IOWA CITY, Iowa — A retired professor has filed a lawsuit arguing that the University of Iowa presidential search committee repeatedly violated the open meetings law and that its actions should be voided.
The petition filed by Harrold Hammond, an emeritus professor in the College of Dentistry, adds another layer of controversy to the search, which ended earlier this month with the selection of former IBM executive Bruce Harreld. It asks a judge to void actions taken by the 21-member committee, which vetted dozens of candidates before recommending four finalists to the Board of Regents.
Faculty, staff, students and alumni have expressed outrage over the board’s decision to select Harreld despite his lack of experience in higher education administration. He was picked over the president of Oberlin College and the provosts at Tulane and Ohio State. Regents have touted Harreld’s experience helping lead major corporations such as IBM, Boston Market and Kraft Foods.
Hammond’s petition alleges the search committee held meetings that were improperly closed and in locations that were inaccessible to the public. Among others, the lawsuit challenges two days of closed interviews the committee conducted with nine finalists last month at a hotel near a Chicago airport.
“Meetings are supposed to be in an accessible location even if closed. Having a 7 a.m. meeting in the Chicago airport isn’t very accessible,” said Hammond’s lawyer, Greg Geerdes, who filed requests last week asking committee members to turn over a trove of documents related to the search.
A state lawyer denied Hammond’s allegations in a court filing this month, saying committee members “substantially complied with the provisions” of the law. University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck echoed that argument Wednesday, saying lawyers gave training to the committee before the search and provided guidance throughout on compliance. She noted that all meetings except for the airport interviews were in Iowa City.
“From the outset, the committee strived to provide as much transparency as possible while protecting the confidentiality of the candidates who did not become finalists,” she said.
Hammond’s lawsuit was filed last month, before the finalists were named. Geerdes declined comment when asked whether a similar lawsuit would be filed against the regents, who interviewed and discussed the finalists in a closed session before voting publicly to hire Harreld.
Geerdes had warned committee members in a March letter that he believed out-of-state airport hotel meetings would violate the law, which requires public bodies to meet at reasonably accessible locations. He also argued that he saw no justification for the committee to close entire meetings to discuss potential candidates in executive session.
To justify closing those meetings, the committee cited an Iowa law that allows governmental bodies to meet privately to discuss personnel actions that may cause “needless and irreparable injury” to one’s reputation if held publicly. Geerdes told committee members in his March letter that being considered for Iowa’s presidency “does not result in damage to a candidate’s reputation.”
Hammond filed a similar lawsuit after Sally Mason was named president in 2007. In a 2009 settlement, the search committee admitted to violating the open meetings law in four different ways, including by failing to give proper notice of meetings and discussing matters in closed session that were required to be discussed openly. The university promised that, in the future, presidential search committees would “take thorough and sufficient steps” to comply with the Open Meetings Law. The school also paid Hammond’s legal fees of $66,000.
Geerdes’ letter reminded committee members about that settlement and warned that Hammond would again “pursue appropriate channels if a violation of Iowa law occurs.”
Hammond declined an interview request. In a recent letter to the editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper, Hammond said the next president was being “bulldozed through at lightning-like speed.”
“Regent President Bruce Rastetter appears to have played the Presidential Search and Selection Committee as if it were his own personal violin,” Hammond wrote.