The president of Iowa State University’s student government challenged Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, about academic freedom issues that Harkin used as a justification to renege on his offer to donate his papers from his U.S. Senate and House career to his alma mater.
At Harkin’s weekly Wednesday breakfast for constituents, held annually when the Senate is in session, he brought up the continuing controversy over the institute. Three people who attended the meeting said that Harkin vehemently blamed ISU President Steven Leath for imposing requirements that the institute cooperate with other ISU centers on research.
“Well, I think you’re wrong,” Knight said, according to one participant. He said that he read Leath’s memo on the Harkin Institute and agreed with faculty and the ISU administration that no legitimate academic freedom concerns existed.
Knight, a senior majoring in political science from Mount Vernon, is a Democrat, but the student leader has used his non-partisan position to advocate for all students.
Knight declined to comment on the exchange in an interview Thursday, but he said that he told Harkin that he disagreed with his decision to pull his papers.
“I expressed my disappointment,” he said. “Having his papers there would have been a great way to commemorate his service to the country and Iowa State.”
“I also expressed to the senator that it’s really students who are losing out. They won’t have the opportunity to do research on the original documents. It’s just a disappointing situation all-around.”
The meeting of student leaders was organized to discuss education and research funding for Big 12 universities, but Harkin spent most of the breakfast ranting about his namesake institute.
“Harkin was cool on education [issues], but we mostly talked about his papers,” wrote a student who participated in the breakfast but who didn’t want to be identified. “LOL.” The student thought it was odd that Harkin would bring up the issue unprompted.
The meeting with students came a day after Harkin’s wife, Ruth Harkin, a member of the Iowa Board of Regents, met with Michael Gartner, the owner of the Iowa Cubs and a Harkin Institute advisory board member, in Washington, D.C. Neither Gartner nor Harkin responded to requests for comment about the purpose of the meeting, which took place Tuesday over the lunch hour at Union Station near the U.S. Capitol.
Iowa State administrators provided an updated list of donors to the Harkin Institute as of the end of February. Only two donors—Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy and Denver-based lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP—officially withdrew their contributions. Pres. Leath plans to recommend a course of action for the Harkin Institute soon to the Board of Regents, as the Institute still has more than $1 million in donor funds for a public policy program.
Knight joined five other Iowa State students this week for a lobbying trip to D.C. focused on advocating for education issues. Knight and other student government leaders told lawmakers that funding research, pell grants and student loans should remain a priority despite federal austerity measures.
“Students can be an easy target at times,” Knight said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty at institutions across the countyr. At Iowa and Iowa State, research is a major part of the mission. More basic than that, it creates jobs. Maintaining those programs is very important.”
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