Harkin objects to research limits at ISU institute

12/5/2012 10:45 AM
By Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin is threatening to end his association with his namesake policy institute at Iowa State University if the school president does not remove restrictions on its ability to research agriculture.

Harkin suggested in a statement obtained Tuesday by the Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/Vk45JQ) that he may not donate his papers to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy and could even ask that his name be removed from a center that his supporters have donated millions of dollars to open.

Harkin and the institute's advisory board are objecting to a memo issued last month by ISU President Steven Leath that warns the institute "must not conduct any work in the area of agriculture" without approval from ISU's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development. The institute would be allowed to conduct agriculture research related to Harkin's papers on its own, as well as any other number of policy areas such as education and labor.

Leath said that he wants to avoid duplication among the two centers and maintain the international prominence of CARD, located in the school's College of Agriculture and Life Science since 1958. He says the state's agriculture leaders as well as leaders of the Iowa Board of Regents support the rules, which are meant to require the Harkin Institute to jointly issue policy statements with CARD and coordinate on events. He says individual faculty members will be free to research whatever they want.

But Harkin and his wife, regent Ruth Harkin, say the rules restrict the academic freedom of students and researchers.

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

ISU spokesman John McCarroll said Wednesday that Leath continues to work to find a solution to the dispute. He said Leath is trying to "uphold the long-standing agricultural policy research role of CARD while also trying to carry out the decision of the Board of Regents to create the Harkin Institute."

The Harkin Institute's advisory board passed a resolution Monday calling on Leath to withdraw the restrictions. The resolution said Leath should honor the language creating the institute approved by the Board of Regents in April 2011, which charged it with conducting research into Harkin priorities that fit with the school's, including agriculture, education, international development and social welfare. McCarroll said Leath would "thoroughly review the issue" before responding.

The institute was envisioned as a destination for researchers interested in studying Harkin's four decades in Congress, but it has been mired in controversy from the beginning.

The regents voted 6-2-1, with Ruth Harkin abstaining, to create the institute days before the terms of key board members expired and they were replaced by appointees of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. The approval came despite objections from Branstad and GOP lawmakers, who felt the plan was rushed and raised concerns about the ethics of naming an institute for a sitting politician.

Months later, the interim director of the Harkin Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with college officials agreeing that it would not conduct agriculture research and would focus on other areas. But that deal was reached without the knowledge of the Harkins or the institute's advisory board. Critics said it had no authority because it went against the regents' wishes.

Leath, who became ISU president in January, withdrew that document and substituted his own restrictions in the Nov. 8 memo.

Harkin Institute advisory board member Michael Gartner, who helped raise $3 million in gifts and pledges for the institute, had warned Leath in an Oct. 30 e-mail that agricultural interests "want to control who does the ag research at Iowa State." He said they want research done in the College of Agriculture, where they have close ties.

But economics professor Bruce Babcock, who directed CARD until last year, disputed the claim that its research favored "Big Agriculture." He said its studies have been critical of the nation's crop insurance program, commodity subsidies for farmers and tax credits for blenders of ethanol.

"CARD is probably the most scholarly, objective, prominent university-based agriculture policy research center in the world," he said. "We wouldn't have that reputation if we were in the pocket of one group or another."


Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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