What's the Matter with Iowa?

February, 2019

Lincoln -- Kansas has started to come to its senses after years of self-destructive governance chronicled by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas? Now it must be asked, what's the matter with Iowa?

Three uncomplimentary articles have appeared this winter that reflect poorly on Iowa.

The New York Times describes the debt trap state-regulated cosmetology schools set for unwary Iowans who want to become cosmetologists. Student-loan borrowers will find it difficult if not impossible to make enough in this profession to pay off their loans. The article raises a question: knowing that borrowers will be ruined financially, how can state and federal education authorities, and loan servicers and collectors, participate in this shameless exploitation?

The Guardian describes suppression of academic freedom at Iowa State University. Faculty research there must conform to outside funders' expectations, or else. A U.S. Senator withdrew an offer of his papers to ISU out of concern that they would be censored.

An Inside Higher Ed article, focusing on current tenure struggles, recalls a previous low point for ISU decades ago in the margarine wars. Faculty advanced the idea that consumers at home should try margarine during WWII because the troops abroad needed dairy products like butter. Some faculty were forced out by the butter lobby, including two who went on to win Nobel prizes at other universities.

I remember how consumers who wanted to be patriotic, or simply to save money, were discouraged from buying margarine. In the 1940s, we had to buy margarine in packaging that made it look like white lard, then mix in yellow food coloring from a separate capsule if we wanted it to look like butter. As a kid, that was sometimes my household chore.

As a Nebraska taxpayer and UNL alumnus, I should reflect on my own state and institution. I don't think the situation is so bad, at least in comparison to our neighbor. The NU Board of Regents recently strengthened protections for faculty and others who face retaliation for unpopular views (or even popular views that run afoul of outside funders' wishes). It would be a wise administration that never has to see the protections applied.