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Hearing gets heated on Iowa Board of Regents bill

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 12:13 p.m. CST

DES MOINES (AP) — A proposal that would limit the Iowa Board of Regents from political activities also could limit the panel’s freedom of speech, bill opponents said at a legislative hearing Wednesday.

An Iowa Senate subcommittee discussed the bill at a hearing that sometimes prompted heated exchanges in support and against the regents, the Des Moines Register reported.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said the bill stems from controversies involving academic freedom at Iowa State University.

“I believe the bill is needed because transparency and accountability are the bedrock of public decision-making processes,” he said.

Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said the bill could limit the Board of Regents’ freedom of speech and he questions its constitutionality. Keith Saunders, a Board of Regents lobbyist, said other state boards and commissions do not require a limitation on political activities.

Saunders also said there could be a conflict of interest with the requirement that faculty choose a board member.

Some speakers at the hearing defended the regents, while others criticized them.

Regent Bruce Rastetter was criticized Tuesday after records showed he intervened on behalf of ethanol industry leaders who were upset with a prominent University of Iowa professor over research. A spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad defended Rastetter.

Jim Yungclas, who worked at Iowa State University’s agricultural extension service for more than two decades, said the school is no longer an unbiased source of information for farmers.

“When you have a Board of Regents telling you how to think, that protection is gone,” he said. “My big concern is who wants to work for a university or a state of Iowa who does not protect academic freedom? That is why professors go to work in universities. It is not the role of the Board of Regents to decide truth. The people need to decide.”

Other details of the bill include a requirement that the board hear more feedback from the public before making major decisions costing $100,000 or more. Regents also would be required to hold public forums quarterly in each of at least six geographic regions.

The Senate State Government Committee plans to meet again to discuss the legislation.