STORY BY TIM WEBBER
For many Drake University students, Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to campus was a unique opportunity to see a world leader speak in person.
For the Harkin Institute, it was a landmark achievement, the culmination of months of progress and the beginning of the next challenge.
Founded nearly two years ago after Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement, the Harkin Institute has slowly built itself into a presence on Drake’s campus and in Des Moines.
The institute intends to become a hub of public policy research and a link between Drake students and leaders from around the world.
While the Harkin Institute has hosted speakers on campus before, Biden’s speech was a showcase for the fledgling foundation.
“It’s exactly what I think we envisioned as the Harkin Institute was being set up,” said Dr. Rachel Paine Caufield, associate director for citizen engagement at the Harkin Institute. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the Harkin Institute to connect to the campus community and let them see our presence.”
Caufield acknowledged that some students on campus might not grasp the role of the Harkin Institute in the Drake community, but stressed the importance of making sure the Harkin Institute was introduced correctly.
“It’s fair that not all students have a firm idea of what we’re doing,” Caufield said. “Instead of immediately setting out and just doing things, we wanted to make sure we were setting up the right things and doing them well.”
Located off 25th Street on University Avenue, and wedged between a hair salon and craft store, the Harkin Institute is easy to miss. Inside, the plain white walls don’t conjure images of a stately legislative chamber where policy work is typically perceived to occur.
But even without such grandeur, the Institute is working hard to assume a major role in policy research.
One big step towards making this goal a reality was taken earlier this year.
In January, Drake University received 800 boxes of files relating to Sen. Harkin’s career. Those files will be stored in Cowles Library as they are gradually archived and released to the public.
Claudia Frazer, who works in Drake’s archives, expressed the magnitude of that delivery.
“It’s huge,” Frazer said. “The name alone is going to bring in researchers. There are going to be people from all over the world interested in doing research. The papers came in early January and already we’re getting requests.”
Frazer is hopeful the archives will be able to release the first wave of documents to the public in July, in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act.
In the meantime, the Harkin Institute will be hard at work on their next big project: the Iowa caucuses.
“My goal is to make Drake the hub of the Iowa caucus,” Caufield said. “You don’t come to Iowa, as a candidate, without coming through Drake University.”
In addition to bringing candidates to campus, the Harkin Institute hopes to partner with ABC, Iowa Public Radio, The Des Moines Register and a documentary crew for various projects throughout the election cycle.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” Caufield said. “But for each and every project, we’re making sure there are ways for students to be engaged.”
But before the caucus season kicks into full throttle, one more important person will join the Harkin Institute: Former Sen. Tom Harkin.
“He won’t be here everyday, but he will have an office,” Caufield said. “It’s a big milestone for the Institute, to have him more fully engaged in the work that we’re doing.”
Harkin worked closely with Biden in Washington, and Biden acknowledged Harkin in his speech to Drake University.
“No one has more certitude about why he ran for office in the first place than Tom Harkin,” Biden said in his speech.
Through the Harkin Institute, Harkin and the institute’s staff will aim to carry that certitude forward into the next stage of the former senator’s career.