Groupthink doesn’t belong in our public universities

Telling someone he’s going to fail before he starts isn’t very academic.

And yet, that’s the position of the University of Iowa faculty over the hiring of Bruce Harreld as its president.

As if to prove its point, a survey conducted by the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors showed that 98.2 percent of the faculty felt Harreld was unqualified for the position.

But rather, what it really suggests is that groupthink is alive and well in our Iowa universities.

If the survey asked for the correct answer to a math question or something factual and with only one right answer, it would be understandable to see adherence at 98.2 percent. (Even some college professors can be mathematically challenged.) But the question of whether or not Bruce Harreld is qualified for the job as president of the University of Iowa is a matter of opinion. How, then, can it be possible that only 1.8 percent of the faculty would have a differing opinion?

Groupthink is defined by PsychologyToday.com as a phenomenon that, “…occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.” It’s also something that every 100-level political science course will teach you to avoid.

Image by Shutterstock.

Image by Shutterstock.

Parents send their children to college to become critically thinking adults. That goal seems tougher to accomplish if professors appear to so willingly engage in groupthink.

Bruce Harreld was a non-traditional candidate. Although he has academic experience by teaching at Harvard Business School for six years, his management experience is in the private, business sector.

And he’s not the first one. According to the American Council on Education, “…the share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent.”

What hasn’t changed much is the skill set required to be a president of a university. The ACE reports, “Presidents cited fundraising, budgets, community relations, and strategic planning as the areas that occupy most of their time.”

Professors have experience teaching. Managers have experience managing. It seems reasonable to consider someone with management experience from the business world.

The private sector is not the enemy of our public universities. The University of Iowa Foundation, an organization whose purpose is to raise funds through private contributions, is in the midst of a campaign that has raised 1.5 billion dollars for the university. This is, rightfully, heralded as a great achievement. When it comes to the running of a university, it seems that mining money from the private sector is acceptable to the faculty, but it balks at mining the type of mind power that produces those kinds of financial results.

Let’s revisit the survey. Before answering “no” to the question of whether or not Harreld was qualified for the job of president, the faculty might have considered the following, critical reflections…

  1. What are the primary job responsibilities of the president?
  2. Why is there an upward trend, nationwide, of hiring non-academics as presidents of universities?
  3. If it’s acceptable for the university to take money from the private sector, why is it unacceptable to consider talent from the private sector?

And finally…

  1. He’s just starting his new position. Should he be given a chance?

Every tenured professor was once a humble applicant, until someone gave him or her a chance.

Bruce Harreld may fail as president of the University of Iowa. If he does fail, he should be fired. He might also be the right leader at the right moment for a great university. Time will tell.

Until then, let every professor engage his or her students with the idea of groupthink and how people can so spookily and easily fall prey to it—even highly educated individuals.

Because learning how to be critical thinkers, is something that students deserve from an institution of higher learning.

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