Rastetter walking fine line


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President Pro Tem of the state Board of Regents Bruce Rastetter has taken criticism in recent days for an email he wrote to University of Iowa President Sally Mason. Some believe the email was intended to influence research at the university regarding the environmental impact of ethanol.  

The saga began with a number of studies conducted by Jerry Schnoor, a UI professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in water-quality modeling and aquatic chemistry, that found biofuel production is bad for Iowa’s environment. Schnoor presented some of his findings about the effect of biofuel production in Washington, D.C., last month.

Schnoor’s research drew the attention of Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association — an organization that advocates for the development and growth of Iowa’s ethanol and bio-ethanol sector. Shaw approached Rastetter, telling the regent that Schnoor was “an embarrassment” to the UI.

Rastetter, who cofounded one of the country’s largest ethanol producing companies — Hawkeye Energy Holdings — in 2003 and served as the company’s CEO until 2011, then composed an email to Mason concerning Schnoor’s research.

“The [biofuel] industry would appreciate being able to provide factual information so this professor isn’t uninformed; is there a way to accomplish that,” Rastetter wrote in his Jan. 30 email.

This brief correspondence drew the ire of Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who saw the message as clear evidence that Rastetter was trying to unfairly influence research at a regent university.

“The Board of Regents is supposed to be a buffer against political interference in academic freedom, not the vehicle for it,” said Quirmbach told The Daily Iowan. “What is even more important, he seems to be using his position on the Board of Regents to work through the power structure. If I could imagine myself in the situation, and the president of the university and a member of the Board of Regents wants to put pressure on my research — that’s a lot of pressure, and that’s inappropriate.”

Rastetter said that he was simply trying to maintain an open dialogue between the UI and the state’s biofuel sector. Rastetter also said that he doesn’t “side with renewable-fuels interest,” a somewhat dubious claim in light of his undeniable connection to the ethanol industry.

The content of the brief email belies Rastetter’s claims of neutrality to some degree.

Rastetter’s message to Mason characterizes Schnoor as “uninformed” on the finer points of biofuels and their potential impact on the state’s water supply, an idea that seems absurd, given the professor’s considerable credentials

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that, solely based on this email alone, Rastetter’s contacting Mason in this manner, with this rhetoric, comes entirely too close to leveraging his power on behalf of the biofuel industry.

It seems, put bluntly, Rastetter was asking Mason’s permission to give the biofuel lobby a crack at Schnoor.

We believe that, as a major research institution, maintaining academic independence should be one of the University of Iowa’s most prominent goals. The state’s regent universities should do everything in their power to insulate their researchers from political lobbying, even when such lobbying comes from the top of the educational food chain.

Rastetter and the regents as a whole have a responsibility to uphold academic integrity of the institutions they oversee. In bringing his own political concerns about Schnoor’s research to bear before Mason, Rastetter acted inappropriately and without concern for his office, and he should be more careful in the future.

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