AMES, Iowa—Iowa State University administrators and Harkin Institute of Public Policy director David Peterson forcefully responded this weekend to statements from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, criticizing his namesake institute for restricting academic freedom. Peterson called Harkin’s concerns “insulting.”
“I said, look, in conscience, I cannot leave my papers—this is my life, this is my property, by the way—I cannot leave that to any institute where there is not full and unfettered academic freedom,” Harkin said Sunday on the “Insiders” program on WHO-TV. “That’s not the case right now.”
Sources inside and outside Iowa State’s administration told TheIowaRepublican.com this weekend that they remain baffled by Harkin’s objections and wonder why public criticisms from Harkin and allies, such as advisory board member Michael Garter, seem to coincide with Harkin Institute events (the institute will host a workshop an all-day forum at ISU’s Memorial Union today featuring political scientists and journalists). Officials in President Steven Leath’s office are “spitting nails” over Harkin’s latest statements.
The administration considers Harkin’s latest public comments a possible smokescreen to justify moving the institute to a private institution, such as Drake University in Des Moines, which is not subject to media scrutiny under Iowa’s public records law. Iowa State officials also told TheIowaRepublican.com that the university is seriously considering giving Harkin the green light to moving the institute to Drake and calling donors to request their permission to downgrade ISU’s involvement to a named professorship. Only about $1.5 million has been raised so far for the institute, well short of the $10 million needed to get the institute off the ground. ISU could, however, endow a “Harkin Professor of Public Policy” position with those funds.
Peterson, an ISU political science professor, seems weary of the semantic battles over supposed infractions of academic freedom at the Harkin Institute.
“I find the idea that I am somehow restricting academic freedom insulting—that Tom Harkin is actually defending academic freedom from me,” Peterson told TheIowaRepublican.com Sunday.
The latest guidelines issued by Leath in a memo last month are not even binding: “any public policy research conducted by the Harkin Institute focusing on areas found elsewhere on campus is expected to be planned, conducted and published in a cooperative, collaborative manner.”
“President Leath’s directive doesn’t restrict academic freedom, rather it addresses efficient management of the University,” Peterson said in a statement released Sunday to Iowa journalists in response to Harkin’s comments.
“There are no restrictions on what the Harkin Institute can do,” Peterson said. Harkin’s papers, assuming he still donates them to Iowa State, “will be archived by the university library, where any student, faculty member, or researcher will have access to them and be able to conduct any research that they like. No one will need prior permission of the institute or anyone else on campus to access Senator Harkin’s papers.”
Still, Harkin is not satisfied, describing the university’s guidelines on the institute as “shackles.” Harkin singled out Regent President Craig Lang, criticizing him for pushing for guidelines that encourage the Harkin Institute to collaborate with other academic programs on research. Lang has maintained that such guidelines will protect the world-class reputation of agricultural research centers at Iowa State and ensure that the university handles research efficiently and in the interest of science—not politics.
“This has been very painful to see this happen,” Harkin said Sunday on WHO-TV, adding that he doesn’t know if or when he might decide to transfer his papers to Drake University or another institution. “When I hear [Lang’s comments] I think, we’ll maybe that’s not a good place for all my papers.”
Harkin blamed “fierce partisans” for questioning the ethical issues raised by a sitting U.S. Senator, whose wife serves on the state Board of Regents governing Iowa State, having a public policy center, whose donors have business before Harkin’s Senate committees.
WHO-TV Host Dave Price addressed those issues during “Insiders.” A rough transcript of the segment follows:
Price: The Iowa Republican, and I know you had an exchange with one of their reporters a little bit on Friday, has talked about  the money that PMX Industries in Cedar Rapids, the international wing of this, [gave to the Harkin Institue]. Do you understand how to some people that can look kind of funky? That you’re still in Congress, this foreign company is putting in all this money to honor you at this institute—if this thing ever gets going?
Harkin: Yes, but I think people have to look behind it. First off, I want to make it very clear: I never asked anybody in that company for any money for this institute—never. How they found out about it, I’m still not certain about that. But keep in mind, this company employs several hundred people in Cedar Rapids, Dave. This is a very good company… they respect the union that is there… When I found out that they were contributing to the institute, I was very grateful for that, but I had nothing to do with it.”
Price: And your finance director [Jeremy Gold] has passed along a list to Iowa State of possible donors, but your office is saying that he didn’t compile the list; he’s just passing on numbers from somewhere else. How is that working?
Harkin: Well, I’m not certain how that all works [laughs], because this is something I didn’t have my hands on. But, as I understand it, the person  who does all my fundraising and stuff was asked, ‘Could you give a list to Iowa State because President Leath at that time said he was going to go out and raise money for this institute… and did we have suggestions and stuff. And I said well, I’ll find out. So, I asked him, I said, ‘give him names and stuff like that… “ I can’t call them. Ethically, I can’t ask them for money. They can.”
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