Ramaswamy: ISU “Should Not Shy Away from Controversial Topics” in Agriculture

The first of four finalists in the Iowa State University presidential search on Monday also discussed “rules of engagement” for controversial speakers on campus

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Sonny Ramaswamy. Image: YouTube livestream screenshot

At the first of four open forums scheduled this week at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union to introduce the finalists for former president Steven Leath’s job, Sonny Ramaswamy, the director of the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, on Monday encouraged open dialogue in response to campus tensions and said the university “should not shy away from controversial topics just because it’s not okay for the rest of the community.”

Ramaswamy was appointed by President Obama in 2012 to head NIFA and is now in a complicated position as a holdover in Donald Trump’s science-hostile administration. It was a subject he addressed only indirectly at Monday’s forum, when an audience member asked him why he wanted to leave his “prestigious” job at the USDA for ISU. If Trump reappointed him next year when his term expires, Ramaswamy said, “I would have to think about it very, very carefully.” But instead of criticizing the president, he then said it was because his “heart lies in academia.” (He later poked fun at “the number of twits running around tweeting,” although it wasn’t in reference to Trump, at least not overtly.)

The finalist’s comments on addressing controversial viewpoints on campus also came in response to audience questions.

“As the president of our university, how would you engage with our campus community and with stakeholders around the state in controversial subjects,” asked Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor and the H.A. Wallace chair for sustainable agriculture at ISU, “those that are uncomfortable to discuss, that may present some of our uglier sides to one another, and that impinge upon our campus climate?”

Liebman referred to sustainable agriculture as a “subject that engages in some controversy” but did not elaborate any further on his question. Earlier this year, Iowa Republicans eliminated funding for ISU’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and handed over control of the renewable research-focused Iowa Energy Center to the governor’s office after university officials colluded with utilities lobbyists. And over the past several years, until he stepped down in April, former Board of Regents president Bruce Rastetter was accused of using his position to benefit his agribusiness company and suppress research that would have likely run afoul of Big Ag interests.

(At NIFA, Ramaswamy worked with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s agriculture secretary. Although Vilsack is a Democrat, his progressive critics have contended that he has nevertheless served similar corporate interests as the Republican power players who have influenced research at ISU.)

In his response to Liebman, Ramaswamy also did not touch on any of the past controversies at ISU. He referred instead to a controversy he dealt with both in his current position and when he was employed by Oregon State University, in which “people wanted to put out these really nasty traps” to kill coyotes and wolves that were eating livestock.

Such controversies occur “quite often,” Ramaswamy said, “because we gave money to somebody that did something that’s resulted in a discovery of new knowledge or whatever some segment of that particular community did not like.” He added: “These things happen constantly, and as an institution of higher learning, as we call ourselves, and the bastions of knowledge and other things, we should not shy away from controversial topics just because it’s not okay for the rest of the community.”

Near the forum’s end, Anne Kinzel, the chief operating officer at CenUSA Bioenergy, an ISU-based biofuels research center that is sponsored and funded by NIFA, followed up on Liebman’s question. “As you’re aware, this fall there have been a number of campuses where speakers with radical, provocative, difficult, and unpopular viewpoints have appeared and created some difficult situations,” she began, then asked Ramaswamy how he might respond to students angry or fearful about an “agent provocateur” scheduled to speak on campus.

Ramaswamy referenced recent incidents on other campuses, including a white nationalist march on the University of Virginia in August and unspecified events at the University of California-Berkeley, where a lecture by former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled in February after a protest was disrupted by anti-fascist demonstrators who caused extensive property damage.

He also mentioned a conversation he’d had with an ISU student about “how we’ve become more tribal in America” and “how we’ve got this identity politics that’s reared its ugly head in America.” Still, Ramaswamy said, as a “bastion of inquiry,” ISU should say yes to the expression of controversial viewpoints on campus, so long as they follow “rules of engagement” stipulated by the Supreme Court, for example that there is not an incitement to violence.

(Last fall semester, the organizer of the unofficial campus group ISU Students 4 Trump claimed that the university was censoring Yiannopoulos by hiking security fees at the last minute, although the contract he signed with the controversial writer made clear the group had to cover security expenses. When Yiannopoulos eventually spoke at Berkeley last month, the university spent $800,000 on security in an effort to prevent a repeat of the February rioting.)

Before working at the USDA, Ramaswamy headed the entomology department at Kansas State University, directed agricultural research programs at Purdue, and served as dean of Oregon State’s ag sciences college.

On Tuesday, an open forum is scheduled for University of Georgia provost Pamela Whitten, the second of four finalists for Leath’s former position and the first woman finalist in the past three searches for new presidents at Iowa’s public universities.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.