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.

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Update on the Leopold Center's director search

Last month I posted about the controversy surrounding the search for a new director of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. University officials offered the job to Frank Louws, a plant pathologist in North Carolina, although the search committee preferred Ricardo Salvador, the program director for the Kellogg Foundation’s Food, Health and Wellbeing program. Salvador is a corn expert and displayed a more “holistic perspective” about sustainable agriculture, which is probably why the Iowa Farm Bureau had expressed a preference for Louws. ISU’s Dean of Agriculture Wendy Wintersteen informed Salvador that he would not get the position before Louws had accepted the job. Typically, employers wait until they have a deal with their top candidate before telling other finalists that they didn’t get the job.

For about two months, Louws neither accepted nor declined the offer to head the Leopold Center. Meanwhile, ISU President Greg Geoffroy denied that he had been influenced by the Farm Bureau, saying he had followed “very strong advice” from Wintersteen and ISU’s Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Hoffman. In the sustainable agriculture community, many people believe industrial agriculture interests influenced Wintersteen’s and Hoffman’s recommendation.

In any event, Louws has declined ISU’s job offer, the Ames Tribune reported yesterday. Wintersteen said North Carolina State University made him “a generous counter offer,” and Louws decided not to uproot his family.

According to the Ames Tribune, Geoffroy “advised [Wintersteen] to call Salvador back for a second interview” after Louws turned down the Leopold Center job. That interview has not yet been scheduled.

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Iowa State let Farm Bureau choose the head of the Leopold Center

I lost a lot of respect for Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy after reading this piece by Alan Guebert for the Burlington Hawk Eye. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has been looking for a director to replace the retiring Jerry DeWitt. An expert panel conducted a nationwide search and chose four finalists, whom you can learn more about here. Guebert explains how the search ended:

Iowa Farm Bureau made it known to ISU aggies that the leading candidate for the post, Ricardo Salvador, the program director for the Kellogg Foundation’s Food, Health and Wellbeing program, was not its prime choice. It preferred Frank Louws, a plant pathologist at North Carolina State.

According to interview and program evaluations, Louws was a clear second to Salvador in almost every category commented on by evaluators. He had limited experience with Iowa commodities, no livestock experience, no “national or international reputation in sustainable agriculture,” and a “lower scope of vision” for the Center than Salvador.

Despite these shortcomings, Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy authorized ag Dean Wendy Wintersteen to offer Louws the job. Simultaneously, Wintersteen sent Salvador an email Dec. 2 that informed him he would not be Leopold director.

Why, asks Laura Jackson, a center advisory board member and a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, was Salvador, “clearly the most qualified applicant interviewed,” sent packing before Louws either accepted or declined the position?

Those who have seen the documentary King Corn might remember Salvador from a few scenes. He is highly regarded by sustainable agriculture experts inside and outside the U.S. and is an expert on one of Iowa’s leading crops.

Guebert reports that Louws has neither accepted nor declined the position at the Leopold Center, so perhaps there is still a chance for Salvador to be offered the job. Either way, the episode doesn’t reflect well on ISU, which already had a reputation for being less than welcoming to sustainable agriculture advocates.

When Fred Kirschenmann was hired as director of the Leopold Center in 2000, none of the agricultural science departments wanted him on their faculty for fear of angering corporate interests. So, Kirschenmann was appointed to the ISU Department of Religion and Philosophy. But at least the Farm Bureau was not allowed to veto his hiring. It’s a sad day for a university when a corporate group can overrule the strong preference of a hiring committee.

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