Mid-week open thread: Worst governor's appointments

I recommend Michael Gartner’s long op-ed piece about the train wreck surrounding the Harkin Institute at Iowa State University. Reading it, I learned about a scandal that shattered ISU’s economics department in the 1940s. The piece also got me wondering: did Governor Chet Culver ever make a worse appointment than putting Iowa Farm Bureau head Craig Lang on the Board of Regents?

Not content to use the Regents’ lobbyists and ISU faculty for advocacy against raw milk sales (seemingly unrelated to higher education), Lang is now interfering with freedom to research agriculture-related topics at the Harkin Institute. Surely there were Republicans better suited for this job when Culver appointed Lang in 2007. I suspect we can thank then Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge (“Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions”) for that move.

Some excerpts from Gartner’s piece are after the jump.

All topics are welcome in this open thread, especially any thoughts about the worst appointments any Iowa governor has made.

P.S.- Iowa Republican blogger Jeff Patch scores points for pretzel logic in his attempt to cast ISU administrators as heroes expressing “serious ethical concerns” about the Harkin Institute operating as “a rogue unit blessed with the official seal of ISU approval, funded by Harkin’s campaign donors and free to engage in politicized research with no oversight or controls.”

Excerpt from Michael Gartner’s guest column “Controversy surrounding Harkin Institute is about trying to shackle ISU ag research,” published in the Des Moines Register on December 11.

After a search for a new ISU president, Steven Leath, vice president for research at the University of North Carolina, was elected. He took office on Jan. 16 of this year. But [Board of Regents President] Lang and [Board of Regents President Pro-tem Bruce] Rastetter emerged as the people really running the university. Leath told me he talked with Rastetter almost every day – as astonishing change. In the past, except in times of crisis, board presidents usually talked with university presidents once every couple of weeks, if that. The board presidents concentrated on strategy and legislative relations and, when needed, crisis management and let the presidents run the universities.

Lang was behind change in Harkin agreement

Meantime, unbeknownst to the Harkins, the ag interests were at work against the institute. Early this year, the Harkins and the institute’s advisory board discovered, almost by accident, that ISU officials last fall had produced a “memorandum of understanding” that removed agriculture from an area of scholarship at the Harkin Institute – an area emphasized in the brochure produced at lunch and listed foremost in the regents docket item – rendering useless the boxcars of the senator’s ag papers. […]

“I don’t believe there should be conflicts. … (The institutes) should work together and find what the university believes best represents the interests of agriculture,” Lang told the Ames Tribune. One view, presumably, on nutrition and red meat. One view on conservation practices. One view on hog confinements. One view on no-till farming. Views that, not unlikely, would parallel the views of the Farm Bureau.

There are two problems: One is that not Leath, not Lang, not Rastetter – no one – has the authority to alter or renege on the policy in Docket Item #31 that established and outlined the Harkin Institute. Only the Board of Regents can alter that. Harkin thought the institute proposed by Iowa State would be what was outlined in the docket item – with no special constrictions, no special favors.

The second problem is even more troubling. A university is supposed to be a stew of ideas, a place where teachers and students and scholars and writers can debate and discuss, explain and expound. A place where minds can be opened to new ideas, where old truths can be challenged or affirmed. A place where freedom is unfettered.

Instead, the current leaders of the Board of Regents, Lang and Rastetter, and Leath, either on his own or acting at their direction, are seeking to restrict and restrain, to mandate the agriculture version of political correctness. They are in grave danger of repeating an awful chapter of Iowa State history.

  • Harkin Institute

    It’s interesting that desmoinesdem pulls out that one statement from a 1,500 word piece. Indeed, nonpartisan academics, including ISU’s Dave Peterson, who runs the Harkin Institute, signed the memorandum. It’s only the Harkins and Michael Gartner who are freaking out and threatening to take Harkin’s papers, whatever that means, to Drake or some other private school without donors.

    By the way, I’d like to hear someone, such as desmoinesdem, say they have no problem with the largest donor to the Harkin Institute being a Korean conglomerate that manufactures ammunition for military forces and metals for the U.S. Mint. What interest do they have in “academic freedom” in agriculture? Can you honestly say that ICCI and the rest of you wouldn’t be howling if Sen. Grassley set up a Grassley Institute at UNI and a foreign company with nearly $1billion in federal contracts gave him $500k? How about the fourth most powerful lobbying firm by revenue giving $50k? Nothing to see there, eh?  

    • your "concern"

      about corporate donations undermining academic integrity at Iowa State University is duly noted. That is laughable. No one at Iowa State from Leath on down had any problem with taking that corporate money and allowing whatever kind of research on health care reform, international development, etc to go on at the Harkin Institute. They are only worried about ag-related research that might undermine the party line they know CARD will enforce.

      How about Fred Kirschenmann, former head of the Leopold Center, having to join ISU’s theology department because the ag-related faculties were afraid their corporate money would dry up if they gave him any affiliation?

      If you are worried about political corruption and corporate money in politics, there are a lot bigger problems than companies giving money to an academic institute. CropLife America has given Harkin campaign contributions before when he was chairing the Ag Committee and writing the last Farm Bill. That’s a bigger concern to me than who’s donating to Iowa State University for the Harkin Institute.

      I support public financing of elections and strict limits on corporate PAC donations. I’m guessing you are a big fan of Citizens United and other loopholes that allow unlimited spending by a few wealthy people and corporations, with the goal of directly influencing elections.

    • also, let's talk about "Machiavellian"

      That was a nice William Safire-like flourish calling Michael Gartner a “Machiavellian media maven.” Guy’s got a lot of enemies, I’m sure he’s been called worse. But when he was president of the Board of Regents, I don’t ever recall hearing that he used the position to further his business interests.

      In contrast, we have Regents President Pro-Tem Bruce Rastetter using his position to get Iowa State University involved in AgriSol Energy’s Tanzanian land deal. Since you’re so worried about disclosure, I’m sure it will deeply concern you that Rastetter concealed his financial interest in AgriSol on his disclosure forms filed with the state.

      Now Ryan Foley of the Associate Press tells us the Regents made sure Rastetter’s former corporate flack will be ISU’s top lobbyist going forward.

      Joe Murphy has been appointed as ISU’s state relations officer to replace Ann McCarthy, who is moving into a new position overseeing the board’s economic development initiatives.

      Murphy spent the past year working as director of public affairs for Summit Group, an Ames-based company that grew out of Regent Bruce Rastetter’s family farm and includes “investment and operating companies” in a range of agricultural sectors. Murphy acted as spokesman for Rastetter when the Republican Party powerbroker successfully fought a high-profile ethics complaint related to one of Summit’s projects: a plan to team up with Iowa State to develop a huge farm in Tanzania.

      Rastetter said Tuesday he wasn’t involved in Murphy’s appointment. ISU President Steven Leath recruited Murphy, and Donley made the hiring decision, he said. Rastetter noted that Murphy, 29, worked for three years as the lobbyist for University of Northern Iowa before he left last year to join Summit.

      “I try not to stand in the way of employees looking for great opportunities. I think that one was for Joe,” Rastetter said. “I didn’t have anything to do with either the recommendation or them reaching out to him, and I think that’s the appropriate way to do that.” […]

      The Associated Press asked for records related to Murphy’s appointment under Iowa’s public records law. Board officials responded Monday that they did not have any, including a job advertisement, offer letter or correspondence. The board revealed Tuesday that Murphy’s salary will be $110,000, up from the $78,000 he earned in the UNI job in 2011. […]

      It is unclear whether the hiring complied with state rules. The regents’ policy manual urges the state’s universities to post jobs for at least five days and encourages “broad recruitment” in the interest of diversity.

      Rastetter has been talking to Leath on the phone just about every day this year, according to Gartner’s editorial in the Des Moines Register.

      We also saw every lobbyist working for the Board of Regents register against House Study Bill 585, which would legalize direct sales of raw milk to consumers. Dairy farmer Craig Lang just happened to be president of the Board of Regents the first time the Regents decided to weigh in on a raw milk bill.  

  • correction

    “without donors” = “without donor disclosure”

    • it makes more sense

      to have an institute like this at a public university, especially since ISU is Harkin’s alma mater. But I’m sure he wouldn’t be the first member of Congress to donate papers to a private college or university.

      There is way too much money in American politics. It’s a real stretch for you to imply that the story here is Lang and Rastetter of all people acting out of concern about the corrupting influence of money in politics.

  • A general comment

    ISU is wholly owned by corporate interests, including, most especially, Big Ag.  Period.  End of Story. Anyone who doesn’t think so is seriously deluded.  

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