Banning Ag Research at Iowa State

Michael Gartner has an excellent op-ed in the Des Moines Register today about the serious threat to academic freedom posed by Iowa State president Steve Leath, who has banned the Harkin Institute from conducting research on agriculture without getting the approval of another research institute on campus, the Center for Agricultural Research and Development (CARD). It’s a story of the disturbing influence of agribusiness on the study of agriculture on campus, one with a long history of violating academic freedom at Iowa State.

The Harkin Institute was originally approved by the Board of Regents in 2011 with agriculture listed among several topics for its work. But last year, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the director of the Harkin Institute and other administrators that omitted agriculture. Gartner and others on the advisory board of the Harkin Institute objected when they learned about this change, and asked Leath to intervene.

Leath’s Nov. 8 memo in response presents a dire threat to academic freedom because it goes far beyond the Memorandum of Understanding, and actually bans any research on agriculture by the Harkin Institute without CARD’s approval: “Any public policy research conducted by the Harkin Institute focusing on agriculture shall be directly related to Senator Harkin’s official papers and must be coordinated with CARD and reports issued jointly.” Leath goes even further by banning research that’s merely “related” to agriculture: “To the extent that the Harkin Institute may conduct public policy research related to agriculture but not specifically in the field of agriculture, CARD must approve these projects and play the lead role.” And Leath goes further still by eternally banning any work in agriculture, even if CARD approves it, if it’s not directly related to a particular set of papers: “The Harkin Institute must not conduct any work in the area of agriculture that is not directly related to Senator Harkin’s papers and also approved by CARD.”

These are not mere suggestions or recommendations that you might find in a typical dispute over academic turf. These are explicit prohibitions on academic research based solely on content, and Leath is emphatic that his commands are not to be disobeyed: “I cannot emphasize how important these directives are to meet our obligations to the state and our constituencies.”

Nor did Leath accidentally step over the boundaries of academic freedom. He issued this memo after Gartner had written him a letter in late October explaining the dangers. Here’s the full text of Gartner’s letter:

Dear Steve,

About 70 years ago, there was a fight over academic freedom that tore the university apart for years to come. It is not unlike the issue you now face with the Harkin Institute and agricultural research.

The issue in the early 1940s was ostensibly about a research paper an economics scholar at Iowa State wrote during the war recommending American families substitute more margarine for butter as part of the war effort, helping to ensure the supply of dairy products for soldiers. All hell broke loose.

The fight boiled down to whether research was to be controlled by the Farm Bureau and the Dairy Association, and shaped to its views, or whether it was to be free and in the interests of the nation and the people. The American Association of University Professors and the ACLU got involved, though neither had an official investigation. Iowa State College was raked over the coals in the national press. At the time, Iowa State had an enormously well-regarded Department of Economics — indeed it gave its name to the “Ames School” of academic economics — and it had links to the Rockefeller Foundation (which provided funding for a series of research papers, including the one on margarine) and others.

But the administration — President Friley and the head of Extension — basically sided with those seeking to reshape the academic paper and suppress academic freedom, and the place was decimated. “Between 1943 and 1945, 16 of 26 ISC economists left the school,” notes an article in The Annals of Iowa (Winter 2008). “Still more departed over the next few years. By about 1948, the Ames School of economics had vanished. The campus-wide level of discontent turned…severe….” Several of those who left went to the University of Chicago, where they were instrumental in developing the “Chicago School” of economics. Two of the departees from Iowa State, including the main player, went on to win Nobel Prizes.

Rereading the article this weekend helped clarify the current situation for me: It isn’t about the Harkin papers but rather about who has access to them. Ag interests now as then simply want to control who does the ag research at Iowa State, and clearly they want it in the School of Agriculture because that school is firmly in tune with — that’s more polite than saying in bed with — and supported by and under the thumb of the Farm Bureau and other organizations. It perhaps gives historical perspective as to why Craig Lang, a former head of the Iowa Farm Bureau, and Bruce Rastetter, a corporate ag guy, are so intransigent on this.

It took decades for Iowa State to recover from the academic-freedom issue of the 1940s. It would be a disaster were history to repeat itself.

I am 74 years old and know this state, its institutions and its political rhythms reasonably well. If the Memorandum of Understanding is not scuttled, here is what I think will happen:

There will be stories about the Board of Regents interfering with academic freedom at Iowa State — a huge and unprecedented issue.

Sen. Harkin, who was asked by the university for his papers, obviously will say that  he knew nothing about the Memorandum of Understanding and that he can’t be a party to suppression of research or the limiting of access to his papers and will withdraw his offer. (He has not yet officially signed over the papers.) He will say the understanding always was his papers would be available to anyone looking into any field covered by his papers, as the document trail through the Board of Regents process in accepting the papers clearly shows. And he will note that agriculture is a major component of his papers, again a fact made clear in the resolutions and paperwork that passed through the Board of Regents. He has no other choice.

The university then will have to return or decline between $3 million and $4 million in contributions and commitments from donors.

The university will be damaged as it seeks grants from corporations and, especially, governments as questions of integrity hover over this major research university.

The Board of Regents, which existed for decades without being politicized, will suddenly become viewed as yet another political body, and one that micromanages for political ends. This will damage all three Regents institutions and Regents Lang and Rastetter in particular.

Reappointment of any current Regent will become a political fight — with negative connotations for Iowa State — as Democrats seek to block appointments.

The reputation of Iowa State University will take a big hit — a hit that will affect recruitment of students and solicitation of donors.

The reputation of new ISU President Steve Leath will take a big hit just as he hits the ground in his new job.

The state will have another University of Virginia situation on its hands.

There are no winners in this situation, Steve. The Memorandum of Understanding is a time bomb.

The professor who founded the Ames School and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1979 was Theodore W. Schultz. Nine years ago, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Clifton Wharton — who studied under Schultz at Chicago and went on to become president of Michigan State — recalled the controversy. “Major efforts were made to squelch the report, but Ted Schultz, citing academic freedom and the dangers of censoring research, held firm and refused….When the college administration proposed withdrawing the article, Schultz spoke out unsuccessfully against the action and resigned in protest.” He was working “to establish a place for unbiased policy analysis at ISC,” the Annals of History article noted. And, in fact, that is exactly what the Harkin Institute was designed to be. What a tragedy that it has been shackled.

I apologize for the length of this note, and I regret having to write it.

Best wishes,

Michael Gartner

4 thoughts on “Banning Ag Research at Iowa State

  1. “Lux et Veritas” may be good enough for Harvard, but here in Iowa academic inquiry dances to a different tune–and at Iowa State, that tune is played by the Farm Bureau and related corporate interests. Leath is their boy, and nothing will change that, not as long as ISU staff and faculty remain cowed by their economic dependency on the institution. Money talks, bullshit (and, here in Iowa, pig shit) walks–when it doesn’t simply float downt he Mississippi to the Gulf, along with the rest of iowa’s corporate “bounty.”

    • +1, Dennis Smith! Actually though, Harvard University is also subject to political corruption. Take former Harvard president Larry Summers, for example. To find out more, I highly recommend Charles H. Ferguson’s chapter on “The Ivory Tower” in his acclaimed book, “Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America.”

      I kind of like the title of the “No Asshole Rule” book about academia, too, but I’ve never read it. Own it, but haven’t read it. It’s probably way too depressing.

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