The relationship between Iowa State University and AgriSol Energy, as revealed in more than 400 emails recently obtained by the Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request, raises fundamental questions about transparency of public institutions and the meaning of public-private partnerships.
The emails, exchanged among ISU officials and Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter, discuss details of the AgriSol partnership and show that Rastetter, who also is CEO and a major investor of AgriSol, continued to work on the project after his appointment by Gov. Terry Branstad to the board.
Equally troubling, they also show that ISU officials were less than forthcoming about the relationship, even when asked direct questions about it in February by Tribune reporter Hannah Furfaro.
The project in question was development of some 800,000 acres in Tanzania, from which the Tanzania government had removed 160,000 Burundian refugees who had lived on the land for 40 years.
Originally, the project included growing some crops for biofuel, but the AgriSol Tanzania website now says those plans have been abandoned, along with plans to use the former refugee settlement.
For its part, ISU severed ties to the project in February.
In February, ISU also maintained that its interest in the project was to develop educational programs for farmers, called “smallholders,” who worked subsistence farms near the projected AgriSol farm. In addition, ISU said, consulting work done for AgriSol by ISU employees was on their own time, at AgriSol expense.
Instead, it appears that ISU paid the salaries of several employees while they consulted for AgriSol, including soil sampling and land scouting as early as 2009. The emails suggested that Rastetter and AgriSol establish scholarship funds in exchange for ISU’s contributions.
Discussion of the educational outreach program appears in an email dated January 2011, some two years after ISU says it started working with AgriSol. In it, David Acker, associate dean for academic and global programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Science, says that ISU “had not been asked to develop a plan until last week.”
It’s always better, we believe, to tell the truth when one is caught out doing something one shouldn’t. ISU apparently came to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be involved with AgriSol. That was the right decision, but ISU owes its constituents — including Iowa’s taxpayers — honesty and transparency, even, or perhaps especially, when it has made a mistake.
Mistakes, when they’re owned up to, can be forgiven. Stonewalling and evasion rarely are.
AgriSol aside, this controversy also calls for a better understanding of what “public-private partnership” will mean as ISU President Steven Leath pursues expansion of such partnerships.
If it means attracting private investment to support academic research that has the potential to break new ground and provide benefits beyond the university and the individual investors, we’re all for it.
If, on the other hand, it means using public institutions, employees and money for the benefit of a private business or a few investors, it’s a distortion of the mission of a public university like ISU and a betrayal of the public trust.
When we wrote about the AgriSol project in this space in February, we called for a written policy governing ISU’s involvement with private enterprises. The information brought to light in the 400 emails makes the need for such a policy urgent.