Sen. Tom Harkin abandoned plans Tuesday to donate his papers to a namesake institute at Iowa State University after a power struggle between his supporters and university leaders over the scope of its research.
Harkin said in a letter released Tuesday night that he would not give papers covering his 30 years in the Senate and 10 years in the House to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State, his alma mater.
Harkin agreed to donate them before the institute was created in 2011, but he said he was backing out after it became clear he could not trust university leaders to allow unrestricted academic freedom at the institute.
“I regret that this did not work out as we had all hoped at the beginning,” he said.
University President Steven Leath said he was extremely disappointed and called Harkin’s claims about academic freedom “completely unfounded and false.”
Drake University in Des Moines has expressed interest in housing Harkin’s papers. In his letter to Leath, Harkin said he and his family would decide where the papers end up.
Harkin’s letter was released minutes after the institute’s advisory board voted 5-1 to recommend that he scrap his planned gift.
Board members’ claims that the university was unfairly restricting research were disputed by the institute’s director, political science professor David Peterson. He insisted there would be no restrictions on research or public access to Harkin’s papers, which were to be housed in a special collection at the university library and digitized.
Harkin, a Democrat who decided last month against running for a sixth Senate term in 2014, was not satisfied.
“The Harkin Institute’s advisory board now has informed me they think these proposals have damaged the institute to such an extent that it would never be able to flourish at Iowa State,” he wrote. “I have come to agree.”
The Iowa Board of Regents approved the institute in April 2011 to house Harkin’s papers and study public policy over the objections of Republicans, who argued it was an improper way to honor a sitting senator. An ISU email later released suggested that Harkin’s wife, Ruth, a regent, pushed Iowa State to present plans for the board’s approval before terms of two key Harkin allies expired and they were replaced with Republican appointees.
The institute has been dogged by controversy ever since. Harkin backers and university officials have feuded for months over the scope of its research, while Harkin has faced questions about his role in fundraising.
The research dispute started last summer when the Harkins and the board learned university officials had signed a memorandum of understanding that barred the institute from studying agriculture, even though Harkin played a role in passing farming legislation and chaired the Senate agriculture committee.
Leath withdrew the memo in November, substituting his own restrictions allowing the institute to conduct agriculture research only if it related to Harkin’s papers and was approved by the school’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development.
When Harkins and the board continued to protest, Leath issued a new policy saying institute research focusing on subjects found elsewhere on campus “is expected to be planned, conducted and published in a cooperative, collaborative manner.”
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad backed Leath on Monday, saying that Iowa State should speak with “one voice” when it comes to agriculture research.
Peterson, the professor who directs the institute, called the latest rule “bureaucratic linedrawing” that would in no way restrict research. He noted that professors cherish academic freedom and would be outraged if it was restricted.
The dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Beatte Schmittman, also insisted there were no restrictions. She cast the lone vote against the recommendation that Harkin’s papers go elsewhere.
Advisory board member Sally Pedersen, a Democrat and former lieutenant governor, said Harkin backers no longer trusted the administration to make the institute a success.
“There have been a series of incidents that have eroded confidence and I think created an environment where the institute just can’t thrive,” she said. “The well has been poisoned at Iowa State.”
Pederson helped lead a fundraising drive that raised $3.3 million in pledges for the institute, and questions have been raised about Harkin’s influence.
The largest donors included a South Korean businessman and his Cedar Rapids-based metals company that stand to benefit from a Harkin proposal to eliminate the $1 bill in favor of a coin. Emails show Harkin’s top campaign fundraiser gave ISU a list of individuals and businesses to solicit, but Harkin said he hadn’t personally asked for any donations.Pederson dismissed that Harkin wants to transfer the institute to a private university that would have less scrutiny. She said she believed he would require donors to be made public wherever the institute landed, and that gifts already received could be transferred.