DES MOINES—In an orchestrated blitz, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and his wife Ruth, a member of the state Board of Regents, “blindsided” the director of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy and the Iowa State administration by announcing plans to renege on Harkin’s offer to donate his papers to his alma mater.
The Harkin Institute advisory board, packed with a majority of Democrats loyal to Harkin, voted 5-1 (with Ruth Harkin and former Iowa State University President Greg Geoffroy abstaining) to recommend that Sen. Harkin take his papers elsewhere. It’s not clear whether Ruth is even on the advisory board. Geoffroy appointed her the board without consulting Leath, who has the authority to appoint board members.
Minutes later, Harkin sent a letter to Iowa State President Steven Leath confirming his decision to effectively take his ball and go home—or to another academic institution.
Logistical issues remain unresolved. For example, about $1.6 million of donor funds has been transferred to Iowa State for the Harkin Institute. Harkin’s decision only affects his papers; he does not have the authority to shut down the Harkin Institute or to transfer funds either to another institution or back to donors.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Sally Pederson, a former Democratic lieutenant governor and a fundraiser for the Harkin Institute. “[The advisory board] has no governing authority. Those decisions would be up to the university, but I can’t imagine any foundation that would try to hold on to donor funds that have been raised with donor intent.” Pederson also said that a “reputable” university would not keep the money.
However, Iowa State doesn’t have full discretion over what to do with donor funds earmarked for the Harkin Institute. The institute was authorized by the Board of Regents in April 2011. In a statement sent to reporters Tuesday evening, Leath said that he “cannot say at this time whether the Harkin Institute will continue to function,” noting that “any change to significantly alter its status, including closure, must be made by the [Board of Regents].”
TheIowaRepublican.com has previously reported that Iowa State does not have a contingency plan to address donor transfers. Bill Knapp, who has pledged $500,000 to the Harkin Institute, said that some donors might have given money intended for Iowa State while others intended to benefit Harkin.
“As far as my commitment is concerned, I would transfer to Drake,” Knapp said in December. “It’s up to Iowa State [how to deal with donor funds that have already been transferred]. Some [donors] might not want to give money to Iowa State. A lot of times [when] you give money, it might be because you really like Harkin or you think it will be great for the university that gets it.”
Leath forcefully responded to the Harkins’ allegations that his administration restricts academic freedom.
“The criticism that my Jan. 2, 2013 guideline for research conducted by the Harkin Institute violates principles of academic freedom is completely unfounded and false,” he said. “In reality, my directive lifted any and all restrictions originally placed upon the Harkin Institute (which were adopted prior to my arrival at Iowa State), and instead simply requested that the institute function in a cooperative and collaborative manner with existing units on campus Surprisingly, even that request has been considered unacceptable by certain institute stakeholders. I should also note that the University’s Chief Academic Officer [Provost Jonathan Wickert], faculty leadership and even the director of the institute itself, have all voiced their support for my position, and all have stated that academic freedom is not being challenged or tested with respect to the institute… I want to reassure all Iowans that academic freedom is and always will be respected and upheld at Iowa State University.”
Advisory board members seemed to have already made up their minds before the meeting Monday.
Geoffroy sent an email to reporters Jan. 29 saying that he canceled the advisory board meeting for Feb. 4, citing his travel schedule (Michael Gartner, a board member and the owner of the Iowa Cubs, is reportedly vacationing at his Hawaii residence). Geoffroy then scheduled a 5 p.m. teleconference Tuesday. For past meetings, Geoffroy has provided an agenda, but one was not provided for this meeting. Peterson and an Iowa State spokesman had no idea what the meeting would cover just minutes before it started.
Ruth Harkin, Gartner and Sally Pederson repeated the same mantra of talking points that Sen. Harkin used in weekend interviews on Iowa Public Television and WHO-TV’s “Insiders.”
“Regrettably, I have decided not to sign over to Iowa State University my papers from my 10 years in the United States House of Representatives and nearly 30 years in the United States Senate,” Harkin wrote to Leath. “Instead, my family and I will decide where these papers ultimately end up.”
Geoffroy opened the meeting by saying advisory board members told him that they planned to tell Sen. Harkin to abandon his plans to donate his papers to Iowa State. Pederson then made a motion to that effect from a prepared statement.
“While we were excited about the establishment of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy at Iowa State University, we believe that issues that have arisen regarding unrestricted research and academic freedom have made it impossible for the institute to flourish at Iowa State,” she said.”Therefore, we sadly and reluctantly recommend to Sen. Tom Harkin, that he not go through with the university’s request to donate his papers to his alma mater.”
Peterson, the institute’s director and a political science director, strenuously objected.
“I’m confused as to the nature of the problem,” Peterson said. “I have no idea what possible restriction could be in this memorandum. As the director, and as the one public policy researcher on the phone, I don’t understand how this could in any way, shape or form be envisioned as a restriction.”
Gartner than blamed Peterson for signing the initial memo in Sept. 2011 that restricted agricultural research at the Harkin Institute (Peterson has said he mistakenly thought the Harkins knew about the memo). Leath, who was not the president at ISU at that time, then lifted those restrictions in Jan. and merely directed that the Harkin Institute coordinate and collaborate with other centers although individual faculty and researchers would have no restrictions. The papers would also be digitally archived by the university library and available to anyone free online.
Gartner insisted that the “well has been poisoned.” Beate Schmittmann, the dean of ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, backed up Peterson and said that she didn’t understand the Harkins’ concerns over academic freedom, noting that previous Harkin Institute events went smoothly, well-attended, and without controversy. She asked advisory board members to reconsider.
“I just don’t feel that we have been given the kind of assurances that are needed to feel confident,” Sally Pederson said. “This is disappointing to me. Iowa State is my alma mater. I know that Sen. Harkin would like to have his papers there, but I just can’t in good conscience feel that… the institute can be a thriving institute within the envionrment that’s been created.”
Peterson again objected, blaming the implosion of the Harkin Institute on the constant stream of unfounded allegations from the Harkins, Gartner and Pederson.
“With all due respect, I’m the one on the ground. I’m the one dealing with academics. I’m the one figuing out how academics are reacting to the environment around the Harkin Institute and honestly, it’s not the memo of understanding that’s been creating headaches and problems,” he said. “Some of the accuasations of limits of academic freedom, which, I think one face are wrong, and I find it a little bit personally insulting that I’m involved in trying to limiting academic freedom.”
Ruth Harkin and Sally Pederson did not mention their concerns to Peterson Monday at the Harkin Institute symposium, where they complimented him for doing a “great job.” Peterson found it puzzling that they didn’t discuss their concerns in person or their plans to move the institute.
“I was blindsided,” Peterson said. “I felt blindsided when I was not told what the agenda of the meeting was. I had no idea. II was not given an opportunity to think about it or prepare ahead,” he said. “I wish [Ruth] would have said something to me last night at the even or at dinner to let me know that this was coming.”
This story was updated at 12:05 p.m.
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