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Guest Commentary

Branstad still up to his same old, dirty politics

4/3/2013

When my wife and I are among our elderly friends and I begin to tell a story, she often tells me: “You’ve already told them that one.” I agree but explain, “I know, but these old fogeys have forgotten it.”

I feel that way about Iowans who may have forgotten about the egregious attempts in the past by politicians and special interest groups to improperly influence higher education in their state.

It is happening again today.

That rascal Terry Branstad is up to his old, dirty political tricks by using cronies on the Iowa Board of Regents to pursue his and their political and business interests at the expense of the integrity and academic freedom of the state universities.

It’s a familiar, repeat scenario: Gov. Branstad forces the president of the Board of Regents to give up his position, allowing his political buddy Craig Lang, former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, to become president of the regents and Bruce Rastetter, agri-businessman, to be president pro tempore. This is shortly after Rastetter has harmed the university’s image by involving it in a scheme with his firm, Agrisol, which would have disposed 150,000 Tanzanian refugee farmers off their land. The university is forced to withdraw from the project with a damaged image.

Flash back to 1988: Branstad names his political banker, the late Marvin Pomerantz, to the regents. His aide, Doug Gross, coerces the other regents to elect Pomerantz president at his first meeting.

Flash forward to today: As president of the board, Lang — a long-time enemy of Sen. Tom Harkin — convinces newly-elected ISU President Steven Leath to reverse a regents’ agreement that would allow the Harkin Institute to engage in agricultural research. The uproar causes Leath to attempt to moderate the mandate, but the damage is done. Sen. Harkin’s papers will go elsewhere. The Harkin Institute will likely be abandoned. Iowa State’s reputation again suffers.

Monte Shaw, biofuels lobbyist, writes a letter demeaning Prof. Jerry Schnoor of the University of Iowa, as an “embarrassment” to the institution for expressing concern about the amount of Iowa water being used to produce ethanol. Regent Rastetter, an ethanol executive, forwards Shaw’s letter to University President Sally Mason and asks that a meeting be arranged to straighten out the “uniformed” Schnoor, who is a nationally respected expert in water quality and holds three degrees in engineering — more interference by Branstad’s cronies in state university affairs and embarrassment to the higher education system.

Flashback again, this time to 1943, when the National Dairymen’s Association and Farm Bureau President Francis Johnson forces ISU President Charley Friley to re-write the now famous Extension Service Pamphlet 5 which compares oleomargarine favorably with butter. The author of the report is demeaned by agri-business interests. Outraged at this intrusion on academic freedom, Ted Schultz, head of the economics department and future Nobel Prize winner, along with 15 fellow professors, resigns and leaves ISU mired in a scandal covered by the national press.

Flashback to the mid-1980s: Gov. Branstad and Doug Gross fail to pressure the late Bob Parks, president of Iowa State University into selling its television station, WOI. Later, Branstad turns the deed over to Pomerantz, who at a board meeting, demands that a reluctant President Gordon Eaton ask for bids on the station. The faculty, students, the media and most Iowans object. The Legislature passes a bill prohibiting sale of the station, which Branstad vetoes. The regents turn down all of the bids to purchase the station, but Pomerantz — behind the scenes — unilaterally negotiates a rogue bid for the station, which he and the governor pressure the regents to approve. The governor again meddles into the operation of the state universities.

Fast forward: Gov. Branstad re-nominates Lang and nominates Robert Cramer, another political cohort, to the Board of Regents.

Flash back to 1993: The Iowa Senate defeats the re-nomination of Marvin Pomerantz to the Board of Regents.

May history repeat itself by virtue of the wisdom of the Iowa Senate in the defeat of Lang and Robert Cramer with the support of Iowans who recall the damage that has already been done to the state university system through political cronyism.

Don’t let that rascal, Terry, get away with it again. CV

Bill Kunerth is a professor emeritus at Iowa State University. He currently lives in Belle Fourche, S.D.

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