‘We will fight with might for Iowa State, with the will to do or die’

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen sat down for a nice chat with the crew from Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program over the weekend. It was the first chance I’ve had to hear her since she ascended from dean of the College of Agriculture to Beardshear Hall last October, filling a vacancy left with the resignation of President Steve Leath.

Here’s what I took away from it:

Higher education in Iowa is under financial stress and assault. That’s because the people don’t understand the value of Iowa State University. Wintersteen said she will cheer for ISU in a barnstorm around the state over the next year. We recall Leath, Greg Geoffrey and Martin Jischke doing the same thing as the Extension Service that covers the state was slowly dismantled and the university’s mission narrowed to the more mercantile concerns of the donor base (a seed science chair for Monsanto, an ag economics endowment from the Kochs).

Last year, the university was further diminished when the Iowa Legislature zeroed out the appropriation for the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU. It was the leading sustainable ag lab in the nation, showing farmers how they can prosper inside, outside or around the conventional chemical chain that erodes our soil and fouls our rivers. The chemical cabal saw to that. It has been working against the Leopold Center for years and trying to discredit its research.

Wintersteen said she was taken by surprise.

“I learned about that about ten o’clock at night one night and nine days later the Leopold Center’s funding was gone,” Wintersteen said on Iowa Press.

Meantime, she said she had organized a cadre of farmers to defend it at the capitol to no avail.

“… We had farmers from all over the state, large farmers, small farmers that were calling, talking to their legislators individually and they got the same message. And so it was a very well planned effort and the message received was that the work had been accomplished. So maybe in the future there will be an opportunity. The work that was done at the Leopold Center really funding important seed grants that allowed faculty to go and get big federal grants made a tremendous difference I think especially in the area of water quality.”

Gov. Branstad went along with the deappropriation of $300,000 — which would foreclose about $3 million more in research grants that might help figure out how to clean up our rivers and lakes while not hurting farm operators — in fact, making them more profitable through fewer chemical inputs. Branstad at least allowed the center to keep its office and sign. As Wintersteen noted, it has a “small” private endowment that allows it to limp along.

Host David Yepsen asked her if she would argue the case to the legislature this year.

“So, the legislature that made that decision is the legislature that is still there. It’s hard for me to see that I would be able to make the case, change their mind, after all that we did last year,” she said.

Oh, well. No sense raising a ruckus when they’re already taking a pound and a half from your hide.

Note that the Leopold Center’s funding came from the Groundwater Protection Act. The funds were diverted elsewhere, presumably to some water quality program administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

Also, the Department of Natural Resources eliminated the concentrated animal feeding operations coordinator’s position, which also was statutorily funded by the Groundwater Protection Act. We never did learn where that money went.

The public might not need that much more education. It knows full well that the natural resource protection apparatus has been thrown overboard and is floating down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Wintersteen would seem resigned to that fact as well. She won’t bother the legislature with what might be the most vital question facing our state: How do we feed the world in an era of depleted resources, both soil and water, and increasing agricultural resiliency problems posed by climate change? That should be the central research question at Iowa State, but we are defunding it and thus burying it.

Her defenders say Wintersteen was stuck between Steve Leath and a hard place. Well, she is president now and it is time to lead Iowa State back to its status as the world’s greatest agricultural research institution.

That is the message she should be carrying around Iowa and onto the steps of the Capitol with an urgency not seen before. Her last effort was not good enough. She can do better.