Iowa State: The Land-Grab University?
By Tim Schwab
Yesterday the Iowa Board of Regents, the governing body for public universities in the state, met to discuss important issues about the state of Iowa’s higher education.
The agenda didn’t get very far along, as dozens of angry Iowans loudly denounced Regent Bruce Rastetter for his attempts to use his public position to further his private business interests.
Rastetter successfully courted Iowa State University (ISU) administrators to lend the school’s good name to his own for-profit project in Tanzania called Agrisol, which involved transforming a refugee camp into a massive industrialized farm. The plan included displacing 160,000 refugees and relied on pressuring the Tanzanian government to allow production of genetically engineered crops and to bring in white South African farm managers to oversee what sounds an awful lot like a 21st century colonial plantation. Rastetter also negotiated a wicked land price with the Tanzanian government, paying only 25 cents per acre compared to the thousands of dollars he would have to pay for land in Iowa.
After countless news stories showed the ways in which ISU had compromised its independence and public mission through the Rastetter partnership, the school was publicly shamed into withdrawing completely from Agrisol’s project. ISU’s retreat was a major blow to Rastetter who wanted to use the school’s involvement to give public credibility to Agrisol, claiming that his controversial land-grab was a humanitarian effort. The company continues to say that Agrisol’s goal is “lifting people out of hunger and poverty.”
This scandal has dominated headlines in Iowa this summer and Rastetter now faces a formal ethics complaint filed by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Food & Water Watch officially signed onto the complaint in July, following a series of public meetings in Iowa and our own research into ISU. In church basements and recreation centers in Ames, Cedar Falls and Iowa City, we presented the findings from our new report, Public Research, Private Gain, which describes the many ways in which land-grant universities including ISU are diverting their resources to advance the goals of corporate sponsors, like Agrisol and Bruce Rastetter.
The public furor that has erupted in Iowa over Rastetter is challenging this pro-corporate model at ISU, as it distracts administrators from even simple day-to-day operations like board meetings. This debate over corporate influence at our public universities is long overdue, and how Iowa handles Rastetter could show other communities how to confront the corrupting influence of corporate agribusiness on our land-grant universities.
Importantly, this issue needs resolution not just by the Board of Regents in Iowa, but also in statehouses and Congress. Rastetter recently acknowledged that he specifically asked Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to appoint him to the Regents. He was able to make this request as Branstad’s largest campaign contributor in the last election.
Do we really want our public institutions bought and controlled by the highest bidder? Do we want our research universities spending their time and resources advancing the interests of corporate agribusiness?
If you live in Iowa, give a call to Governor Terry Branstad to tell him to fire Bruce Rastetter. Or, contact our Iowa organizer, Matt Ohloff at mohloff (at) fwwatch (dot) org to get more involved in pressuring ISU to serve its education mandate, not help private corporations.
If you live outside of Iowa, read about the growing problem of who’s setting the agenda at land grant universities.