Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.
We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined with Bruce Harreld, the 21st President of the University of Iowa, the second largest University in the state and a member of the Big 10 Conference. President Harreld has a unique background as a former officer and director of The Boston Consulting Group, a senior officer of Kraft Foods, President and board member of Boston Market, and Senior Vice President of IBM. President Harreld served on the faculty of Harvard Business School, where he earned his MBA, as well as an adjunct business professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he developed the first-ever MBA course on Strategic Use of Information Technology.
Episode 22: “Higher Education in Crisis – Leading Forward Together”
President Harreld brings an incredible amount of experience, not only as an educator, but also as a business leader in strategic transformations, turnarounds, building new businesses, cultural change, and translating strategic ideas into organizational action, all qualities considered to be invaluable especially during these difficult times.
“Good leaders think about things in two different ways; lead with the facts, use your mind and be analytical; and secondly with your heart. I know we have this data but what’s the right thing to do in terms of our values?”
Please join us in this episode of Leadership Reimagined, “Higher Education in Crisis – Leading Forward Together,” as we speak with Bruce Harreld, where he shares with the audience his leadership through COVID-19 at the University of Iowa, his communication strategy and steps taken to keep the community safe, which he considers to be his guiding light during these unprecedented times.
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Show Notes: Bruce Harreld
Bruce Harreld on the challenges facing U.S. public higher education
I’ll try to be brief, but let me just introduce a whole series of issues, and I must say the issues in the United States are different from the issues in Europe, and the issues in Asia are different still. Purdue is a public institution. I studied engineering there. My father did before me. My wife did as well. And so I’m a product of public higher education. And as I look at that whole marketplace, there are a lot of challenges, and those haven’t been going on for just the last year or two. It has, in fact, been going on for 20 to 25 years. And the more I looked at that in my days of retirement, the more I realized that we really need to think about reimagining how we approach public higher education in the United States, because I think public higher education has been vital to lifting up a number of different underrepresented groups in our society. And I think it’s in many ways the core of our society, core of our democracy. And so let me just tick off, obviously right now we are dealing with a very serious series of issues around COVID-19. We’ve been dealing with it now for six months. And I think the mistake that I have made, and I think a lot of my colleagues have made, is thinking that, “oh, it’ll just be another month, or there’ll be a vaccination process for society just around the corner.” I’m afraid this may be with us for quite a while. And so I’ve started to shift my thinking around how we deal with it.
The second major issue that we’re facing is, frankly, fiscal. All 50 states have cut their funding for higher education. Their public higher education institutions – the Ohio States, the Purdues, the University of Iowas, all of them have been cut by their states very dramatically over the last 25 years. 25 years ago, almost 70% of University of Iowa’s education funds came from the State of Iowa. Today, that’s down to a little over 20%. That’s a dramatic shift. And what’s then happened has been an increase in tuition to replace that reduction from the state. And that now has got everybody really worried about the high costs of education. That system is, I think, close to breaking.
The second fiscal issue we face is that, particularly in the middle part of the United States, we are actually starting to see enrollment declines, and that will continue over the next 10 or 15 years. Let me say that another way. It’s not just enrollment declines. It’s caused primarily by the fact that we have fewer and fewer students graduating from high school in that age cohort, and that’s got a lot of people concerned. Those will cause a shakeout. I’m pretty convinced of that. And then we have a set of other issues around research. I think we’ve forgotten the history of our university system, our so-called R1 class research institutions like ours. We came out of World War II as a nation and decided that there was going to be a compact, if you will, between the industrial complex and the universities. And that arrangement really had the basic research being the responsibility of institutions like ours. And so the health research, medical research, the engineering research, the NASA programs, the basic fundamental early stage research from many of those programs has been conducted across the universities in the United States. With this defunding trend and other fiscal issues, that’s also waning. And so there’s a race for research funding on top of the educational funding I just mentioned. And then I think with all of the issues going across our society, we have managed, in my opinion, to politicize everything. We’ve managed to politicize our K-12 educational system. And sure enough, we’re starting to politicize what we teach and how we teach in our higher education system. And those are pretty significant challenges. I face each one of them day in, day out, and I’m not so sure I’m smart enough to have answers, but we’ve got efforts going on on all of those simultaneously.
Bruce Harreld on the American funding model for public universities
I think it’s close to being broken. I don’t think it’s completely broken; I think there’s hope. But I think it requires some reimagining of the system. And I think the starting place for the dialogue that we all need to go through is to ask ourselves, “what’s the role of higher education in our society?” I don’t think we have a good answer for that. I don’t think we have a holistic answer to that. As I said, all 50 states have chosen in their state houses to defund higher education in their states. That’s the beginning of the issue. And in fact, if that’s the value and we want to put more money into K-12, or into the penal system, or into the medical system, so be it. But that then requires that the public higher education institutions like ours really rethink what their funding base is. And if they don’t, then I think we will find over time in our society that most of our higher education systems become private, become like the Harvards and Yales or Northwesterns. And I personally believe that’s a problem. I respect those institutions incredibly. I’m a product of one of them, but I must say, they don’t do a great job focusing on the underrepresented first-generation students in our society. We still have a large number of families relative to other countries that do not have higher education degrees. So we’ve got some work to do. And part of that reimagining is something we’ve done in terms of looking for ways to monetize other assets on our campus. We have a large endowment, but now we also have a public-private partnership focused on our utility infrastructure that was built over the last 100 years. And we’ve actually done a transaction to put another billion dollars into our long term strategic plan. That’s just one example. We need to reinvent the way in which we fund these institutions.
Bruce Harreld on reimagining enrollment at the University of Iowa
Five years ago, when I started looking at this dynamic that we’ve just been talking about, we were in a race, like many of our peers in the Big Ten and other top academic institutions across the country, to get larger and larger and larger. I started staring at some of the numbers, and I started realizing that as the state is defunding us, and I’m talking about substantial defunding over the last 25 years, maybe in fact size isn’t the right answer. We’ve made some very conscious shifts. First of all, we’ve decided to intentionally reduce our size. Secondly, we decided that at our core, everything we touch academically and from a research perspective needs to be excellent, world-class excellent. And if we can’t be world-class excellent, then in fact we should find ways to focus ourselves on those activities that are. I often say to our alumni that size is not a strategy, excellence is.
So five years ago, we had an enrollment of 5,400. And I walked over to our enrollment team with the Daily Iowan newspaper from that week, and I said, I don’t ever want to see this headline again. And so this year, we’re a few hundred short due to COVID, but we’re in the 4,800 to 4,600 range of where we want to be. And with that, we’ve also done two other things. One is that we’ve shifted, ever so carefully, year by year, an increase in our graduate and professional programs, our law schools, our business schools, our medical college, dental college, and pharmacy.
I made an announcement, probably four years ago, that we would always have at least 20% of our incoming students be first-generation students, getting back to that issue of our societal role. And so we’re now at 23-24% in terms of first-generation students, and we’re also focusing on their academic needs. So we’ve been remixing strategically. Right now we’re the smallest in the Big Ten. We’re quite proud of that. That intentional shrinking has allowed us to do some other things. It’s taking pressure off of everything. It’s taken pressure off of recruiting of talent. It’s allowed us to not have to build a lot of new dorms. It’s allowed us to not have to build a lot of new classrooms. And little did we know, we would now have this virus in front of us. But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say to somebody on my team, “thank goodness we took the pressure off of enrollment because we’d be in a much tougher spot, not only fiscally, but just infrastructure-wise if we hadn’t done that well.”
Bruce Harreld on reopening classrooms and hybrid education
Early this summer, as we started thinking about bringing students back to campus, good leaders think about things in two different ways. One is you need to lead with the facts and use your mind and be analytical about it. And secondly, with your heart. And I will just say for myself, sometimes I get the heart piece a little lopsided and you have to really work on it. You need people on your team who say, “what’s the right thing to do? I know we’ve got this data that says this, but what’s the real right thing to do in terms of our values?”
As we started processing this reopening, we started realizing that it was really bimodal. There are a lot of families, a lot of students who say, “look, I am very fearful of this environment, the virus and all the things we don’t know.” We see the incredible deaths in the United States, and faculty in particular, people of my age, are vulnerable. And similarly, the students have that same fear. But then there are others that say, “no, I really want the in-class experience.”
To make a long story short, we decided to give people as much choice as we possibly could. And so we have totally let the free market work. We’ve said to our faculty and staff, “if you need to work from home, or you don’t want to teach a face-to-face course or want to convert your older course from face-to-face to online, we’ll help you do that.” We’ve also said to our students, “if you don’t feel comfortable coming back to campus, don’t. We’ll do something with you online.”
So we’re in a mode that we would probably call hybrid, and we’ve let people make that choice. I didn’t know how that would sort itself out. I can tell you as of right now, there’s still a little movement, and we’ll allow some movement for the first couple of weeks. I taught my first class yesterday. It was interesting because you can see the students. We actually said during the class, “drop us a note and tell us either have this online or face-to-face.” Last night, I was looking at the returns, and the response is all over the place. So now we’ve got to make a decision. And I can come back to how we’re going to do that. But right now we’re at 72% of our courses in terms of student credit hours will be taught online. And we’ll stay in that mode throughout this semester and continually reevaluate what we need to do for the spring semester. Our university also has a break in between those two, and we run a lot of programs, and I suspect most of those will also be virtual. It’s going to really depend. We’ve been continually saying we’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best, and this is the mode we’re still in.
Bruce Harreld on COVID’s impact on Iowa
Our population density in Iowa is a lot lower than New York’s. But when you look at COVID cases as a percent of the population, or cases per 100,000, which is the metric everyone seems to be using these days, we’re seeing a spike right now, enough so that I actually reached out in the last few hours to talk to our governor about what she could do. And I think the interesting piece of this is that we are a large country. We have a lot of differences in terms of culture, in terms of how diseases move through. And one thing we’ve been staring at is that half our student body comes from outside of Iowa, and might they bring some of the virus and some of those cases with them? Yes, we’re seeing that, but it’s not their fault. We’re also seeing that the young adults do what young adults when I was their age also did, which is they go socialize in a lot of different venues all across our community, and we’re seeing a spike as a result of that as well. So our case numbers are not the serious, incredible numbers seen in New York. On the other hand, the percentage relative to the population is pretty significant, so we can’t ignore it.
Bruce Harreld on COVID precautions at the University of Iowa
We start with the “Three Ws,” which are: wear your mask, watch your distancing, and wash your hands. But we’ve also had to change classrooms. We’ve reduced the density of our residence halls. We’ve even changed the air filtering in any building we could over the summer. We even had our engineering group in rooms measuring air flows throughout the summer. And then we gave everybody kits of shields and masks. And then we did training, and the list goes on. And then I always say to my students, “hey, if I’ve forgotten something or we haven’t thought of something that you think we should do, put it on the list. We’ll do that too, because there’s no playbook for this. We’re all working together on creating that playbook on a daily basis.”
The bottom line, at the end of the day, is that we have to keep everybody safe. And if we can’t, then we’ll go online. And that will be tough for a lot of students. I think it’ll be tougher for the first-generation and underrepresented minority groups. I worry a lot about that, because they don’t have the support system back at home. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of sick of sitting in this chair looking at a screen and teaching or having meetings this way. It’s hard to stay engaged.
Bruce Harreld on the need for DEI
I’ve long been concerned about the divisiveness in our society. I grew up in Appalachia. I could see some of those, if you will, edges of our society. I’m almost 70 years old now, and I’ve seen us go through these iterations several times, and it seems like every time, we pay lip service to the process and we don’t make the fundamental, necessary changes. It’s something we “don’t have time to talk about.” But in my course on leadership, we spend a lot of time talking about diversity of teams and how teams that look alike are not very creative and tend not to be as productive. Teams that are really diverse are incredibly creative and productive, and then we try to diagnose how that happens and why that happens.
I worked for an incredible organization, IBM, for 15 years. And we were very aggressive on the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so when I got here, I coupled that with our thinking about defining the purpose of a public institution. Why would the state of Iowa give us $200 million a year? Well, it’s because of some of these economic and uplifting powers of education that I think our forefathers landed on. And we may be now getting close to needing to re-engineer that. But nevertheless, the reason a public institution like ours exists is to lift up a whole group of people. It’s a humanitarian purpose. We’ve been focused on that for several years now.
Now, the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor tragedies have put an afterburner underneath a lot of what we’re doing. And I must be honest, I think our students are frustrated that I’m not moving fast enough. And you know what? I think they’re right. The other night, I was talking to a group of them and saying, “here’s what we’ve done and here’s what we’re working on.” They said, “no, that’s not enough. Go forward. Don’t tell us what you’re working on. Tell us what you’re going to be working on.” Fair enough. That’s the problem of leadership. The more you get done, the more you have to do, and the more inclusive you are, the more you’re going to hear their suggestions.
And then the key is trying to figure out how you take that passion that they have and turn it into something productive as opposed to just the protests or just the emails. I mean, I got 412 emails this summer about issues on campus, and God bless them. On the other hand, then what? I say, hey, now, let’s do this, that’s another issue. So you have to figure out how to channel that energy.
Bruce Harreld on the Big Ten’s reaction to COVID
Football is an important part of our society, for good or for bad. We can have that discussion. But look, the Big Ten is a very unique conference. It’s perhaps the only conference that is really run by the presidents and chancellors of the 14 members of the Big Ten. I’m part of that group, obviously. I’m also very active on the executive committee of the Big Ten. We’ve met countless hours through May, June, July; I just had a meeting at 07:00 this morning. As a matter of fact, as a group, we work quite well together. I should also say it’s one of the few conferences where everything is shared equally. Equal voting. If Ohio State goes to the national championship, they put their cost for that in the pulp pool and the revenues they get, we all share. So we share everything. And it’s been that way for well over 100 years. So it’s a unique group. And in that context, yes, I was deeply involved and expressed my concerns, and we debated intensely across the Big Ten.
At the end of the day, the Big Ten made a decision that said the myriad of processes of how you keep Big Ten athletes safe is so complex, so multidimensional, that the right thing to do right now is to take a pause. We took a pause originally in the spring. We spent most of the summer trying to figure out how to play the fall sports. And finally we got to the point of saying look, each one of these sports is so different that it deserves a pause in the fall. I was part of the team, part of the process, and I fully support that. Having said that, we also recognized that that wasn’t a good enough answer. And so we’re still meeting, we’re still medical and public health advisors. We’ve had a group of athletic directors. Our coaches are involved. I’ve tried to figure out how we restart sports. We call it “returning to competition,” and we’ve got several groups, working on the details of how we create bubbles, how we test, how frequently we test, and in some cases, how we might play the sport a little bit differently. And I’m very hopeful that before long we’re going to be able to see the virus decline, and we’re going to figure out a way to play these games safely. These are very complex times and I lost my way in the early periods of this COVID-19 environment trying to figure out how to do this? And finally I realized there has to be one overarching principle, the guiding light. And for me, that was keeping everyone here safe.
Bruce Harreld on the costs of canceling sports due to COVID
At the University of Iowa, canceling our fall sports was a $100 million decision. We announced last week we’re permanently closing four sports. We’ve taken salaries down for our entire athletic department, including coaches on contracts. I’ve reduced my salary by 50%. So these are not inconsequential, cavalier, easy-to-make decisions. On the other hand, they’re a lot easier to make if you say the intent is to keep everyone safe. And yes, we now have a $100 million problem, so let’s go work on that and let’s go figure that out. And that’s why we’re here, to be honest as leaders.
Bruce Harreld’s parting words
Just in closing, I would ask anyone who’s listened to this to just think about the issue of the role of higher education in our society. I’d like you to think also about a subset of that: what’s the role of public higher education? I think those are pretty important questions, and we’re now in an election season, electing people for our state legislatures, federal offices and all the rest. So I would end on the note of look, I think we’ve got an incredible future in front of us but we won’t get there by just doing the same things we’ve been doing for the last 100 years. We’ve got to rethink a number of these components and I think they’re all solvable, but we need to partner with the political base and the industrial base. I didn’t spend any time talking about the research side but the issue of most of our basic research – the technology we’re using right now to communicate, the way those electrons move – came from basic research done at major universities. So it’s not as though we can shut this whole thing down for individuals or for our economy. The issue, I think, becomes: how do we help it move forward and rethink some of it, the way in which it governs itself, the way in which it sets new priorities, the way it funds itself.