Droppin’ Knowledge

Farm agriculture bureau group influences Iowa State hiring.

Corn field in Iowa. Getty Images.

by Chronicle:

When Ricardo Salvador applied for the directorship of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, he seemed like a shoo-in. Mr. Salvador is well known in sustainable-agriculture circles for being both soft-spoken and forthright, possessing an easy command of the issues and a knack for putting complex problems into context. Plus, as a former professor at Iowa State, he was already familiar with the university and with the difficulties faced by Iowa farmers.

But despite having the support of the center’s advisory board, Mr. Salvador didn’t get the job. Supporters of Mr. Salvador believe it was objections from outside agriculture groups, not concerns about his academic credentials, that led to his rejection. The president confirmed that he had received a letter from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation about Mr. Salvador, though he said he had forgotten about the letter and that it “certainly had no direct effect on my decision.” He also said that he had spoken to the dean of the agriculture school, Wendy K. Wintersteen, and that she had heard from agriculture groups that voiced doubts about Mr. Salvador.

Jersey grass fed cows.

The remark that may have sunk Mr. Salvador’s candidacy came 37 minutes into his on-campus presentation. While discussing a research project in New York State, he mentioned meat being “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on lands suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”

“I shuddered when I heard that,” says Dennis Keeney, who became the Leopold center’s first director, in 1988, agrees that cattle are supposed to eat grass, not corn. But saying so in Iowa—which grows more corn than any other state—is likely to attract attention. Pressure from outside groups, as well as from within the university, he says, may make it so that “the center just can’t be governed anymore.”

While what happened at Iowa State is unusual, other sustainability programs have dealt with similar issues, according to Chad Kruger, interim director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, at Washington State University. Mr. Kruger says he’s been able to be more outspoken because his center has a record of fund-raising success and because he grew up on a farm, which lends him some credibility among farmers.

After the failed search, the Leopold center selected an interim director, Lois Wright Morton, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State, whose research has focused on agriculture and health.

A spokesman for the university said it would probably be next year before the center again begins the process of searching for a permanent director.


Commenter 11207442:

“It is a challenge for universities to maintain their integrity when they are under pressure from powerful interest groups, but they must make every effort to do so since we need them to be centers of creativity and inspiration for needed changes.”