IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The University of Iowa’s governing board on Thursday named a corporate management expert with little higher education experience as the school’s next president, an unusual choice meant to shake up the culture of the state’s flagship academic institution.
The selection of J. Bruce Harreld, a former senior vice president at IBM and lecturer at Harvard Business School, is likely to stir criticism among professors who see him as unqualified and could spark debate over whether business experience alone is enough to lead a major public research university.
The Iowa Board of Regents picked Harreld over three more traditional candidates, Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz and Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein. He will replace Sally Mason, who retired last month after leading the university since 2007.
Board President Bruce Rastetter, a businessman and appointee of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, said Harreld was a proven leader, team builder and strategic thinker. He said the selection sends the message that the “status quo is unacceptable” at the Big Ten school of 31,000 students. He described Harreld as an innovator who will improve academic programs and confront financial challenges.
“We really believe we have a great university but we want to see that opportunity become larger and greater going forward,” Rastetter said.
Harreld said he was honored, calling his selection “a watershed moment for a great institution.” He said he has a lot to learn and was ready to work with those critical of his credentials.
“I’m the first to admit that my unusual background requires a lot of help and a lot of coaching,” Harreld said. “I need to reach out to the people who legitimately think I’m not qualified or have gaps and say, help me.”
He said he had a history of managing institutions through “major strategic headwinds” such as those facing higher education.
During a campus forum Tuesday, Harreld told a skeptical, at times hostile crowd that his experience transforming businesses such as IBM and Kraft Foods would help the university improve its academic rankings, navigate intense competition for students and top academic talent, and make do with a shrinking level of taxpayer funding.
Harreld, 64, is expected to begin Nov. 2. The board gave him an annual salary of $590,000, $65,000 higher than Mason earned, and a five-year contract that could add an additional $1 million in deferred compensation.
The board interviewed the four candidates and deliberated 90 minutes in closed session before voting unanimously in public for Harreld. Regent Subhash Sahai urged the university community to set aside concerns about the choice and rally behind the new leader. “If he succeeds, we all succeed,” he said.
Nationally, it remains rare for major universities to have someone without an academic leadership background as president. Non-academics have included military leaders such as Texas A & M president Bob Gates and University of Texas System chancellor William McRaven and former governors Mitch Daniels at Purdue University and David Boren at University of Oklahoma.
Unlike those picks, Harreld doesn’t have a high public profile or any prior ties to the university or state. But he touted his 13-year career as a senior vice president for strategy and marketing at IBM, where he helped the technology company rebound from near bankruptcy in the 1990s by streamlining operations and finding new business opportunities.
He was previously part of the team that expanded the Boston Market food chain nationwide and an executive at Kraft Foods who oversaw brands such as Tombstone and Digiorno frozen pizza. In the business world, he was considered an expert in information technology and branding.
From 2008 to 2014, he was a lecturer at the Harvard Business School, teaching courses for MBA students. He earned his MBA there in 1975, after earlier graduating from Purdue with an engineering degree. He’s married with four adult children.
Harreld said that he was recruited by members of a search committee to apply and met earlier this week with Branstad. He said he had been to Iowa several times in the past.
“While I am a little different, I think I have a lot of the skills that will be necessary for success at this institution,” he said.