Harkin cuts ties with namesake Iowa State center

IOWA CITY – Sen. Tom Harkin abandoned plans Tuesday to donate his papers to a namesake institute at Iowa State University after a power struggle between his supporters and university leaders over the scope of its research.

Harkin said in a letter released Tuesday evening that he would not give papers covering his 30 years in the Senate and 10 years in the House to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State, his alma mater. Harkin agreed to donate them before the institute was created in 2011, but he said he was backing out after it became clear he could not trust university leaders to allow unrestricted academic freedom at the institute.

“I regret that this did not work out as we had all hoped at the beginning,” he said.

University President Steven Leath said he was extremely disappointed and called Harkin’s claims about academic freedom “completely unfounded and false.”

Drake University in Des Moines has expressed interest in housing Harkin’s papers. In his letter to Leath, Harkin said he and his family would decide where the papers end up.

Harkin’s letter was released minutes after the institute’s advisory board voted 5-1 to recommend that he scrap his planned gift.

Board members’ claims that the university was unfairly restricting research were disputed by the institute’s director, political science professor David Peterson. He insisted there would be no restrictions on research or public access to Harkin’s papers, which were to be housed in a special collection at the university library and digitized.

Harkin, a Democrat who decided last month against running for a sixth Senate term in 2014, was not satisfied.

“The Harkin Institute’s advisory board now has informed me they think these proposals have damaged the institute to such an extent that it would never be able to flourish at Iowa State,” he wrote. “I have come to agree.”

The Iowa Board of Regents approved the institute in April 2011 to house Harkin’s papers and study public policy over the objections of Republicans, who argued it was an improper way to honor a sitting senator. An ISU email later released suggested that Harkin’s wife, Ruth, a regent, pushed Iowa State to present plans for the board’s approval before terms of two key Harkin allies expired and they were replaced with Republican appointees.

The institute has been dogged by controversy ever since. Harkin backers and university officials have feuded for months over the scope of its research, while Harkin has faced questions about his role in fundraising.

The research dispute started last summer when the Harkins and the board learned university officials had signed a memorandum of understanding that barred the institute from studying agriculture, even though Harkin played a role in passing farming legislation and chaired the Senate agriculture committee.

Leath withdrew the memo in November, substituting his own restrictions allowing the institute to conduct agriculture research only if it related to Harkin’s papers and was approved by the school’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development.