AgriSol, Harkin Institute, Leopold Center, and Monsanto: Wintersteen’s Red Flags

Iowa State ag college dean Wendy Wintersteen may be named as the university's next president later today. If she is, it will be in spite of numerous controversies she's found herself in with connections to Big Ag interests.

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Later this afternoon, the Iowa Board of Regents plans to choose the successor to Iowa State University president Steven Leath. With the field narrowed down from more than 60 applicants to now just three finalists, some believe that Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of the college of agriculture and life sciences, is a shoo-in for the position over rival candidates Sonny Ramaswamy and Pamela Whitten. As her critics have said, why would ISU bite that hand that feeds it by passing over a reliable booster of Big Ag interests that have poured millions of dollars into research at the university? If Wintersteen is selected, it will be despite a number of controversies she’s found herself in because of those interests. Here’s a look at some of the biggest examples.

AgriSol Energy’s attempted Tanzanian land-grab

Since ISU announced Wintersteen as a finalist a week and a half ago, the Ames Tribune hasn’t published a word about her questionable ties to Big Ag at the university, outside of a couple letters to the editor. The newspaper’s silence is striking, because just a few years ago, its own reporter Hannah Furfaro (who now works in New York and whose Tribune bylines have been stripped from its website thanks to a sloppy redesign by its new corporate owners) covered two Wintersteen-connected controversies in considerable depth.

The first was AgriSol Energy’s plans to lease as many as 800,000 acres of land in the eastern African nation of Tanzania to establish a grain-and-livestock operation that could have forced the removal of 160,000 refugees on two settlements there who had been farming the land since they fled genocide in neighboring Burundi in the early 1970s. In 2008, the Tanzanian government began efforts to naturalize the refugees by 2010, but itwould require them to relocate. It turned out that Lawrence Masha, Tanzania’s former minister of home affairs who led the effort, had since signed on as a legal adviser for AgriSol, which had financed a feasibility study for investing in the settlement land.

AgriSol was founded by Bruce Rastetter, the Iowa agribusiness magnate who convinced Terry Branstad to run again for governor in 2010 and was subsequently appointed to the Board of Regents. So in 2011, when news broke that ISU had partnered with the company on the Tanzania project — which was pitched as an effort to bring food security to Africa and improve the livelihoods of struggling local farmers — conflict of interest concerns were soon raised given Rastetter’s position as a member and then president pro tem of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities.

The planned land grab received national and international news coverage, including Dan Rather’s “Trouble on the Land” report in September 2011.

That same month, Wintersteen, who later dubiously claimed she had been unaware of the refugee settlements that were well known to people involved with the project, announced that ISU had withdrawn its direct involvement in it. But in February 2012, the Tribune reported that two university professors were still deeply tied to the project. They included Kevin Kimle, who directs ISU’s Agriculture Entrepreneurship Initiative that Wintersteen praised during her open forum after she was named as a presidential finalist. The initiative was founded by Ames resident and Rastetter business ally Roger Underwood and his wife Connie; Kimle also serves as the chair of the Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship that was established in the economics department through the initiative, financed by $2.25 million in donations from Rastetter, who went on to become president of the Board of Regents in 2013. Days after the Tribune report, ISU announced it would stop advising AgriSol entirely.

The Harkin Institute memorandum of understanding

In December 2012, the Tribune published an exclusive report, based on emails obtained through a public records request, about the “tug-of-war” at ISU over then-Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s plans to establish a research institute in his name at the university, where he’d graduated in 1962 with a degree in government and economics.

The emails showed that then-president Steven Leath had been caught in the crossfire of a dispute between Ruth Harkin, the senator’s wife and a member of the Board of Regents at the time, and Rastetter and Craig Lang, the board’s president and a past president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, a Big Ag powerhouse with deep financial connections to ISU. The dispute centered on the planned research objectives for the Harkin Institute, which included agriculture. This didn’t sit well with Rastetter, Lang, and their agribusiness allies, who didn’t want to create the potential for contradictory research between the institute and the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development where it was to be housed.

The dispute involved a memorandum of understanding removing agricultural research from the Harkin Institute’s directives that was drafted by Wintersteen, who privately told ISU faculty that the institute would never be allowed to conduct ag research, along with another dean and a former university provost. In an effort to resolve the conflict, Leath signed a directive modifying the MOU to allow for limited ag research — but only if it was co-authored and approved by CARD — and sent a revised draft of the memo to Rastetter and Lang, who was in attendance at Wintersteen’s open forum earlier this month. “Steve, let’s talk about the language I don’t think it works,” Rastetter replied. The following day, Leath emailed Ruth Harkin: “You will need to convince [Lang] or Bruce before I can move forward.”

Although there were some legitimate questions raised about the Harkin Institute, particularly regarding whether it was appropriate for a public university to open a center named after a sitting US senator, the intervention by Lang and Rastetter was seen by many as an attack on academic freedom at ISU, and Statehouse Democrats eventually blocked Lang’s reappointment as the board’s president over the controversy. In an embarrassing PR fiasco for ISU, the Harkins in 2013 decided to relocate the institute to Drake University, a private college in Des Moines.

Leopold Center vs. Big Ag

Responding to a question from the Informer at her open forum, Wintersteen called the Iowa GOP’s decision to defund ISU’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Research “terribly unfortunate” and said she’d tried to help preserve its public funding. After the publication of our story, several people with knowledge of the situation disputed Wintersteen’s claim; although prior to the vote, Wintersteen sent a letter to advocates of the center urging them to contact lawmakers and saying she’d been working with Leath on a funding solution, they claimed that she did little to actually fight the bill Republicans ultimately passed.

Regardless, this wasn’t the first time Wintersteen has made news involving the Leopold Center, which was established by the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 using funds from state taxes on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide and has awarded hundreds of grants to fund sustainability projects including efforts to reduce erosion and improve the state’s abysmal water quality.

In 2005, when Wintersteen was interim dean of the ag college (she was appointed as the dean the following year), she played a key role in forcing Fred Kirschenmann, a widely respected champion of sustainable agriculture, to step down as director of the Leopold Center. In late October, the ag college issued a press release announcing that Kirschenmann had “accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center.”

Speaking to Mother Jones reporter Tom Philpott, who at the time wrote for Grist, Kirschenmann told a different story. Wintersteen, who was on the search committee that hired him in 2000 and served on the center’s advisory board, was “always very supportive of what we were doing,” he said. “Until about two years ago. Then she became very critical.” Informing him that he had been neglecting “key stakeholders,” Wintersteen asked Kirschenmann by email on a Wednesday to resign by Friday. When Kirschenmann questioned the immediacy of the request, she told him a new director had already been selected.

Five years later, a similar situation arose when Ricardo Salvador, a renowned agronomist and former ISU professor who served as the first chair of the university’s graduate program in sustainable agriculture, applied to be the Leopold Center’s next director. After a yearlong search process leaving him as the final candidate standing, and with the support of the center’s advisory board, he seemed destined for the position. But in March 2010, ISU declared the search process a bust. In an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education that described advisory board members’ objections the the decision, then-ISU president Gregory Geoffroy acknowledged he had received a letter from the Farm Bureau about Salvador, although he claimed that it “certainly had no direct effect on my decision.” But it was important that the center’s director would “walk the middle ground,” he added.

Wintersteen, too, was interviewed for the article, which asked her about a remark Salvador made during his on-campus presentation for the position that likely led to ISU’s decision about meat being “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on lands suitable for grasses and perennial crops.” Although the view that cows are better off eating grass than corn is a common one (although to what extent is debatable), it’s sacrilege in agribusiness circles in Iowa, where over a fifth of corn grown is turned into livestock feed. When asked for her opinion on whether cows evolved to eat grass (they did), she replied, “I don’t have an opinion on that statement.”

Monsanto’s donation to renovate Curtiss Hall

When ISU announced in 2008 that Monsanto had made a $1 million pledge toward the renovation of Curtiss Hall, which houses both the university’s ag college and Leopold Center, the Iowa State Daily’s Ellen Walsh-Rosmann criticized the investment in her first column for the student newspaper. She took aim specifically at a comment made by Wintersteen, who’d claimed that Monsanto shared ISU’s “vision of creating an environment that reflects the vitality of agriculture and life sciences for Iowa and the world, and that conveys the college as an exciting place to study, work and forge tomorrow’s leaders.”

“Yeah, right,” wrote Walsh-Rosmann, who was pursuing a double major in public service and administration in agriculture and international agriculture and now is a farmer and small business owner who runs the Milk & Honey restaurant in Harlan, before listing several common criticisms of Monsanto centering on its corporate business model that prioritizes profits over sustainability and citing Kirschenmann’s reminder that “land-grant universities were created for and by the people.”

“The day [the column] was published, I felt immediately like I had a target on my back,” Walsh-Rosmann told the Informer. A classmate soon told her that Wintersteen was “really upset” with her, and she learned that the column had been a topic of discussion in multiple classes, including one of hers. Days later, Wintersteen herself took the unusual step of publicly criticizing a student, writing a letter to the Daily complaining about Walsh-Rosmann’s “ill-informed and relentlessly negative opinion in the September 18 Daily toward the generosity of Monsanto.”

In response, Walsh-Rosmann said that her adviser, who had worked with Wintersteen in the past, “wrote her a letter and left her a message on her home answering machine and said, ‘You cannot tell a student to cease and desist. College is a place for students to be vocal and express their opinions. You don’t tell them to sit down and sit in the corner.’ That’s basically what she did to me.” Walsh-Rosmann said the column was “unacceptable” and that Wintersteen should have privately contacted her instead of publicly humiliating her. “If somebody who is going to be the president of a public university can think that they can do that, that’s not okay.”

Walsh-Rosmann graduated the following semester and said that she happened to be the last student in the ag college to walk across the stage at her graduation ceremony. Wintersteen congratulated her, saying it was “so nice to see her,” to which Walsh-Rosmann replied, “Peace be with you.” Although she’s since seen her at meetings, it was the last time the two spoke.

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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.