Regents’ shakeup a reprehensible silencing of dissent


With the resignation from their leadership positions of state Board of Regents’ President David Miles and President Pro Tem Jack Evans, it’s going to be much easier to slash funds for Iowa’s public universities.

Gov. Terry Branstad asked the two regents to quit their positions in May, citing disagreements over the appropriate role of the regents. It was a move to oust political adversaries and promote ideological peers, ignoring the benefits of dedicated advocacy positions and undermining the purported independence of the regents.

"We need to take the board in a different direction," Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht told the DI Editorial Board on Wednesday. "David Miles had an antagonistic relationship with Republican legislators in the Iowa House."

Miles and Evans acquiesced this week, resigning their positions (they are staying on the board until the end of their terms in 2013). In his resignation letter, Miles cited concerns that tussles with the Legislature were distracting from the mission of the regents.

As the regents’ executives, they have indeed had an adversarial relationship with the Legislature in the past year. As Branstad and his GOP colleagues in the Legislature continued to cut the budget for Iowa higher education, Miles grew into a staunch defender of schools. He wrote guest opinions for Iowa newspapers and repeatedly invited students to lobby on behalf of their universities.

Branstad’s suggested replacements, confirmed by the regents Tuesday, are unlikely to oppose his budget proposals. President Craig Lang and President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter are both supporters of Branstad, and they are likely to play an obsequious role to the GOP executive and legislators.

Lang and Rastetter have repeatedly told the press that they would like a "better relationship" with the Legislature and want to "change the tone." In practice, this amounts to an abdication of the most important responsibility of the regents: advocating for the students and universities that make Iowa great.

Regents are meant to do more than meekly accept policies from the state government. Their primary goal should be governing and supporting the regent institutions — which means informing the Legislature if its actions run counter to the well-being of the institutions. Although collaboration with legislators is essential, regents should not be required to be complicit in damaging policies. This quiescence removes a check on legislative proposals that could otherwise do grievous harm to the future of Iowa’s education.

With the new leadership, Branstad may no longer face disagreement from the regents.

Rastetter was nominated by the governor earlier this year, and he was the only one of Branstad’s three nominees not to vocally oppose state budget cuts. Lang was one of only two regents to vote against naming an Iowa State University institute after Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a process Branstad wanted delayed.

Lang and Rastetter, both Republicans, also have a history of political relationships with Branstad. Rastetter was the top donor to Branstad’s 2010 campaign, giving more than $100,000. Lang has his own financial ties to the governor. He personally donated $500 to the Branstad campaign, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation — which Lang helms — donated more than $40,000. After Branstad’s election, the Farm Bureau lauded the governor’s proposal for massive cuts to property taxes, a measure that will require cuts in other areas of the budget — including education.

Neither Lang nor Rastetter have any experience in education administration, although they both have extensive experience in the business world. Both, too, have connections to agribusiness; Albrecht highlighted these connections and their relevance to the ongoing search for ISU’s new president, raising questions about the continued mingling of corporate interests with higher education.

Still, the mere fact that Rastetter and Lang donated to the governor does not delegitimize their new positions, and neither do their political leanings. The board comprises partisans — though its rules forbid the appointment of more than five regents of any one party — and Regent Robert Downer told The Daily Iowan that appointing donors to the regents is the norm.

But the context of this leadership change does call their positions into question. The state is in a very difficult fiscal environment. All interests across the state need to be represented to ensure the fairness of budget changes.

Democracy by nature is a turbulent state of pluralistic dialogue. Specific advocates and shepherds of higher education (the ostensible goal of the regents) deserve a place at the table, regardless of petty feuds with the dominant party.

The removal of Miles and Evans contradicts this ideal and undermines the independence of the regents. Too much political interference and the regents become a quiescent body, depriving the state of a voice for long-term educational success.

Branstad’s unprecedented level of involvement in the Board of Regents is appalling. If he truly has the best interests of Iowa and its future in mind, he needs to end his efforts to stifle dissent in the discussion about education.

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