Guest Column: How many more examples do we need? Support academic freedom and Senate Study Bill 1163

Amy Alesch

Gov. Terry Branstad recently stated that Iowa State should speak with “one voice” and have “one mission” when it comes to agricultural research. Branstad’s comment identifies a political agenda that has constrained diverse research and open dialogue on our campus. His comment not only mistakes the mission of Iowa State to serve the people of Iowa and its core value of intellectual freedom, it implies that diverse and, perhaps, even dissenting ideas regarding agricultural research are not welcome at Iowa State. Bruce Rastetter’s recent attempt to “educate” Jerald Schnoor, University of Iowa professor, about the nature of his research and the Regents’ pressure to limit the scope of research at Iowa State’s Harkin Institute illustrate the need for greater protection of academic freedom and diversity at our Iowa universities in the face of political influence from our Regents. We refuse to let such overstepping set precedent that such actions are acceptable.

As we have witnessed through recent events, diverse voices are treated as threatening rather than strengthening academic dialogue at our public universities. In addition to Rastetter’s email and the pulling of Sen. Tom Harkin’s papers, we have seen this same pressure to speak with “one voice” in the examples of the 2009 Leopold Center director search in which “cows eat grass” became a controversial statement, the discouragement of questions on campus regarding Iowa State’s then-partnership in Regent Rastetters’ AgriSol project in 2012, or the university and Regents’ support of the “Beef is Beef” beef industry rally at Iowa State last spring. Branstad and others in power are successfully shaping “one voice” at Iowa State in regards to agricultural research — the voice of the corporate agricultural lobby.

In their argument against mandatory conservation regulations, the Iowa Farm Bureau publicly states that there is not a “one-size-fits-all solution” to water quality improvement because we have great diversity in soils and landscapes across Iowa. How can we expect Iowa State to produce the research needed for such a diverse landscape if we must speak with only one voice? The Farm Bureau’s statement highlights how the corporate agricultural lobby values diversity when politically convenient (as in fear of federal intervention or regulation) yet, as illustrated through recent events at the University of Iowa and Iowa State, uses their connections and influence to discourage diversity when it questions their agenda. Is this really about diversity? Or a political agenda that furthers private gain over public good?

As many of us who are students and faculty at Iowa State know, we do not speak with “one voice.” Our agricultural research engages a diversity of perspectives and questions, as research at a public university should. Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State, recently spoke in praise of diversity in regards to the hiring of Theressa Cooper, new assistant dean of diversity in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Wintersteen described the hire as an example of how the college is “reaching out and increasing diversity because diversity brings strength, different ideas, different viewpoints, and different ideas brings in innovation.” We applaud Wintersteen’s statement and look forward to a continued emphasis on the cultivation of diversity of both research and thought at Iowa State. We need your help to create a campus welcoming to the diversity of ideas, viewpoints and innovation highlighted in our dean’s statement.

This is an issue of academic freedom that is important to the present and future of our university, no matter what party you belong or don’t belong to politically. Why? Because the examples listed above jeopardize the credibility of our institution and the value of our degrees. Iowa State’s research and reputation are strengthened by diverse and even differing perspectives, world views and approaches. “One voice” weakens Iowa State’s potential to address very real concerns such as climate change, childhood hunger, declining rural communities, or water impairment. ISU faculty, staff and students, we need your support as we stand up to this pressure to speak with “one voice.” Citizens of Iowa, we need you to write your senators in support of Senate Study Bill 1163, the Regents Accountability and Transparency Act, to prevent some of the real or perceived threats to academic freedom that have occurred during the last few years.

Perhaps when we begin to see agricultural research through this diversity of ideas, diversity of students and researchers, and diversity of systems, we might be able to celebrate the reputation of our public university again, as well as the social and biological diversity of our state.