Rastetter picked to lead Iowa Board of Regents
IOWA CITY (AP) — The Iowa Board of Regents selected Republican agribusiness executive Bruce Rastetter on Wednesday to lead the panel that governs Iowa's public universities, a choice unlikely to stop partisan disputes over its operations.
The board voted 7-0 to name Rastetter to replace President Craig Lang, who departed in April after the Democratic-controlled state Senate rejected his appointment to a second six-year term.
Democrats accused Lang and Rastetter, the previous president pro tem, of stifling academic freedom to support a pro-agriculture agenda at the three state universities, a charge they rejected. Supporters of Lang and Rastetter said the duo had helped reverse a trend of budget cuts by improving relationships with lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad and helped freeze undergraduate tuition rates next school year for the first time in 30 years.
Rastetter's colleagues selected him without any discussion during Wednesday's meeting in Iowa City and then chose Regent Katie Mulholland, another Branstad appointee, to serve as president pro tem.
“I appreciate the confidence and I really appreciate the last two years working with a number of you and the accomplishments we've made,” Rastetter said. “I look forward to working with the new board members and look forward to our input and continuing to make a difference of the fine institutions we represent and have oversight over.”
Rastetter told reporters the board would continue pursuing the same priorities as it did under Lang, including seeking to eliminate the use of tuition dollars for financial aid and to shore up the budget of University of Northern Iowa. He said he's reached out to Democratic senators and noted that funding increases for the universities received backing from both parties in the recently concluded legislative session.
“I think that partisanship has been much overplayed and the results in the Legislature reflect the support for the universities and the regents,” he said.
But a liberal group that has been critical of Rastetter, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said Rastetter begins the high-profile position without public confidence.
"Rastetter lost the trust of everyday Iowans a long time ago and a very skeptical public is going to be watching his every move as president like a hawk," said CCI member Ross Grooters. "He's shown time and time again that he views Iowa's public universities as nothing more than a tool to further his own pro-corporate agenda."
Notably absent from Wednesday's meeting was Regent Ruth Harkin, wife of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who was traveling. The Harkins accused Lang and Rastetter of supporting restrictions on agricultural research at a proposed public policy institute named for the longtime U.S. senator at Iowa State University. Lang and Rastetter said the university's goal was to avoid duplication and promote collaboration with another agriculuture think tank already on campus.
After the dispute, Harkin recently decided to donate the papers from his 40-year congressional career to Drake University.
Rastetter was the top donor to Branstad's 2010 comeback campaign. Branstad appointed him to the board after taking office, and soon supported an unusual leadership shake up that put Lang and Rastetter in charge.
Rastetter's business dealings and ethics have come under intense scrutiny.
Rastetter, an ethanol executive, came under fire in February after intervening on behalf of a trade group when prominent University of Iowa environmental researcher Jerald Schnoor warned that the ethanol industry's heavy water usage was unsustainable. Rastetter forwarded an email to UI President Sally Mason in which an ethanol lobbyist called Schnoor "an embarrassment" and then asked Mason to allow the industry to "provide factual information so this professor isn't uninformed."
Watchdogs accused Rastetter of having a conflict of interest because an investment group he's heading — Agrisol Energy — was working with Iowa State to start a large and potentially profitable agricultural development in Tanzania on land where up to 160,000 refugees were being removed. One professor whose salary was funded by a prior Rastetter donation was working as a consultant on the project.
The university pulled out of the deal last year after negative publicity. Rastetter acknowledged he had made public relations mistakes after refusing to answer questions for months, but denied wrongdoing, saying his goal was to help feed Africans.
Rastetter founded Hawkeye Energy Holdings, which was one of the nation's largest ethanol producers before its plants were sold in 2010. He's also CEO of Summit Farms and Summit Group; vice-chair of Advanced BioEnergy, which owns ethanol plants; and on the board of Growth Energy, a pro-ethanol group.
Rastetter has donated millions to the University of Iowa football program, and is a supporter of Coach Kirk Ferentz, who has attended Rastetter's lavish annual summer parties.