Erasing History? Budget Cuts Threaten to Gut Ag History at Iowa State University

Author Michael Crichton noted, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” Opportunities to preserve Iowa’s ag history are being uprooted, however, as Iowa State University’s (ISU) College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) plans to make millions of dollars in budget cuts.

ISU’s history department is among the hardest-hit departments. The latest budget cut, when combined with an earlier cut, will reduce the history department’s budget by 34% during the next three years. To meet this target, the history department is considering eliminating its graduate programs and search for further economies.

“The decisions made today influence the future,” said Michael M. Belding III, 31, a Ph.D. candidate studying rural, agricultural, technological, and environmental history at ISU. “I disagree with the budget cuts for ISU’s history department, because the people of Iowa deserve better.”
Belding has been gathering signatures to challenge these budget cuts, which would eliminate graduate programs in ISU’s history department.

Michael Belding, Ph.D. student, Iowa State University

Michael M. Belding III, a Ph.D. candidate studying rural, agricultural, technological, and environmental history at Iowa State University (ISU), has been gathering signatures to challenge severe budget cuts that would eliminate graduate programs in ISU’s history department.

He took action after Dr. Beate Schmittmann, LAS dean, announced a new round of budget cuts as part of her “Reimagining LAS” initiative. This is intended to “right-size” the budget in response to changing enrollment and student demand and “to position the college for future success,” according to ISU.

Slashing the history department’s budget will destroy ISU’s nationally-recognized RATE program, which focuses on rural history, agricultural history, technology history and environmental history. “If these proposed budget cuts occur, ISU is throwing away an innovative, important program,” noted Dr. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a distinguished professor of history at ISU.

If this happens, there will be long-lasting, negative impacts for Iowa, added Dr. Joe Anderson, a professor of history at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. “The Midwest has long been dynamic powerhouse of agriculture and innovation,” said Anderson, who earned his Ph.D. in history at ISU. “Everyone who cares about Iowa and its past should be mad as hell about ISU’s decision.”

Iowa’s ag heritage isn’t just for history majors
The risk of losing graduate programs in ISU’s history department doesn’t just affect future historians or professors. “This will limit opportunities to preserve Iowa’s cultural heritage,” said Dr. Kevin Mason, an assistant professor of history at Waldorf University in Forest City.

Not everyone who enrolls in history classes at ISU is a history major, added Mason, who received his Ph.D. in rural and environmental history from ISU in 2020. They include attorneys, engineers, architects and high school teachers who want to expand their knowledge of Iowa’s heritage. “If you care about Iowa history, you need to understand ag history.”

The only other university offering anything similar to ISU’s RATE program is Mississippi State University (MSU), although MSU focuses on Southern—not Midwestern—history. Neither the University of Iowa nor the University of Northern Iowa focus on ag/rural history, Riney-Kehrberg added.

“In most history courses and books, there’s little or no information on ag history following the Civil War,” noted Riney-Kehrberg, who researches American rural and agricultural history and will soon publish her latest book, When a Dream Dies: Agriculture, Iowa and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. “The standard American history textbook might have one sentence about the Farm Crisis.”

The same dearth of information is evident when it comes to the role of women in agriculture. “There are many women’s studies courses today, but they often only teach the story of urban women, not rural women,” Riney-Kehrberg added.

Dr. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, distinguished professor of history at ISU

“If these proposed budget cuts occur, ISU is throwing away an innovative, important program,” notes Dr. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a distinguished professor of history at Iowa State University.

History comes to life through the “land-grant land hunt”
While Yale University offers agrarian studies, it’s not the boots-on-the-ground style of research and extension that a land-grant university like ISU provides, Riney-Kehrberg noted.

Brandon Duxbury experienced this first-hand through the “land-grant land hunt” that ISU Extension undertook from 2014-2018. Contrary to popular belief, not a single acre of Story County land was given to Iowa State as part of the land-grant act (the Morrill Act) of 1862. Iowa was the first state to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act to build a college for the study of agriculture and the mechanical arts. Iowa Governor Samuel Kirkwood appointed Peter Melendy to select the best 210,000 acres of Iowa land to fund the new land-grant college. Most of this land was available in north-central and northwest Iowa.

Iowa became the first state to digitally map all these land-grant parcels within the state. Duxbury, a South Dakota native and graduate student in ISU’s history program, researched countless historical documents and interviewed current landowners to share their stories of their farmland. “People were always excited when we contacted them about this project,” said Duxbury, who is the new curator of collections at the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

These stories, videos, a digital map and more can be found at “Efforts like this inspire people to ask better questions about the legacy they’re leaving with the land,” Duxbury said.

Making Iowa history relevant in ways like this is vital, said Belding, a Story City native who has links to his petitions on his Twitter account @mickey_belding. “I grew up thinking history involved big events that happened elsewhere, not here in Iowa. The more I research Iowa’s ag history, though, the more attached I get to Iowa.”

Calhoun County, Iowa, farm

Family farms like this one near Yetter in Calhoun County have driven the economy in Iowa and the Midwest for generations. “The Midwest has long been dynamic powerhouse of agriculture and innovation,” says Dr. Joe Anderson, a professor of history at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, who earned his Ph.D. in history at Iowa State University (ISU). “Everyone who cares about Iowa and its past should be mad as hell about ISU’s decision.”

Teaching history prepares students for success
Along with researching and preserving Iowa history, ISU’s history department helps students develop a broad skill set, including communication. “My dad was a computer programmer who was promoted to management,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “He always emphasized that reading, writing and speaking skills were essential for a successful career.”

History classes also teach students research skills, data analysis and critical thinking. “You have to make an argument, and then find facts to support this argument,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “All this requires you to think carefully and broadly.”

Studies show that students with a solid LAS education, including history, have some of the best outcomes five years after college graduation. “These graduates tend to make more money, are the least likely to be fired, are less likely to move back home to live with their parents and are more likely to be promoted,” said Anderson, citing sources like the 2018 report “Humans Wanted: The Coming Skills Revolution,” published by the Royal Bank of Canada. “We’re very short-sighted as a culture if we devalue skills that come from studying the humanities.”

The “soft skills” of how people communicate with each other, interact with colleagues and solve problems are just as important to workplace readiness and employability as hard skills, especially as technology evolves. “It doesn’t take a ‘George Jetson’ moment to imagine a day when artificial intelligence and other technologies will replace some of the jobs we currently train people for,” Anderson, who served as director of history and interpretation at Living History Farms in Urbandale in the 1990s. “Our society will always need people who are skilled in human connection and communication.”

Society also needs educated citizens, both rural and urban, with a solid understanding of agricultural history, Anderson added. “People who are trained in ISU’s history department often go on to run museums in Iowa and the Midwest, teach at community colleges like DMACC or Hawkeye Community College, teach at land-grant universities, or pursue a variety of other careers.”

Everywhere they go, these professionals take Iowa history with them, noted Anderson, a south-central Nebraska native who loved spending time on his grandparents’ farms in Missouri and Iowa. He often incorporates Midwestern history into the classes he teaches in Canada. “This perspective helps people better understand many pressing issues today, from water quality to food production.”

Integrating history with tourism, economic development
It’s essential to be open to new ways of making Iowa history relevant to a wider audience, Mason said. “I believe history departments, especially at a land-grant like ISU, can collaborate across academic disciplines to help create a more diversified economy that encourages young people to stay in Iowa.”

Mason, who grew up in Pella, saw how Iowa history was intertwined with job creation, economic development and tourism in his hometown. “Tradition is important in Pella. Honoring this heritage helps young people gain a sense of place and the sense of pride that comes from knowing their history.”

Anyone who is concerned about the proposed funding cuts to ISU’s history department should contact their state legislators, the Board of Regents, and Dr. Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of LAS at ISU. It’s important to take action now, Duxbury said. “The loss of ISU’s graduate history programs is a loss to Iowa history. Fighting these drastic cuts is a battle worth fighting.”

Note: I wrote this article for Farm News. It first appeared in the Friday, May 27, 2022, edition of Farm News. I’ve had a number of people ask me what they can do to fight these budget cuts. First, if you’re an Iowan, contact the senator and representative who represent you at the state level in the Iowa legislature. Also, contact leaders at ISU, including: 

Iowa State University
Attn. Dr. Beate Schmittmann
202 Catt
2224 Osborn Dr.
Ames IA 50011-4009

Iowa State University
Office of the President, Dr. Wendy Wintersteen
515 Morrill Road
1750 Beardshear Hall
Ames, IA 50011

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