ISU professor sounds alarm about future of Leopold Center

Iowa State University Professor Matt Liebman has warned university President Gregory Geoffroy that the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture risks losing its “national and international reputation for excellence in scholarship and service” unless ISU’s administration embraces the center’s mission and removes the it from the supervision of the College of Agriculture. Liebman is a professor of agronomy who holds the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture. His three-page letter to Geoffroy has been making the rounds in the Iowa environmental community this week. I received it from multiple sources and posted the full text after the jump.

The impending departure of the Leopold Center’s interim director prompted Liebman’s letter. He notes the “rapid turnover” and “absence of stable leadership” at Leopold since 2005, as well as the “failed and controversial national search to fill the director position” last year. Bleeding Heartland covered that fiasco here and here. Following a national search, ISU offered the top job at Leopold to plant pathologist Frank Louws, the preferred candidate of the Iowa Farm Bureau. Corn expert Ricardo Salvador had received higher evaluations from the search committee, but ISU didn’t offer him the job even after Louws turned down the position. Since then, the Leopold Center has had interim leadership with no target date set for another director search.

In his letter to Geoffroy, Liebman said the “sense of uncertainty as to the Center’s future has also created wariness among those who might be applicants for the director’s position if and when a new search is initiated.” He reminded the ISU president that the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act defined a three-fold mission for the Leopold Center:

(1) identify the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of existing agricultural practices, (2) research and assist the development of alternative, more sustainable agricultural practices, and (3) inform the agricultural community and general public of the Center’s findings. It is important to recognize that this mandate creates, by design, a dynamic tension between conventional and alternative forms of agriculture. This tension is a healthy part of the Center’s work; it does not indicate the Center is failing to fulfill its mission or communicate effectively. The Center has a particular responsibility to focus on the environmental problems of agriculture and their solution.

In order to “to put the Center back on track and foster circumstances that would be conducive to a national search for a permanent director,” Liebman argued that the ISU administration

needs to demonstrate its unequivocal support for the Leopold Center’s three-part mandate. Specifically, it needs to re-affirm and embrace the Center’s work in defining the shortcomings of current agricultural systems, developing alternatives, and communicating findings. Without a clear indication from the university administration that dissenting opinions about agricultural sustainability are welcome and expected, I think it will be impossible to find a nationally renowned permanent Center director who personifies excellence in scholarship, communication, and service. The absence of a national search would indicate to many observers that the university no longer prioritizes a vibrant and widely respected Leopold Center.

Second, the university administration should move supervision of the Leopold Center to the offices of ISU’s President or Vice President for Research and Economic Development. […] The university would provide more prominence to the Leopold Center and enhance its impact by placing supervision of the Center at a higher administrative level, above the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

ISU’s Dean of Agriculture Wendy Wintersteen was widely criticized last year for her handling of the Leopold Center director search. Not only did she pass over the search committee’s top candidate, she informed Salvador that he did not get the job before her first choice had decided whether to accept the position. Salvador is highly regarded in the sustainable agriculture community and appeared in the documentary “King Corn.”

The Leopold Center’s work deserves more support from the university administration. ISU alumni or others with a connection to the university, please consider adding your voice to those urging Geoffroy to preserve the center’s excellence by increasing its independence.

Iowa State University

of Science and Technology

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture

1401 Agronomy Hall Ames, IA 50011-1010 USA Phone: 515-294-7486 Fax: 515-294-5506 e-mail: mliebman@iastate.edu

5 March 2011

Dr. Gregory L. Geoffroy, President

Iowa State University

1750 Beardshear Hall

Ames, IA 50011

Geoffroy@iastate.edu

Dear President Geoffroy:

I write in response to the news that Dr. Lois Wright Morton has resigned as interim director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and that Dr. Mark Honeyman has been appointed to fill the position. Whereas I wish Dr. Morton much success in her role as leader of a USDA-NIFA Climate Change project, and welcome Dr. Honeyman in his new role, I am also deeply concerned that one of Iowa State University’s best known and widely recognized centers of excellence is in peril due to a lack of stable leadership.

Since 2005, when Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann was dismissed as Director of the Leopold Center, there have been three interim directors (I recognize that Dr. Jerald DeWitt was made Director after having previously been appointed interim director). This rapid turnover of leadership has occurred in concert with a failed and controversial national search to fill the director position, and with the resignation of Associate Director Rich Pirog. The absence of stable leadership has led to a sense among my colleagues throughout the country and at ISU that the Center’s potential for intellectual leadership and future accomplishments is severely at risk. The sense of uncertainty as to the Center’s future has also created wariness among those who might be applicants for the director’s position if and when a new search is initiated.

I believe these difficulties and shortcomings are not the result of inadequacies of the Center’s board of advisors, its staff, or the university’s administration. Rather, they are symptoms of underlying structural problems in the existing configuration of the Center’s relationship with ISU. Reconfiguring this relationship productively requires re-examination of the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, the legislation that created the Leopold Center and defined its mission.

The Groundwater Protection Act mandates that the Center do three things: (1) identify the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of existing agricultural practices, (2) research and assist the development of alternative, more sustainable agricultural practices, and (3) inform the agricultural community and general public of the Center’s findings. It is important to recognize that this mandate creates, by design, a dynamic tension between conventional and alternative forms of agriculture. This tension is a healthy part of the Center’s work; it does not indicate the Center is failing to fulfill its mission or communicate effectively. The Center has a particular responsibility to focus on the environmental problems of agriculture and their solution. Given the tensions that exist nationally and in Iowa between the environmental and agricultural sectors, it is not surprising that the Center’s work has often been controversial. These controversies indicate that the Center is following its mandate.

I believe that ISU should expect, accept, and protect the Center’s work at the dynamic interface between conventional and alternative agricultural systems. As part of its land-grant mission, ISU must encourage intellectual creativity relevant to all stakeholders. A large amount of university resources are channeled to support conventional agricultural systems, but the university is also the appropriate venue for the open discussion and pursuit of alternative agricultural systems. In the same way the U.S. Bill of Rights is intended to encourage and protect the voices of minorities to be heard amid more dominant opinions, the university’s relationship with the Leopold Center should be one of fostering a plurality of views about the future of agriculture, while providing service to farmers and members of the agricultural community who are exploring and developing more sustainable alternatives.

The Groundwater Protection Act indicates that the Leopold Center’s director will be appointed by the President of Iowa State University and be employed by the Iowa Agricultural and Home Economics Experiment Station. Thus, I believe it is appropriate that the university administration take responsibility for reconfiguring the Center’s relationship with the university in a manner than will effectively address the on-going absence of a nationally renowned leadership team and insure that the Center is successful in its future work. Two things need to be done to put the Center back on track and foster circumstances that would be conducive to a national search for a permanent director.

First, the university administration, at multiple levels, needs to demonstrate its unequivocal support for the Leopold Center’s three-part mandate. Specifically, it needs to re-affirm and embrace the Center’s work in defining the shortcomings of current agricultural systems, developing alternatives, and communicating findings. Without a clear indication from the university administration that dissenting opinions about agricultural sustainability are welcome and expected, I think it will be impossible to find a nationally renowned permanent Center director who personifies excellence in scholarship, communication, and service. The absence of a national search would indicate to many observers that the university no longer prioritizes a vibrant and widely respected Leopold Center.

Second, the university administration should move supervision of the Leopold Center to the offices of ISU’s President or Vice President for Research and Economic Development. I note that the ISU Office of Sustainability, which serves a broad range of interests on campus, is supervised by the Executive Assistant to the President, and that various ISU centers and institutes that similarly serve broad constituencies (e.g., the Iowa Water Center, the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities, the Bioeconomy Institute, the Plant Sciences Institute) report to the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. The Loepold Center currently works with faculty and staff in five colleges (Design, Business, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Agriculture and Life Sciences) and could soon work with the Colleges of Human Sciences and Veterinary Medicine. Thus the Center’s scope of work is university-wide. The university would provide more prominence to the Leopold Center and enhance its impact by placing supervision of the Center at a higher administrative level, above the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Without these changes, the Leopold Center will, in my opinion, decline fatally or fall into mediocrity, losing its national and international reputation for excellence in scholarship and service, its ability to support faculty and students at ISU and other Iowa institutions, and its capacity to provide a valuable venue for the agricultural community to gain the best available information and insights about sustainable agricultural systems.

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you in more detail and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Matt Liebman

Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture

Professor of Agronomy

cc: W. Wintersteen, M. Honeyman, L. Wright Morton

attachment: Iowa Groundwater Protection Act

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