DES MOINES — Policies and procedures of the state Board of Regents were put under the legislative microscope Wednesday, with opposing forces commending and condemning those in charge of overseeing Iowa’s three public universities.
Nearly two dozen Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement spoke in support of a bill seeking to expand openness and accountability while removing politics from the board’s activities. Some members also called for the removal of Gov. Terry Branstad allies Bruce Rastetter and Craig Lang from the nine-member panel.
However, lobbyists representing the regents and Rastetter defended the board and expressed concern the changes contemplated in Senate Study Bill 1163 would be unconstitutional limits on free speech and open the possibility for the regent board membership to be divvied up among various factions and special interests.
The proposed measure, given initial consideration in a Senate State Government subcommittee, would restrict the board’s members and professional staff from participating in political activities or be identified as an advocate or opponent of issues subject to debate by the General Assembly. It also would allow university faculty to select one regent member; require the board to hold meetings at locations around the state; conduct public hearings on any proposal costing $100,000 or more; allow for 30 minutes of public comments at the start of each meeting; place two-year lobbying prohibitions on certain regent personnel; and reduce the span of control ratio to 14 employees per supervisor within the regent system.
“The bill has become necessary because of scandal after scandal at the Board of Regents,” said Ross Grooters, a CCI member from Pleasant Hill who raised concern over perceived political involvement and negative influence on academic freedom coming from regent leaders in overseeing state universities. “This bill helps that, but it’s not enough.”
Regent lobbyist Keith Saunders said the legislative intervention is unnecessary and premature because the board has embarked on an initiative to bring more transparency and accountability to the process that should conclude with recommendations in June.
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, leader of the subcommittee and chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, said the regents’ internal examination was an acknowledgement that a problem regarding transparency, openness and accountability exists, and he planned to move ahead on a parallel track with the legislative changes.
“We believe this is an important priority for Iowans,” he said.
Saunders expressed concern that placing a faculty member on the regents’ board would create conflicts during collective bargaining with the faculty union at the University of Northern Iowa and would open requests from other groups — such as graduate students or labor unions — to have a designated board member. He said such a requirement should not just be placed on the regents, but also other state boards and commissions.
Saunders, and subcommittee member Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, also raised free-speech concerns that barring board members and professional staff from political activities would create unconstitutional restrictions. Whitver said he didn’t think the measure would get consideration by the GOP-led Iowa House or the governor if it makes it that far in the process.
During Wednesday’s hearing, CCI member Deborah Bunka of Ames accused regent members of abusing their power and promoting their political agendas while attempting to quash academic freedom in the process. Bunka pointed to a Rastetter email that generated controversy this week as an example of the “arrogance” she said he exudes.
Rastetter this week defended his request for University of Iowa President Sally Mason to have a prominent environmental researcher speak with ethanol industry lobbyists upset over a recent speech. Rastetter said he was trying to encourage a dialogue between industry officials and Jerry Schnoor, director of the university’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.
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Schnoor gave a talk last month in Washington warning that ethanol plants were using so much water that they were depleting the groundwater supply. One ethanol industry leader sent an email calling Schnoor an embarrassment to the university.
Rastetter forwarded that email to Mason and asked her to allow the industry to give Schnoor “factual information so this professor isn’t uninformed.” Rastetter denied claims that he was trying to shape university research.
“He had no shame in sending that email,” Bunka said. “It tells us that he feels he is above any ethics guidelines, that he’s untouchable because of how he was appointed.”
Dick Thornton, a Statehouse lobbyist and attorney who said he has represented Rastetter for 35 years, urged subcommittee members to “get all the facts” because he did not think they had all the information they needed about his client and his dealings as a regent.
Thornton called Rastetter “a man of very strong integrity, very strong when it comes to honesty with the way he operates.”