IOWA CITY — Bruce Rastetter — the Iowa agribusiness giant, political kingmaker, and embattled president of the Board of Regents — on Friday announced he will not seek reappointment to the public universities’ governing board.
That means his leadership will end April 30, when his first six-year term expires.
Instead of continuing on the board, Rastetter in a news release said he’ll focus his attention on his agribusiness interests in the Midwest and South America. He founded Summit Agricultural Group in 1990, today serving as CEO for the farming, agriculture investment, and farm management enterprise based in Alden.
Summit’s operations include row crop, beef cattle, and pork farms in the United States. It also is amassing a growing presence in the Brazilian biofuels market.
Rastetter, 60, also recently served on then-presidential nominee Donald Trump’s agriculture advisory team and in the Friday news release said he “hopes to remain involved in the current issues vital to farmer and agribusiness.” Those issues include international trade, the 2018 Farm Bill, and conservation and land stewardship.
In a statement, Rastetter referenced “several significant projects that we have in the initial planning stages.”
“I look forward to announcing details about them very soon,” he said.
A spokesman for Rastetter said he is not available to answer more questions, but Rastetter two weeks ago told The Gazette he’s not seeking a job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the new Trump Administration.
During his tenure atop the volunteer nine-member board that governs Iowa’s public universities, Rastetter has taken heat on a variety of issues, including potential conflicts of interest, a perceived lack of transparency, a funding proposal that could have stripped tens of millions from the University of Iowa, and the controversial hire of UI President Bruce Harreld in 2015.
Among a list of accomplishments Rastetter cited Friday:
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Two-plus years of frozen tuition for resident undergraduate students at UI, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa — marking the first consecutive freezes in nearly 40 years;
Record student enrollment at ISU and UI;
Record growth in private philanthropy;
And record number of building projects on the campuses, including at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, where a new Children’s Hospital is close to opening.
In a statement, Rastetter credited his fellow board members.
“Their efforts will benefit future generations of Iowans,” he said. “Personally, I’m most proud we were able to freeze tuition and help control the costs of a college education and rising student debt — this helped many students and parents in Iowa.”
The board in the last couple years raised resident undergraduate tuition rates after the Legislature fell short of its funding requests. And, at the start of the current legislative session, lawmakers agreed to take back $18 million from the regent universities in the current budget year as part of a $117.8 million cut in response to budget shortfalls.
The universities are in the process of responding to those cuts — which amount to $8 million for UI and ISU, and $2 million for UNI.
Rastetter in the news release said he’s proud of efforts to instill a culture of fiscal responsibility — crediting the universities, lawmakers, and governor for collaborating on financial support the public universities.
“Iowans identify with quality education,” Rastetter said. “For this legacy to continue, our universities need to build on the past and transform for tomorrow — that is how we’ll chart a bright future for higher education in Iowa.”
Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Rastetter to a six-year term on the board in 2011.
Before that appointment — and since — Rastetter developed the reputation of a political kingmaker for his campaign contributions, including gifts to Branstad locally and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nationally.
Rastetter, in fact, was among the donors who encouraged Branstad to run for re-election in 2009 — one of several connections critics cite when accusing Rastetter of conflicting interests. Rastetter, for example, came under fire last year when his company helped ISU President Steven Leath purchase land in Iowa.
In 2012, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board considered a complaint against Rastetter for his role as managing director of AgriSol Energy, a subsidiary of Summit Group. According to the complaint, which eventually was dismissed, AgriSol was working on a potential project in Tanzania with ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Regent Mike Richards, who Branstad appointed last May to replace Mary Andringa after she resigned, also has made campaign contributions to Branstad and joined Rastetter in 2009 in urging his run for re-election.
Richards, 69, has been serving on an interim basis since that appointment — since it came after the Legislature adjourned. He will be up for confirmation this session — along with board President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland and regent Sherry Bates.
Both Mulholland and Bates have filed paperwork seeking reappointment, according to records from the governor’s office.
Regent appointees must receive support from 34 senators to be confirmed, meaning — even with the Republican gains in the last election, giving them 29 members and a majority — board appointees need at least five votes from the other side of the aisle.
Although Rastetter on Friday announced he won’t seek for reappointment, he told The Gazette two weeks ago he thought he could have the necessary legislative support — should he decide to apply.
“But I have to make a decision as to whether that makes sense or not for a variety of reasons,” he said at the time.
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Since that time, unions representing employees on all three of Iowa’s public universities have filed “prohibited practice” complaints with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board accusing the state or the Board of Regents of bargaining in “bad faith.” Those allegations come as the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering a bill to gut Iowa’s collective bargaining law, and the board is declining to reach any agreements until lawmakers have their say.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, earlier this week blasted the board for bargaining in bad faith by not moving forward under existing laws and said he doesn’t view that as good board leadership.
Landon Elkind, president of the UI graduate student union — one of those that have filed a complaint against the board — has been an outspoken critic of Rastetter, including in the board’s recent collective bargaining decisions.
“The regents are refusing to meet and delaying the time at which we even have a meeting just so they can wait until the law changes and they can rip all our benefits away,” Elkind said. “That’s not the behavior of somebody who’s entrusted to protect education in this state.”
He added, “I think no state legislator in good conscience could vote to reconfirm this man.”
Going forward, Elkind said, he’s like to see the board move in a different direction — speaking specifically about those board members up for reappointment.
“They ought to indicate that the board should not follow the direction it’s taken under Bruce Rastetter,” he said. “And they should indicate that they’re willing to depart from their lack of transparency and past practice of privileging a few people on campus who are at the very top.”
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, upon hearing about Rastetter’s decision Friday thanked him for his service and wished him well. But Danielson, whose constituency includes UNI, also said he hopes the board moving forward will be more transparent.
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“I am hopeful the Board of Regents will adopt and follow a more transparent decision making process,” he said by email. “I will offer again a regents transparency and accountability bill that both current and prospective Board of Regents members will be able to show support for publicly.
“I hope they do,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Herman Quirmbach — who represents Ames and the ISU community — said he wants to credit Rastetter for his efforts to increase state support — which translated to frozen tuition and more building projects.
But, he said, the 2015 search for a new UI president — eventually hiring former IBM executive Bruce Harreld, despite widespread criticism of his lack of academic administrative experience — “was a complete fiasco.”
The board’s dismissal of faculty, student, and staff feedback in its decision to hire Harreld prompted the American Association of University Professors to sanction the university — a penalty Quirmbach said should have gone to the board.
“That was a major embarrassment in academic circles,” he said.
Rastetter, in speaking with reporters late last month, said all regent presidents have encountered some controversy. But Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, on Friday said, Rastetter has “created more division and distrust at our three public universities than any time I can remember.”
“We are still trying to fix the damage caused by his disastrous performance based funding proposal,” Bolkcom said by email.
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