The State Board of Regents today approved a controversial proposal to create a public policy institute named after Democrat U.S. Senator Tom Harkin at Iowa State University. Republican legislators in the Iowa House and Senate, and the governor asked the Regents to delay a vote on the issue, expressing ethical concerns over naming the institute for a sitting senator.

Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy defended the proposal and said it would be nonpartisan and would have a board that oversees its operation. Geoffroy says he believes the advisory board would be well served to not have any sitting elected representatives on it or any individuals who are “highly active” in the political parties just to “keep it free from any taint of political influence or partisanship.”

Geoffroy says the institute would carry Harkin’s name and focus on the policies he has worked on while in office, but the senator would not have any input in the workings of the institute. “It is important to emphasize that Senator Harkin would really have no input into the activities of this center, it must be above that,” Geoffroy said. “Nor would there be any benefit that comes to Senator Harkin form the kind of work that’s done in the center.”

He says there could in fact be work done that comes to opinions that are opposite of Harkin’s. The proposal would include having Harkin’s papers from his over 35-year career in the U.S. House and Senate maintained at I.S.U. Geoffroy says that would be a valuable research tool that could well draw people to the institute and school.

Regent Craig Lang, a Republican from West Des Moines, tried to have the issue tabled as he said he had just learned about the issue last week. Lang says he has had numerous e-mails about the issue since then.

Lang says he needs time to answer the e-mails, and said he is not making an assumption one way or another, but says there is a contingency of people who have weighed in and they need time to talk with him personally about the issue. The motion to table the vote failed on a six to two vote with Ruth Harkin, the senator’s wife, abstaining.

When it came time to vote, Lang said did not support the institute because of ethical questions that remain. “I believe that it is absolutely wrong for us to consider this institute at this time when we have an individual who is prestigious and so powerful in that position to ask for an institute to be named using their name, and I don’t care who it is,”Lang said.”Now, if the senator was making an announcement now about his retirement, I would change my vote.”

Regent Bonnie Campbell of Des Moines said she saw no reason to delay the vote. Campbell says she is a Democrat, but says she’d feel the same way if they were setting up a public policy institute named for Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. “It is a good thing for Iowa State. Public policy is broad and it’s very important and it is to be honored,” Campbell says. “I support it strongly, and I think we are very, very luck to have this opportunity to even vote for it.”

Regent Lang voted no on the proposal along with regent Greta Johnson of Le Mars. The remaining regents voted for the proposal with Ruth Harkin abstaining. Former Democrat Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson is leading the fundraising effort for the institute.