Regents OK controversial Harkin center at ISU

BY ARIANA WITT | APRIL 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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AMES — The state Board of Regents voted 6-2 Wednesday to name an Iowa State University public-policy institute after Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, despite disapproval from Republican members of the Iowa Senate.

Regents Craig Lang and Greta Johnson voted against the decision; Regent Ruth Harkin, who is married to the senator, abstained.

Lang said his vote was based not on his Republican affiliation but rather his belief that some regents had access to information related to the Harkin discussion that others did not. He also said the naming questions political ethics.

"I deal in the public world, and I believe this a breach of ethics when anybody who is in a position of significant power such as a U.S. senator asks that money be raised for an institute in his name, whoever it is," Lang said.

During the discussion, Iowa State President Gregory Geoffrey was questioned in terms of how university officials would work to ensure donations and affiliations with the institute are unbiased, including the board that would oversee the institute.

"Given the sensitivities that are involved, I think it would require strong presidential involvement," Geoffrey said. "If this was a normal institute, we'd probably let the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for example, handle it. But given all the sensitivities, that board would have to be appointed by the president of the university."

Still, Lang said he doesn't think anyone will look into whether affairs in the institution breach ethical standings in the university.

"I do believe that some time in the future, this board has to deal with the issue from a policy perspective," he said. "Is it right for us to vote on an issue like that when we know there's an individual who can, because of his influence as a lawmaker, have influence over the people that he asks for funding?"

On Tuesday, all 24 Republican members of the Senate sent a letter to Regent President David Miles, stating they backed the argument of Sen. Sandra Greiner, R-Keota, that naming a university building after a public official warranted further public discussion.

Miles said he took the letter into consideration for his vote and noted that the legislators' concerns were why he asked Geoffrey extensive questions both before and during Wednesday's meeting.

"It was clear that there were a lot of unanswered questions in terms of legislators' minds that they wanted to have answered, and I thought they were good questions," Miles said. "So we vented enough today, and I felt like once the questions were answered, then I was comfortable to move ahead and make the decision."

Still, Greiner said she was disappointed to hear the vote in favor of the naming.

"I think it opens up a new window for universities," she said. "Are we going to put the Steve King Institute at the University of Iowa? I guess so. The regents have spoken, and I don't know that there's much else the Legislature can do."

UI spokesperson Tom Moore said naming an institute after an active political figure is a "bridge the [UI] would have to cross if it came to it."

Johnson said she had a hard time voting against the naming, but she also said she did not use her political standing as a Republican in her decision.

"I know I would have made the same choice were it at [University of Northern Iowa] or UI regardless of the official," she said. "I agreed with Regent Lang in that I felt the item needed to be tabled and discussed further."

Regent Harkin said she was pleased with the outcome.

"I think President Geoffrey did a brilliant job of explaining what the institute was and what the purpose would be, and I'm glad the university can accept my husband's papers and his gifts," she said.

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