U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, speaks at his annual fall steak fry in Indianola in 2012.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, speaks at his annual fall steak fry in Indianola in 2012.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013



Let's get straight to the point. The Harkin Institute of Public Policy shouldn't be located anywhere that's accessible by taking a taxi from an airport.

Visitors and researchers should have to traverse - by car or small plane - the farms U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin has so ably represented for 40 years in Washington, D.C.

Yes, of course, Iowa State University made perfect sense as the location for the institute. It's Harkin's alma mater. But ISU President Steve Leath and some members of the Board of Regents wanted to stage-manage research at the institute like overly bejeweled, stretch-lipped Arkansas realtors guiding seniors on tours of time shares in The Ozarks.

Leath and pals clumsily botched the siting of this institute by attaching conditions and constraints, encroaching on the purity and independence that should define it. Harkin said as much in a letter to Leath this week.

"After a time, it became evident that the university would not grant the very freedoms that I learned to cherish at Iowa State," Harkin wrote. "It intended to restrict some areas of research."

Harkin for years has held some of the more open, free-flowing news conferences in Iowa. You can hop on the calls and fire away with questions about anything. No staffer jumps in to head you off at the pass, even if Harkin, from time to time, doesn't do himself any public-relations favors with frank and passionate answers.

Iowa State, of all places, should know Harkin won't stand for funny business with access to information, his life's work, his legacy.

Bottom line, Harkin said, he won't be signing over his considerable collection of papers to Iowa State University.

It is, as Harkin painfully observed, regrettable.

But it's also an opportunity. For other places in Iowa. Including Carroll.

Harkin, who holds his bachelor's degree from ISU and a law degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., is really much more of a community college guy. The only thing Ivy League about Harkin is probably his knowledge about how the ivy actually grows on the old buildings in New Haven or Princeton or Cambridge.

Think about the people community colleges serve. They are Harkin's people.

The farmer who lost his land in the crisis of the 1980s and sought retraining. The kid whose family can't afford the rising costs of Iowa or Iowa State and opts for the two-and-two plan, to get those first credits out of the way at Des Moines Area Community College before heading to Cedar Falls. The single mother looking to climb from the ranks of the lower working class to the middle with sleep-deprived studying during the late-night hours her baby rests. Or somebody who just loves rural Iowa, has no interest in the lights and action of a university town. He wants to work on the growing number of wind turbines around here and loves the DMACC program in Carroll.

Harkin, as much as any American in history, has championed rural America. His papers will cover a sweep of issues related to American government since the Vietnam War, from economics to foreign affairs to civil rights for the disabled to agriculture. Through it all, you will see a man viewing the world with a foundation and values developed in rural Iowa.

That's what the Harkin Institute brings to our nation. It will be a place of academic study girding ideas to move rural America forward. So it should be in rural Iowa. It should be staffed by people who live in rural Iowa. After all, you have to breathe the air here to speak our language.

Harkin has represented Carroll since his days in the U.S. House. We have a wonderful institution of higher learning here in Des Moines Area Community College. It's not fancy. It's serious. Like Harkin.

What's more, with the presence of New Hope Village, our city has seamlessly integrated the disabled into our businesses and community life in a way that will continue to make Sen. Harkin proud to have represented Carroll. We have a rich Catholic history in Carroll, and the church's teachings on social justice have informed Harkin's decisions, framed his philosophical core.

We know Drake University in Des Moines and any number of esteemed small four-year colleges in Iowa are likely courting the Harkin Institute.

And we won't begrudge a decision to locate at any one of them. They are fine places.

But think of the statement it would make about rural Iowa and community colleges if Harkin and the team behind his institute were to announce plans to build it in Carroll as part of Des Moines Area Community College's flourishing network.

It just seems like something Harkin would do.