DES MOINES – The future of Brooklyn dairy farmer Craig Lang’s tenure on the state Board of Regents was uncertain Monday after an hour-long meeting that some Senate Democrats crucial to his reconfirmation said raised more questions than were answered.
“I think it was a mixed bag,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, following a confirmation hearing in which Lang was peppered by majority Democrats about the handling of the ill-fated Harkin Institute at Iowa State University, a contract extension for University of Iowa President Sally Mason, and the influence of politics on the board that oversees Iowa’s three public universities and two special schools.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, which hosted Lang for the hour-long discussion, said he was not “entirely satisfied” with Lang’s explanation of the controversy over academic freedom that led U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to decide in January that he would not leave his professional papers from four decades in Congress with his alma mater, Iowa State University.
Lang, who was reappointed by Gov. Terry Branstad, assured state senators that ISU and the regents are committed to maintaining academic freedom of its scientifically based research, and he said comments he made that ISU should speak with “one voice” on agriculture issues were misconstrued by the media. But the regent president surprised legislators by confiding that he had not read a key ISU memorandum of understanding that weighed heavily in the Harkin Institute controversy.
“I think that’s a problem,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who raised concerns over how Lang could vote to oppose the institute having never read a crucial document tied to proposal.
“Frankly, I don’t know how you can claim to be competent and know what’s going on if you haven’t bothered to read the document that created the controversy and the problem,” said McCoy, who added that Lang “absolutely” faces a problem getting the 34 votes to meet the two-thirds affirmative majority needed be reconfirmed.
“I think it’s an uphill sludge for him. I don’t know how it happens,” McCoy said after the meeting.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, expressed concern that people in Johnson County believe the regents have “a vendetta” against Mason, who he said was “dealt a really bad deck of cards” with the 2008 flood and fiscal challenges related to reductions in state funding for state universities.
“There’s too much flogging out there of President Mason and I think it has to stop,” he said. “I think she’s doing a good job. I think she’s improving. I think things are improving.”
Lang said he fully supports Mason, and the regents’ decision last year not to renew Mason’s contract was similar to approaches taken with other university presidents that “to us was not a big deal” but was treated differently by media reports.
During his presentation to committee members, Lang said he was pleased the regents were able to freeze tuition for in-state students and succeeded in convincing lawmakers to increase state funding at universities. He said the state share of university funding has slipped to 39 percent and he would like to see that return to 51 percent but conceded it may take a number of years to get there.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor reappointed Lang, a former Iowa Farm Bureau Federation president, because he has been “a strong and remarkable leader” of the Iowa regents. He cited the proposed student tuition freeze for the first time in decades and searches for new presidents at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa as evidence of that leadership.
“Craig Lang has the governor’s full support and confidence, and we look forward to his leadership on the regents moving forward. The last thing Iowa needs is to make Craig Lang’s appointment a political battle,” Albrecht said in a statement. “We hope that Senate Democrats don’t turn this into a Washington, D.C.-style political battle and will instead work with the governor to confirm Craig Lang to another term at the Iowa Board of Regents.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, said she thought Lang “did fine” and showed himself to be a “very conscientious person” during Monday’s hearing. She expected all 24 Senate Republicans would support his reconfirmation.
“I think if you were a Republican, you thought he did a great job. I think if you were a Democrat, you thought ‘oh, wow, I really want to get him.’ The Harkin Institute really seemed to be a sticking point with a lot of people,” Ernst said. She added she hoped he would be reconfirmed but added “I’m not sure how many votes we’ll have coming up in the Democratic caucus.”