Story by Nathan Erickson
In early June, a press release issued by Drake University announced Sen. Tom Harkin, retiring at the end of his 2014 congressional term, would be donate historical papers and materials spanning his 40 years of service in the United States Congress to the university. This exciting event was coupled with an announcement establishing the Tom Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement.
The Harkin Institute’s main function, the announcement explained, is to serve as “a nonpartisan center designed to serve as a hub for public policy research and programming.” The Harkin Institute’s website further detailed this message by saying that the center is “dedicated to advancing dialogue about the issues that define our public life.”
DrakeUniversity President David Maxwell provided more on the direction of the Harkin Institute.
“The Harkin Institute,” Maxwell said, is “intended to be a major center for research on critical public policy issues, a place where the national, regional and local policy communities can come together to focus on and debate major issues.”
Furthermore,he expressed that “we also see this as a huge opportunity for Drake students, faculty and staff to get involved in everything from research to major symposia and conferences to helping archive the Senator’s papers.”
Rachel Paine Caufield, current associate professor of politics at Drake, is the associate director for the Harkin Institute.
The Institute’s function at Drake, she said: “This gives Drake a tremendous opportunity to become one of the leading institutions in the study of public policy and in the study of very specific policy,” Caufield said.
As to how this will relate to the campus at large, Caufield said: “We want to engage Drake students and the Des Moines community at large in a discussion on hard issues,” he said.
The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement is moving forward at Drake University, but this is not the first time a Harkin Institute has been established. In April 2011, the Iowa Board of Regents approved the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University, as reported by the Iowa State Daily.
Iowa State, one of three public Iowa universities and Harkin’s alma mater, was slated to his papers and perform much of the same research as will be happening at Drake. Plans were scrapped, however, over academic research restrictions being implemented by Iowa State University leadership.
These actions ultimately resulted in Harkin abandoning his donation plans and the Iowa Board of Regents voting to close the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State.
Both former Iowa State Student Body President Jared Knight and current President Spencer Hughes turned down requests to comment on the matter, but senior history major and Iowa State University student Joshua Skipworth gave his opinion on the closure of the Harkin Institute.
“From what I recall, everything seemed to be progressing smoothly at first,” Skipworth said. “The institute was supposed to be the start of a public policy program at Iowa State, which many of us were excited about, especially with the great tradition of public service launched by Sen. Harkin and other Iowa State alumni throughout history.”
Skipworth thinks that closure of the Harkin Institute is a huge loss for the prestige of the university.
“Iowa State is so often viewed as nothing more than an engineering and agricultural school and the addition of a public policy program would’ve taken great steps towards burgeoning the other, lesser known departments,” said Skipworth. “Tom Harkin was a major player on the national stage for 30 years…for his papers to go to a private university as opposed to his alma mater is shameful.”
As to the long lasting effect that the closure will have on Iowa State, Skipworth said: “I know of several students who were looking forward to the potential of doing policy research that has now been removed in any official or sanctioned way. If you’re looking for a degree or emphasis in public policy, go to Drake.”
The relationship between the two institutions hasn’t changed since.
“Drake and Iowa State have a long and highly-valued collaborative relationship.,” Maxwell said. “[Iowa State President Leath] understands that Drake did not have any formal conversations with Sen. Harkin regarding the move … until after Sen. Harkin decided…to withdraw the commitment of his papers from ISU.”
Indeed, the National Advisory Council, which acts as an advisory body for the Harkin Institute, has carried over the same membership from Iowa State, including former Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy.
While the focus of the Harkin Institute will be on research, the leadership is very keen to the notion that community education is of paramount importance.
“Being located in Des Moines, (Drake) has tremendous community opportunities. We really want to engage our students in the political process. The nuts and bolts of American politics is about creating long term solutions to real social problems,” Caufield said.
“We want the student body to know that the Harkin Institute is for all students,” Caufield said. “And we will be working on issues and developing programming that draws in different pieces of the entire community at large.”
While the light may have grown dark for the Harkin Institute at Iowa State, the future of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University looks very bright indeed.