The Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University was intended to be an important center for research and teaching on public policy issues, created in the name of powerful Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa State alumnus.
But after Harkin announced in a letter Tuesday that he would not donate his papers to the university as planned, the center's future looks bleak.
In a statement posted to the university's website, Iowa State University president Steven Leath said he "cannot say at this time" whether the institute "would continue to function."
Sen. Harkin, whose office did not immediately respond to request for comment, said in the letter that he was cutting ties because he feared university leaders would restrict academic freedoms and research at the institute.
And on Wednesday, Whispers learned that at least one major donor to the institute is dropping out.
Herbalife, a global nutrition company that pledged $100,000 to the center, tells Whispers it won't deliver the third part of a planned grant because Harkin isn't donating his papers.
The Iowa State University Foundation, which oversaw the donations to the center, tells Whispers that depending on the institute's future it will "conduct a thorough review of all pledges and/or gifts it has accepted" and if needed "work with each donor in case-by-case conversations to determine the best course of action."
According to a list of donors obtained by Whispers, the institute had raised only about $3.3 million in pledged donations out of a supposed $10 million endowment.
In addition to the academic tension Harkin cited, ethical questions about donors had plagued the institute from the start. The Associated Press reported last week that Harkin's campaign fundraiser had shared a list of potential donors with the center, sparking fears that the Democratic senator would have direct influence over the center.
The AP also reported that one of the largest donors to the institute was PMX Industries, a copper company that would benefit from Harkin's push for a dollar coin to replace the dollar note.
Questions were also raised about the donation from Herbalife, a top contributor to the Iowa senator's campaign in the past, and a company that benefited from Harkin's 1994 legislation, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Harkin has also spoken in favor of Herbalife and herbal supplements a number of times, including in an interview in a Herbalife newsletter.
There's been some speculation that Harkin would move his papers—and the institute—to another university. A private university would not be required to release information about donors. But it is unclear whether the institute move would attract the funding needed to get off the round.
PMX Industries Vice President of Human Resources Jim Richardson tells Whispers he doesn't know if the company would donate more if Harkin's papers were moved elsewhere. Herbalife spokeswoman Barbara Henderson said there's been "no discussion of supporting an institute at another institution of higher education."