Business expert with little education experience selected as next University of Iowa president

IOWA CITY, Iowa – 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 university.

Harreld told the regents he was honoured to land the job, adding that he has a lot to learn. “This is a watershed moment for a great institution and I hope we do a lot together,” he said.

The Board of Regents’ decision to pass over three candidates with traditional academic credentials in favour of Harreld is a signal that members believe the university should operate more like a nimble business and less like a slow-moving bureaucracy stuck in old thinking. 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, fend off competition for students and top academic talent, and manage a shrinking level of state and federal funding.

Harreld, 64, beat out Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz and Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein. The four candidates had been recommended by a search committee out of more than 50 who applied to replace Sally Mason, who retired last month after leading the university since 2007.

Nationally, it remains rare for major research 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 UT 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 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 in New York, saying 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 the use of information technology, marketing and branding.

From 2008 to 2014, he was a senior 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.