Iowa president faces calls for resignation after making 'horrifying' gun joke

Peter Fricke
Managing Editor

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  • The joke was a response to a question from a member of the Staff Council who had asked Harreld to elaborate on a previous address in which he discussed ways to “better prepare new instructors for their important classroom responsibilities."
  • Image from University of Iowa.

    Barely a month after starting the job, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld was forced to apologize for a joke that one employee found “horrifying and unacceptable.”

    According to The Iowa City Press-Citizen, Harreld made what he later described as “an inappropriate off-the-cuff remark” during a December 9 meeting of the university’s Staff Council, telling the assembly that any instructor who comes to class without a complete lesson plan “should be shot.”

    The joke was delivered in response to a question from Sam Van Horne, a member of the Staff Council, who had asked Harreld to elaborate on a previous campus-wide message in which he had discussed ways to “better prepare new instructors for their important classroom responsibilities.”

    Although the meeting was not recorded, Van Horne told The Press-Citizen that he recalled Harreld focusing heavily on preparation during his reply, discussing the need for instructors to prepare for things like leading class discussions and working with students individually and asserting that “It’s our job to prepare them.”

    Van Horne reported being caught somewhat off-guard by Harreld’s suggestion that those who fail to prepare “should be shot,” but added that it did not make a major impression on him in the moment because he was more interested in the substance of Harreld’s response.

    Although he did not expect a backlash—or, really, any reaction at all—to the joke, which he says he has employed on previous occasions, Harreld received an email the following day from Latin American and Iberian Studies librarian Lisa Gardinier complaining that his comment was “horrifying and unacceptable,” as well as “irresponsible and unprofessional,” particularly in light of recent mass shooting events.

    “For a university president to use the term 'should be shot' so flippantly, and just a week after the most recent highly publicized mass shooting ... is horrifying and unacceptable,” she told him.

    “Thanks for the feedback,” he wrote back. “I likely will never be able to live up to your expectations, but I will try.”

    Taking the somewhat glib response in stride, Gardinier followed up with a second email in which she concurred with his initial assessment regarding his ability to live up to her expectations, but questioned the sincerity of his commitment to try.

    “If you don’t address the issue raised, or even acknowledge it, I’m not even convinced you’re trying,” she complained. “Violence is not to be joked about as a public authority, and certainly not in the frame of consequences for professional performance in the workplace.”

    At that point, Harreld replied with an apology, explaining that he had not intended to brush off her concerns, but was simply unprepared for her reaction to his joke.

    “It was an unfortunate off the cuff remark and I had no intention to offedn [sic] anyone,” he assured her. “Nor did I seriously mean to imply I support gun violence in any shape, manner, or form.”

    Noting that “I have used the comment in many, many forums and this is the first time any one [sic] has objected,” Harreld reiterated his contrition for making the joke, and thanked Gardinier for making him aware of its potential to offend.

    Prior to assuming his current role, Harreld had served in senior executive positions for numerous large corporations, including Kraft General Foods, Boston Market Company, and IBM. He was also on the faculty of the Harvard Business School from 2008-2014, and spent time as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

    Iowa spokeswoman Anne Bassett told Inside Higher Ed that the university considers Harreld’s handling of the matter to have been “appropriate,” but Gardinier described his “non-apology” as insufficient, arguing that language that is commonplace in corporate boardrooms may not be acceptable in an academic environment.

    “Just because nobody has raised the issue with him before does not mean that nobody has ever been bothered by his use of the phrase,” Gardinier told Inside Higher Ed. “I've said before that he strikes me as someone who is very used to speaking to boardrooms and to people who aspire to be in boardrooms, which doesn't necessarily translate well to a wider university community or to a position of public authority.”

    Interestingly, though, Gardinier was much more conciliatory in her initial response to Harreld’s apology email, saying she “appreciated” his concession to the inappropriateness of the joke—which she suggested could serve as a “teachable moment”—and acknowledging that “I did understand your use of the phrase to be rhetorical.”

    Harreld had already been operating under a cloud since assuming the university presidency on November 2, facing numerous complaints, both external and internal, that he was selected without adequate input from faculty, staff, or students.

    In addition to a no-confidence vote delivered by the Faculty Senate shortly after his ascension, Harreld’s selection was also criticized in a recent report by the American Association of University Professors.

    Now, in the wake of the current controversy, the union that represents UI’s graduate student employees (COGS: UE Local 896) is accusing Harreld of “promoting violence and threatening the University’s workforce,” and calling on him to resign.

    “It is not acceptable for Harreld to dismiss the statement with a casual apology to a single individual after making a violent threat against all of the University's lecturers during an official performance of his duties on campus,” the union said in a statement released Tuesday. “His offending statement and flippant response are but one clear example of Harreld's inability to function adequately or behave appropriately in the role of University President.”

    Some observers, at least, believe the whole issue has been blown out of proportion, such as Thomas Lifson, who asks in a blog post for American Thinker, “Is there any person with an IQ above 60 who believes Harreld was actually inciting violence?”

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    Peter Fricke

    Peter Fricke

    Managing Editor

    Peter Fricke is the Managing Editor for Campus Reform. He has previously worked on state and national political campaigns, and was a reporter for The Daily Caller News Foundation. His email address is pfricke@campusreform.org.

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