ISU's culture of exclusion on Catt Hall continues, 26 years later

Heather Strachan, Meron Wondwosen, Bob Mohr, and Allan Nosworthy co-authored this commentary. Iowa State University is revisiting whether to rename Catt Hall.

The September 29th Movement rising

In the Autumn of 1995, Iowa State University’s grand plans to name a building after alumna and women’s suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt were coming to fruition. However, the university administration had failed to hold open discussions regarding Catt’s actions during her lifetime and how her legacy could negatively impact the welcoming community and student life that ISU had committed to build. 

At the time, Sloss Women’s Center Director Celia E. Naylor objected to keeping Catt’s bad-faith, white supremacist actions under wraps from the student body. Naylor requested that the university hold open forums to discuss Catt’s history of political expediency, but ISU refused to seek student input. At the official ceremony, there was no mention of the xenophobic, racist, and classist tactics and writings Catt used to justify suffrage for white women.

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Reynolds dodges tough call; State Fair board dodges open meetings practice

In its most closely-watched meeting in living memory, the Iowa State Fair board voted on June 10 not to hold the fair this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the board’s 11-2 vote was livestreamed, the brief meeting shed no light on the deliberations. There was no public discussion of the pros and cons of postponing the event until 2021. Nor did members debate alternative scenarios explored by staff, like holding a scaled-back event with limited attendance, mandatory face coverings, or temperature checks.

All board members present avoided a public stand on the difficult decision through a secret ballot vote, in apparent contradiction with Iowa’s open meetings law.

Governor Kim Reynolds’ designated representative on the body missed the meeting entirely.

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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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