Stunning resignation



The abrupt and immediate resignation of Buena Vista University President Joshua Merchant over the weekend raises questions that have not been or might never be properly answered. The board of trustees recently endorsed a strategic plan that eliminated some programs and created others. Merchant’s close collaborator, Provost Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, was named interim president. Clearly, the board of trustees did not disagree with the administration’s business or academic performance. Faculty members were not universally happy, but they had been pretty quiet.

It couldn’t come at a worse time. Buena Vista is shut down, essentially, in this pandemic. Plans were being made for a fall opening; those plans remain in place. As we worried aloud last week, Iowa’s private college system was under tremendous stress before the shutdown. The pandemic made it an existential crisis.

Buena Vista has a solid endowment, a fiscally conservative board and a remaining administration that can carry the institution through this storm. The trustees have a tall order in hiring a successor. Buena Vista was adrift before Merchant arrived. He brought a certain sales focus to the enterprise. We need that. We also need a leader who understands and respects Buena Vista’s history and traditions, its position in a challenging marketplace, and its strengths and weaknesses. We can’t afford much of a learning curve. We need a president who embraces Storm Lake genuinely, who is honest and transparent, and who reaches out to a diverse student population. Those qualities seem obvious but have been overlooked.

At this point in time, we would do well to look first at people we already know who have been successful in private higher education, especially in fundraising with integrity. Everyone wants security, stability and credibility right now. That person is out there waiting for an opportunity to steer Buena Vista clear if we call on them.

Finding our limits

Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson was right when he said a couple weeks ago that the food supply chain was at the breaking point as meatpacking plant operations were threatened by workers falling ill with the coronavirus. Tyson was soliciting help from the federal government in keeping the lines running in places like Storm Lake. It should wake up the rest of the country to the consolidation in our food supply that allows bottlenecks to become food scares.

An animal or human health pandemic can knock out capacity and sweep out freezers in a matter of weeks, as we have learned. The red meat industry is operating at about half its capacity, which created runs on grocery store meat counters. When the Waterloo and Sioux Falls pork plants go down, that’s 10% of the production capacity lost. Four big companies control 75% of the beef supply. When the Cargill plant in Colorado goes down, alarm bells go off at Wendy’s Hamburgers. You can hear the people calling: In Crete, Neb., the workers last week protested at Smithfield, many of them undocumented serfs. That’s historic. Something is in the wind.

Nature is telling us, again, that we are reaching our limits.

A more diverse network of regional food processors would be more resilient to production. If one small plant goes down, or a half-dozen, it is not like two giant plants like Sioux Falls and Waterloo falling. We’ve been hearing calls for stronger anti-trust enforcement across the political spectrum for as long as we can recall, but there is no question those calls are louder than usual right now. There is growing opposition to livestock confinements in Iowa and North Carolina, the two leading pork states, because of deteriorating water and air quality. It remains unclear to us, at least, how the vertical integration of the swine and poultry industries can be unwound. But disease that thrives on density does breach biosecurity, when the virtues of a diverse base of independent producers become more apparent. The threat of pandemics become magnified amid dense growing operations and consolidated production regimes. And, the lesson of history is that when capital gets too much power, which it has over the past half century, feudalism reveals itself again. It’s where we find ourselves, powerless to know what is said on the phone between the Wall Street hog money and the people they hire in the government.

We should heed Tyson’s warning that our food supply is tenuous. Diversity makes it stronger. Everyone can prosper in that sort of environment if the government will allow it. Or, Nature can lay asunder our best engineering, as we can see while the water underneath those huge panhandle feedlots is exhausted. Planning for a more sustainable and resilient food economy would be wiser for everyone.

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