Iowa State limiting academic freedom at Harkin Institute

Iowa State University President Steven Leath is trying to restrict the kind of agricultural research that can be conducted at the Harkin Institute of Public Policy, I learned from a must-read article by Hannah Furfaro for the Ames Tribune. The dispute over academic freedom may prompt U.S. Senator Tom Harkin to sever ties from the institute established last year.

The Iowa Board of Regents voted to create the Harkin Institute in April 2011, amid grumbling from Governor Terry Branstad and other Republicans about naming the center after a Democratic politician still serving in Congress. The institute is supposed to “serve as the catalyst for interdisciplinary research, teaching and outreach on vital public policy issues.” Just this week, the institute hosted a forum about the future of the Iowa caucuses. But the Regents outlined the following focal points for research at the Harkin Institute: agriculture, education, international development and domestic social welfare.

According to Furfaro’s report, which you should read in full, three Iowa State officials drafted a “memorandum of understanding” in the fall of 2011 that “amended” the Regents’ proposal. Under that memorandum, the Harkin Institute would be able to pursue any research in the areas of education, international development and health and human services, but would need to have any agricultural research projects approved by Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD). The memorandum’s authors were then ISU provost Elizabeth Hoffman, School of Agriculture Dean Wendy Wintersteen, and then interim Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences David Oliver. They signed the document, as did the former CARD director and the interim director of the Harkin Institute, David Peterson.

Furfaro reports that neither Senator Harkin, his wife Ruth Harkin (a member of the Board of Regents), nor anyone on the Harkin Institute advisory committee knew about the memorandum of understanding.

ISU’s new President Leath then took action:

“It wasn’t in the right format and had no validity on campus the way it was written,” said Leath, who learned about the MOU shortly after taking office earlier this year.

“I was sitting here with an MOU that the agriculture community and CARD favored, and the Harkin Institute didn’t favor, that was in the wrong format,” Leath said. “I rewrote it basically in the same vein it was already written in, but in the proper format to be effective on campus.”

You can read Leath’s directive to Wintersteen, ISU Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert, and Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Beate Schmittmann here.

As you are aware, since the Regents action creating the Harkin Institute in April of 2011, there have been periodic discussions about the roles of CARD and the Institute. I write to establish a guideline to assure the success of both of these units which are so important to Iowa State University.

CARD has for many years been the preeminent university-based agricultural policy institute in the United States. We must preserve that role which has been so important to the University and to our constituencies.

At the same time, the Regents’ action item creating the Institute established agriculture as one of the policy areas which it would address. Specifically, the action item states:

The proposed Institute will initially focus its work on key areas that reflect Senator Harkin’s policy priorities and that are integral to Iowa State University’s strategic plan–agriculture, education, international development, and domestic social welfare.

To assure that we preserve the role of CARD, and at the same time implement the action item approved by the Board of Regents which created the Institute, I am directing that you implement the following approach:

·  Any public policy research conducted by the Harkin Institute focusing on agriculture shall be directly related to Senator Harkin’s official papers and must be coordinated with CARD and reports issued jointly.

·  To the extent that the Harkin Institute may conducte public policy research related to agriculture but not specifically in the field of agriculture, CARD must approve these projects and play the lead role.

·  The Harkin Institute must not conduct any work in the area of agriculture that is not directly related to Senator Harkin’s papers and also approved by CARD.

I cannot emphasize how important these directives are to meet our obligations to the state and our constituencies. The successful collaboration of CARD and the Institute are critically important to ensuring that Iowa State maintains and improves upon its status as a national leader in public policy research and scholarship.

This memorandum supersedes all prior agreements. While I reserve the right to review and revise this memorandum, I expect the aforementioned approach to be followed and this policy shall remain in force until such a time.

It’s embarrassing and disturbing that a university president would restrict academic research in order to protect CARD’s turf–“so important […] to our constituencies,” i.e. to ISU’s major funders with connections to corporate agriculture.

Furfaro reports,

Emails obtained by the Ames Tribune show John Forsyth, CEO of Wellmark and a former regents’ president, who declined to comment for this story, resigned as a member of the Harkin Advisory Board on Nov. 11, the day after Leath’s new directive was distributed to the board.

On December 3, other members of the advisory board met to discuss the issue.

At the meeting, the board voted in favor of asking Leath to provide written assurance that he would stand behind the agenda item the regents passed in April 2011, which allows the institute to conduct research freely in the area of agriculture.

The board’s resolution included a call to remove restrictions on the institute’s programming, with the understanding that it would collaborate, when appropriate, with relevant university institutes. Board members said they would send the resolution to Leath, and await his response before further action.

“It’s stunning that somebody can unilaterally overrule a document that first went through the council of provosts, then it came to the regents, it got vetted through the regents’ staff … then passed on a 6-2-1 vote,” [advisory board member and former Regents President Michael] Gartner said. “It is supposed to be the policy of the board of regents, and therefore Iowa State University.”

Ruth Harkin told Furfaro,

“It’s unprecedented for a president to be substantially changing an institute that was passed by the Board of Regents,” she said. “There was never any thought that there would be any kind of restrictions on use of papers or anything coming out of the institute. It would be alien to academic freedom to think there was a party line on topics at any university.”

In a statement sent to the Des Moines Register, Senator Harkin hinted that he may not donate his papers to the institute under these circumstances.

“I want the best for my alma mater, and Ruth and I have always worked hard to support ISU. But I simply cannot be part of any arrangement that restricts full and unfettered academic freedom at this institute.”

In the same Register article by Jens Manuel Krogstad, Leath dug himself deeper into a hole:

The state’s agriculture leaders have said they worry that competition from the Harkin Institute could decrease CARD’s influence, Leath said.

No final decision on research guidelines has been made, Leath said, in response to Harkin’s statement. In his memo, Leath said he reserved the right to revise the rules.

“I understand Sen. Harkin’s concerns, and everyone should rest assured there’s no infringement on academic freedom in any way whatsoever with regards to the institute or any other area at Iowa State University,” Leath told the Register. “I will continue to work hard to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties.”

Leath said that his rules do not restrict what research the institute funds. The group, however, is required to jointly issue public policy statements and coordinate on events, he said. […]

Leath said he has the support of the Board of Regents leadership, the Farm Bureau and other agriculture producers, who don’t want to see CARD’s reputation diminished.

Leath said by rejecting the original research ban and favoring a restriction, he tried to find middle ground to resolve an issue that started before he was president. He emphasized individual faculty members will have the option to pursue whatever research they wish.

“That’s why I don’t get this theoretical academic freedom argument that Michael Gartner keeps harping about,” he said. “Either he doesn’t know what it is, or he’s missed the point that the faculty can do whatever they want.”

The plain meaning of Leath’s directive speaks for itself. His spin insults everyone’s intelligence and may do lasting damage to Iowa State’s academic reputation.

Regents President Craig Lang, the longtime former leader of the Iowa Farm Bureau, opposed creating the Harkin Institute and supports Leath’s directive.

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  • Thanks for this thorough description of the issue.

    So at least we know which side of Leath’s bread is buttered. The Farm Bureau and Big Ag do not want any of that silly academic freedom mucking up their death grip on the state’s politicians.

    • they only wish

      someone had thought to use this strategy to cut the Leopold Center off at the knees in the 1980s. It’s so ridiculous to limit agricultural research to Harkin’s papers, with pre-approval from an outside body, and then claim, “I don’t know what Michael Gartner is talking about.”

  • The Leopold Center

    …serves a useful function as window dressing for the fact that ISU is owned lock, stock and barrel by agribusiness.  Always has been … always will be…Leath is just the latest in a long line of water carriers for the Farm Bureau + the rest of Big Ag.  He would not be there otherwise.