Harkin Scandal

December 18th, 2012

Harkins fight quixotic battle with ISU over ‘academic freedom’

Former Harvard University professor Henry Kissinger once quipped that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), his wife Ruth, a member of the Board of Regents, and Michael Gartner, a former regents president, seem hellbent on proving the adage by waging rhetorical war with Iowa State University over a memo.

ISU faculty seem content with a common sense compromise crafted by President Steven Leath in a contentious clash over research guidelines at the Harkin Institute of Public Policy. The Harkins insist that any guidelines governing the institute are unacceptable, threatening to move the institute to Drake University if ISU doesn’t back down.

The Harkins and Gartner continue to criticize Leath for allegedly restricting agriculture research to favor conservative agricultural interests. Many observers have called such concerns unfounded, as the guidelines proposed by Leath require Harkin Institute scholars to simply coordinate research with a center partly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—whose secretary is former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Jonathan Wickert

ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert

ISU Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert addressed the controversy last week at the monthly meeting of the faculty senate. After the public dispute between liberal backers of the Harkin Institute and ISU administrators erupted in the media this month, Wickert felt it was important to raise the issue before the faculty. He stressed that Leath continues attempts to broker a compromise and that all faculty, students and others will have full and unrestricted access to Harkin’s cache of documents from his tenure as a lawmaker.

“I have not had faculty coming to me expressing concerns over this issue,” Wickert said Monday in an interview with TheIowaRepublican.com. “They know that if they do have concerns they can come to me. But it simply has not been an issue… My door is always open.”

Wickert stressed that Harkin’s papers will be digitized and available to anyone through the campus library. ISU’s commitment is to ensure faculty can freely pursue research in their areas of expertise, and individual faculty will make the choice of whether they want to affiliate with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD) or the Harkin Institute, Wickert said.

“President Leath has been in discussions with the advisory board of the Harkin Institute and the Board of Regents to put into place an agreement for how the new institute should interact, collaborate and connect with the pre-existing center [CARD] we have on campus,” Wickert said at the meeting, according to Inside Iowa State, an electronic newspaper for faculty and staff. “Why would we want to create another that would duplicate it, or perhaps even diminish or undermine it?”

In the fall of 2011, ISU administrators drafted a memorandum governing cooperation between CARD and the Harkin Institute, which precluded the institute from conducting ag research. After Leath assumed ISU’s presidency in February, he liberalized the restrictions with a replacement directive requiring the Harkin Institute to coordinate agricultural research with CARD.

Suzanne Hendrich

ISU Faculty Senate President Suzanne Hendrich

Two of the strongest advocates for academic freedom at ISU have downplayed the Harkins’ concerns. Faculty senate president Suzanne Hendrich and Prof. Mack Shelley, the leader of a faculty group focused on defending academic freedom, both seem to think that the dispute is a nothing burger. In contrast, the Harkins want ISU to eat whatever [expletive] sandwich of demands that they propose. Ruth Harkin, who as a regent oversees Leath, subtly threatened him in emails referring to messy battles between regents and presidents at other universities.

Much ado about nothing?

“We met during finals week and most faculty members have other concerns that are occupying their thoughts,” Hendrich wrote in an email to TheIowaRepublican.com. “As a senate, we sometimes need to make decisions about overlapping or competing academic program interests when new degree programs are proposed; the principle is that consultation is supposed to be sought by the proposer [the Harkin Institute] in the approval process.”

ISU political science professor Mack Shelley told the Ames Tribune that it’s “‘pretty normal’ to set boundaries for academic departments.” Shelley, who leads the ISU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—the guardians of academic freedom on campus. The dispute is not “first and foremost an academic freedom issue,” according to the AAUP’s seven-member committee, which views the clash as a political conflict.

“Frankly, it seems like the faculty perspective was being brought in as part of the political discussion,” he told the Tribune. “Academic freedom is certainly a relevant consideration, but this doesn’t quite seem to be the driver behind this particular discussion. [It] has a whole lot more to do with the exercise of power behind the scenes.”

ISU administrators have worked diligently to forge a compromise with the Harkins, who have rejected every offer and publicly bashed Leath, who carefully explained his position in a Sunday op-ed. At the same time, Sen. Harkin refuses to comment on the flip side of the academic freedom controversy—what documents will be included in his papers?

Sen. Harkin refuses to comment

On Harkin’s weekly call with Iowa journalists, TheIowaRepublican.com asked him to describe the papers he planned on donating because his correspondence is not public or subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and subject to filtering by his staff.

“As I said, I made a statement last week, and that’s all I’ll say about it,” Harkin said. “Period.”

Senate committee documents and personal office documents are regulated differently, according to Elisabeth Butler, the Deputy Archivist in the Senate Historical Office. The papers from Senate offices are Senators’ private property. Personal papers are typically embargoed for up to 20 years, she said.

“It’s really up to [Harkin] and the repository [ISU] to set those restrictions,” Butler said in a phone interview last week with TheIowaRepublican.com. The documents of Senate committees are public property by Senate rules and statute. There’s a 20-50 rule: legislative and oversight records are embargoed for 20 years before they can be released. Nominations and investigations must be embargoed for 50 years. Historians typically send the documents to the National Archives.

But Harkin doesn’t even have the authority to transfer committee documents for the past 20 years, limiting the volume of information available to researchers. Furthermore, minutes from the institute’s advisory board meeting show that the organization has not yet proposed any research projects or crafted bylaws relating to such research.

After consulting with several sources on campus, TheIowaRepublican.com was able to identify only one ISU professor, who declined to speak on the record, with serious concerns about academic freedom relating to the Harkin Institute. However, his concerns stemmed around the perception of the controversy, which Gartner and the Harkins have hyped with op-eds in the Des Moines Register and acerbic public comments.

“Giving one institute authority over another gives the appearance of constraining the academic freedom of ISU researchers, whether it does so in fact or not,” the professor said, adding that the MOU is essentially unenforceable in the context of the faculty handbook. “Even the appearance of such constraint is sufficient to create the reality.”

About the Author

Jeff Patch

Jeff Patch is a correspondent for TheIowaRepublican.com. He’s a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at] theiowarepublican.com.

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