University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld during his job talk. "Are you a performance artist?" As I watched Harreld's lackluster presentation -- filled with the kind of empty business jargon often used by prankster-activists The Yes Men, who had just visited campus -- I wondered if it could possibly be real, if it was a put-on.
Things got more surreal two days later when the Iowa Board of Regents unanimously appointed the former IBM and Boston Market executive to run UI, despite having no university administrative experience. This provoked a firestorm of criticism; since then, hundreds have gathered in protest of what appears to be a tainted search process.
According to Freedom of Information Act inquiries, Harreld was the only finalist to privately meet with five Regents and several other search committee members before the job application deadline, and he was also the only one to receive a phone call from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
These private meetings came as news to some members of the campus-based presidential search committee and even one Regent, Subhash Sahai, who said, "I think my words at the time … were ‘I am pissed,' and that's not the language I usually use." He added, "To the people of the university, state, alumi, I can only say that we dropped the ball."
Many believe that Harreld's appointment is nothing more than corporate cronyism. However, I maintain that the recent actions of the Iowa Board of Regents and President Bruce Harreld are more like performance art (whether they know it or not). Like all great performance artists, they have stirred up controversy, provoked passionate debates, and sowed confusion and absurdity.
I know a thing or two about pranks and performance art -- and, in my expert opinion, the Regent's presidential search process/art project cleverly dramatizes three important critiques of (1) privileged entitlement, (2) the privatization of public education, and (3) the increasing economic inequality that plagues American universities.
First, let's start with the résumé that Bruce Harreld submitted to the search committee, which I interpret as a scathing satire of white upper class privilege. Just barely over two pages, it is riddled with typos and misleading (or outright fraudulent) information -- which didn't stop Harreld from becoming the president of a major American university. Clearly, this is someone who was coasting on the connections afforded by the old boy network.
Where to begin? In summarizing his role as a VP at IBM, Harreld somehow managed to turn the technology company's name into a scatological joke: "Led BM's strategy unit." Harreld also failed to acknowledge that most of the articles included in his résumé were actually coauthored -- a big deal at an institution that values attribution and academic honesty.
Even worse, he listed himself as the managing principal of a Colorado-based company, Executing Strategies, that does not exist. When I asked Harreld about this during the Q&A that followed his job talk, he stumbled through an explanation that amounted to: Sorry! I was careless.
"Shame on me," he said. "I too quickly pulled it from out of my head and put it on the résumé. There is no Colorado corporation. … It's me personally working." It was at that point that I asked Harreld if he was putting all of us on. Pretending to look baffled, he meekly said, "No." Well played, Bruce Harreld, well played -- but I know that you and the Regents really are gifted performance artists.
The problems with Harreld's résumé should have been flagged by Parker Executive Search, but it failed to do so. Parker, which has been criticized for other botched searches, received $200,000 for its services during the UI presidential search -- which amounts to a useless transfer of public funds to a private company.
This highlights the second major critique of this ongoing performance art project: the privatization of public education. College governing boards are increasingly relying on the growing industry of academic consulting firms, such as the ones hired by the Iowa Board of Regents to conduct the Orwellian-sounding "Transparent Inclusive Efficiency Review," or TIER.
As I discussed in a previous piece for Slate, the Yes Men satirized the Regents' TIER and presidential search process during an August 26 campus visit (as can been seen in The President and The Yes Men, a documentary short that accompanies this piece.) Impersonating one of the consulting firms that the Regents hired, The Yes Men announced their own cost-saving recommendations at a fake press conference that satirized the wasteful absurdities of outsourcing.
In all areas of society, the gap between the rich and poor has increased -- particularly at American colleges that now rely on adjuncts who work for starvation wages. Meanwhile, the salaries paid to upper administrators has skyrocketed. Between 1993 and 2009, spending on administration rose twice as much as support given to teaching and research at 198 leading universities. During this time, these schools added ten times more administrators than they did tenured faculty members.
This brings us to the final critique raised by the performance art collaboration between Harreld and the Regents. In a move that is obviously meant to dramatize the issue of income inequality, President Harreld's annual salary was set at $590,000 (plus a deferred compensation plan that provides an additional $1,000,000).
Harreld will make more in a single day than most adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants make in a month. The Regents and UI administrators also announced plans to spend $1.5 million to renovate Harreld's presidential mansion; meanwhile, budget cuts that have severely affected students, staff and faculty continue.
If our campus leaders are truly serious about cutting costs, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror -- although thoughtful contemplation isn't a common trait I've found among the upper administrative classes. If, however, they are cleverly using their absurd actions to showcase the growing threat of privilege, cronyism, and inequality to the public university -- from one performance artist to another -- I can only say, "Well played."
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