IOWA CITY (AP) — Members of the Board of Regents were accused in a lawsuit Wednesday of breaking the law by meeting privately with Bruce Harreld last summer before hiring him as University of Iowa president.
The lawsuit brought by retired university administrator Gerhild Krapf argues Board President Bruce Rastetter and four others violated the Iowa Open Meetings Act “through a series of closed door meetings and other indirect methods” taken to avoid transparency. It asks a judge to void Harreld’s hiring, to award damages and attorneys’ fees and to enter an injunction warning regents they’ll face civil contempt for future violations.
The board has argued the July 30 meetings didn’t violate the law because a majority of nine regents didn’t meet Harreld at once. Harreld has said he requested the meetings to learn more about the job, and Rastetter has called them appropriate.
It’s the second lawsuit alleging open meetings violations during the search to replace Sally Mason, a process critics have called a sham that favored Harreld. The other, set for trial next year, alleges a search committee held improper closed meetings and violated the law by meeting near Chicago.
It comes as the regents begin the process of hiring a replacement for University of Northern Iowa President William Ruud, who has resigned effective July 2.
“If there was a conscious effort to circumvent the law, then the public should know,” said Krapf, who retired last year as special assistant to the law school dean. “I think that the search was incredibly flawed. ... It was not only a waste of tax dollars, it was an insult and a black mark on this university.”
The American Association of University Professors will decide this month whether to sanction the university over the regents’ decision to hire Harreld, a former IBM executive, despite overwhelming opposition. The regents rejected more traditional finalists — the provosts of Ohio State and Tulane and the Oberlin College president. AAUP has alleged the search was orchestrated “to prevent any meaningful faculty role in the selection of the final candidate.”
The lawsuit targets Harreld’s meetings with regents Katie Mulholland, Milt Dakovich, Larry McKibben and Mary Andringa on the day before the application deadline. The four along with Rastetter are named as defendants. The meetings happened at the Ames office of Summit Agricultural Group, the business owned by Rastetter.
Rastetter, who had met with Harreld twice previously, helped coordinate the meetings and shared Harreld’s resume with others. But he has said he didn’t sit in on them.
Andringa later sent an email praising Harreld’s “great skill set, experience and passion for excellence” and urged him to seek the job. In the email Andringa wrote: “Crisis necessitates change — it may be the big challenge that can energize you in the next 5 years!”
Harreld’s candidacy wasn’t made public until Aug. 30. The regents hired him as the school’s 21st president with a five-year contract days later.
Board spokesman Josh Lehman declined comment on the lawsuit.
The case comes after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in March private meetings can be illegal even when a majority of board members aren’t physically present. The court held any meeting called to discuss policy in which a majority of members attend “by virtue of an agent or proxy” is subject to the law.
Even if a majority of the board wasn’t physically present at once, the meetings should have been open under that standard, said Krapf’s attorney, Gary Dickey.
“This idea that you will communicate in multiple settings in less than a majority of the board in an effort to avoid the open meetings requirements doesn’t fly anymore,” he said.
The lawsuit alleges regents should have provided public notice and access and kept minutes as legally required.
Krapf, 60, said she was motivated to sue out of concern for the university where she’s spent most of her life. Her father, a professor, founded the organ department in the music school in 1962. She earned multiple degrees from the university. Her husband is a graduate, as are her twin daughters.
Krapf held numerous jobs, including counsel for the university hospital and assistant vice president for university relations. She said she’s speaking out on behalf of employees who are unable to air their concerns.
“We are at many levels being manipulated. It’s not the Iowa I grew up in,” she said. “Politics have become dominated by a bunch of cronies.”