University chancellor proposed to 'de-politicize' higher education

Iowa Sen. Jack Hatch cites Harkin Institute as example of incapapble officials

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DES MOINES – A state senator wants to create an office of chancellor to oversee Iowa’s three state universities and insulate them from political influences within the Iowa Board of Regents.

Under Senate File 136 offered by Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, the three regent university presidents would still be selected by the governing board, but then report directly to the newly created chancellor, who in turn would report to the regents’ governing board. The chancellor would be appointed by the governor to serve a four-year term and would be subject to confirmation by a two-thirds majority of the Iowa Senate.

“This would be one of the top seeking jobs in the country,” said Hatch, with the responsibility of guiding the academics of more than 60,000 students on three Iowa campuses, coordinating research and university policies and directing a higher education system for the future. The system would build on the existing structure so it would not create a new bureaucracy, he added.

“It’s just inserting an authority figure who will then protect the university presidents from outside political interests. It will also allow the three state universities to really act as one higher education system and not compete with each other when it’s not in our interest and keep the politics – both from the governor’s and the legislative views – out of it,” Hatch said.

The bill calls for the proposed chancellor to serve as the chief executive officer of the Iowa higher education system, which is comprised of the three state universities governed by the state Board of Regents. The chancellor would be the primary link between the state board and the university presidents on matters of board policy and institutional operations, ensuring that all policies related to the system are uniformly carried out in a fair and equitable manner.

Hatch said he is proposing the new higher education governance structure because the Board of Regents “for a very long time has been incapable of keeping politics out of the universities and protecting the administration.” He said the most recent examples have been the handling of the proposed Harkin Institute at Iowa State University and the lack of collaboration and coordination of technology transfer policy at two of the nation’s premiere public research universities in Iowa City and Ames.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced that he will not be donating the work papers from his 40-year career in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate to Iowa State University, saying the decision was influenced by what he perceived to be restrictions that would impede “full and unfettered” academic freedom regarding his congressional documents. The Harkin Institute’s advisory board also recommended that Harkin not donate his papers to ISU, his alma mater.

ISU President Steven Leath issued a statement expressing his disappointment with the outcome, but indicated he has “sincerely tried to resolve differences over the operation of the Harkin Institute” and refuted allegations that the guidelines he had established for the institute has violated the principles of academic freedom.

Five-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad gave Leath a strong vote of confidence this week in the controversy over the research to be conducted at The Harkin Institute.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said Wednesday that “the governor supports Dr. Leath and does not believe it is appropriate for legislators to politicize the Harkin Institute issue.”

Regarding Hatch’s legislation to create an office of chancellor to administer the Iowa higher education system, Albrecht said: “The Board of Regents is in place to oversee the Iowa’s state-run universities, and it is an accountable system that has worked well for many decades. The governor does not believe additional burdensome bureaucracy is needed when it comes to our state universities.”

Albrecht’s comment came on a day when Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, took to the Senate floor to decry “unnecessary meddling” by regents’ board in the Harkin Institute decision.

“Given the long service of Sen. Harkin, it frankly seems to me to be quite disrespectful to not be able to come to some agreement on this,” he said. “I think it’s a shame and I’m extraordinarily disappointed by this development and I hope that Sen. Harkin and his institute can find a home here in Iowa where it will be welcomed.”

Regents President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter, a prominent Iowa agribusinessman and GOP campaign contributor appointed by Branstad, told a news conference held during the board’s meeting in West Des Moines on Wednesday that he believed board oversight of the universities is “working very well.”

“We have an executive director. I would have to understand what the legislation would do in terms of the chancellor, that I understand would be politically appointed,” he said. “We have worked very hard at oversight, not micromanagement. And so I think that will continue to be the direction of the board. We will look at the proposal and will be weighing in on that in the coming weeks. The executive director already exists. We have to understand how the new role of chancellor would affect the existing role of executive director of the Board of Regents.”

University of Iowa President Sally Mason sounded a cautionary note regarding the chancellor legislation. "That's news to me. We've certainly heard ideas like that shared before. These are board decisions. But I would look at other (university) systems very carefully before making changes like that, and consider the expense as well,” she said.

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Diane Heldt of The Gazette contributed to this story

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