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Corporate donations to agriculture schools can put educators in an awkward spot

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's common to see big corporate names plastered across public university campuses. That's especially true at schools with big agriculture programs. Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports how that can create conflicts of interest.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: Dozens of public universities across the country tout big agriculture programs where students conduct important research. While federal and state tax dollars have historically kept these agriculture schools afloat, that money has largely dwindled. And in its place, corporate investors are stepping in. Since 2010, corporations have given at least $170 million to university agriculture programs. But that number only represents gifts in four states and is likely a severe undercount. Donor information requested in other states is shielded by privacy laws. Some, like Gabrielle McNally with American Farmland Trust, worry that money limits the scope of university research.

GABRIELLE MCNALLY: Corporate influence has that kind of - it's this much more tacit sort of control over the research agenda. And so it's a way for people to say like, well, they're not controlling us. They're not our puppet masters. But we only research the crops that they're heavily investing in.

CRONIN: Corporate gifts can come with consequences. Take the University of Illinois, for example, one of whose top donors is commercial agriculture giant Monsanto. In 2018, Monsanto execs noticed a University of Illinois professor speaking out against one of the company's products, a weed killer called dicamba. According to an email exchange shared with Harvest Public Media and Investigate Midwest, a Monsanto exec wrote, quote, "hate to see the U of I take these positions." Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, declined an interview but conceded in a statement that it, quote, "should have done a better job communicating."

The university defended its professor, but the incident highlights an increasingly sticky situation, though that's not stopping schools from soliciting corporate money. A few years ago, Iowa State University had its sights set on a multimillion-dollar project, a working feed mill near campus to process corn into animal food. Ray Klein knew what to do. He directs the Office of Partnerships for Iowa State's ag school.

RAY KLEIN: We realized that there was a strong possibility that we could get all of that funding raised through the generosity of private gift donors.

CRONIN: Iowa-based Kent Corporation, a big industry player, kicked in $8 million and won naming rights for the mill. Two other ag corporations also donated millions. Iowa State's ag school Dean Daniel Robison defends the funding.

DANIEL ROBISON: Our ability to work with them and their interest in working with us speaks to - I think it speaks largely to our relevancy, frankly, to the industry that helps to support the production of food.

CRONIN: But critics of corporate university partnerships like these worry about donor influence on research. Yale University's Austin Frerick is among them.

AUSTIN FRERICK: My fear, though, is a corrupting of the sciences on what research is produced - not only, like, what is produced but what is not produced.

CRONIN: Iowa State is still seeking donors for its feed mill project. The university says it's soliciting federal, state and private funding. For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

SHAPIRO: And this story was co-reported with Harvest Public Media reporters Katie Peikes and Seth Bodine in collaboration with Investigate Midwest.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "EVE II (ODESZA REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dana Cronin
Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.
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