The fumbling search for a new president of the University of Iowa has led to a faculty uprising, with many professors complaining that meddling by one of the state’s favorite sons — Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman Michael Gartner — has scared off a top candidate.
Everyone involved has gotten some of the blame. But most of the ire has been aimed at the Board of Regents, and particularly its president, Gartner, who has been criticized as tactless, abrasive and ill-suited to the collegial ways of academia.
Some professors have complained that he has little regard for others’ opinions and makes it all too clear he thinks he is the smartest guy in the room.
“Michael is a bomber, not a builder,” said Sheldon Kurtz, the president of Iowa’s Faculty Senate, who has led the criticism of Gartner.
An unapologetic Gartner does not deny some of the criticism, but said members of the faculty and staff have long resented his authority, and “the search was the fuse that lit it.” Gartner, 68, was appointed head of the Board of Regents in 2005 by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Four times in the past 20 years, Iowa has lost it top administrator – three times to Ivy League schools and once to the University of Michigan. The most recent president to depart was David Skorton, who left last summer to lead Cornell University.
Animosity toward Gartner burst to the surface when he and other regents voted 6-2 to throw out a search committee’s list of finalists and start the search anew.
In the furor that followed, Vilsack, a Democrat running for the White House, was forced during his final months in office to pull key players together for a long, private meeting aimed at resolving the matter. Afterward, the regents agreed to offer the president’s job to one of the finalists on the list, who then rejected the position.
The unidentified finalist’s snub prompted several of the university’s governing bodies, including the Faculty Senate, to vote no-confidence almost unanimously in the regents and Gartner.
Now owner of the minor-league Des Moines Cubs baseball team and an alternative newspaper, Gartner was front page editor of The Wall Street Journal while in his 20s, executive editor of The Des Moines Register, and president of NBC News in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Under Gartner, the Register won three Pulitzers, and at NBC he helped launch a generation of network news stars, including Katie Couric and Tim Russert.
But his network tenure ended abruptly in 1993. He resigned after it was revealed that during a “Dateline NBC” segment on alleged safety problems with General Motors pickup trucks, a vehicle was rigged with small explosives.
Gartner returned to Iowa, becoming editor of the Ames Tribune, a small paper he owned in the college town of Ames. In 1997, he won a Pulitzer for a series of editorials, many of which roiled the local government.
His career achievements have carried little weight with his critics in Iowa City. Kurtz said Gartner has “good ideas” but is “abrupt and abrasive.”
Even Gartner’s friends acknowledge he has little time for pleasantries.
“I don’t think that he wastes a lot of time clearing his throat when he knows what he wants to say,” said Charles Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum and Newseum, both organizations devoted to journalism.
To be sure, Gartner has his advocates. Vilsack resisted calls to ask Gartner to resign, and his fellow regents have expressed confidence in his leadership.
“He’s a front-line soldier,” said Teresa Wahlert, a member of the Board of Regents. “He is a person who does his homework. His style probably intimidates people who have not done their homework.” Wahlert added: “He’s not afraid to stick to the best possible result he can find. Sometimes that’s not a popular situation.”
Gartner does not deny he can be abrasive, saying he has taken an unflinching approach to life since his 17-year-old son, Christopher, died unexpectedly of diabetes in 1994.
“I’ve always been outspoken. But I became even more outspoken,” he said. “Because, I figure, what’s the worst thing could happen to me than what’s already happened? Why pull your punches? Just do what you think is right.”
Despite demands from legislators that he step down, Gartner said he has no plans to quit.
Gartner said he thinks the search should start from scratch, and that is what the regents are doing. They said they hope to have a new president by the summer.