IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Bruce Rastetter, the powerful and polarizing leader of the board that governs Iowa’s three public universities, announced Friday that he will be stepping down April 30 after deciding not to seek a second six-year term.
Rastetter, a Republican who has been president of the nine-member Board of Regents since 2013, said he would not ask Gov. Terry Branstad to reappoint him. He said it was a “tough decision” but that he will leave satisfied with accomplishments that include freezing tuition for resident undergraduate students for 2 ½ years, a first in 40 years.
The announcement came after some Democrats in the Iowa Senate indicated they would likely vote against confirming Rastetter had he been reappointed. While Republicans control the chamber, Rastetter would have needed to earn votes from some Democrats to obtain the two-thirds support needed.
Rastetter said he would focus on his work as CEO of Summit Agricultural Group, his investment company that is working to develop ethanol production in Brazil. Later this year, regents will choose one of their own to be board president.
Branstad thanked Rastetter for his service, calling him a “hard-working, conscientious leader” and praising him for helping attract “outstanding university presidents.”
“We were also able to make dramatic changes to improve efficiency of the institutions and control costs for Iowa students and their families,” he said.
Branstad in 2011 appointed Rastetter, who was his top donor in the 2010 campaign in which Branstad unseated Gov. Chet Culver. The governor orchestrated a leadership shakeup in which the board’s top leaders were demoted and Rastetter was elevated to the no. 2 position. Rastetter became president two years later despite controversy that often swirled around him.
Rastetter backed plans that froze tuition rates for in-state undergraduates, saying students needed relief from Iowa’s notoriously high debt loads. The freezes proved popular with students and parents but were ultimately unsustainable after lawmakers didn’t provide funding increases sought by the schools.
A businessman who made fortunes in pork production and ethanol, Rastetter had been accused of showing favoritism toward Iowa State University and antipathy at times toward his alma mater, the University of Iowa, where he’s a major football booster.
Rastetter had been leading an investment group working with Iowa State to develop a major western-style farming operation in Tanzania on land where the government was evicting thousands of settlers. The project continued after his appointment, drawing accusations of a conflict of interest and protests. Iowa State eventually ended its involvement with the project, which Rastetter defended as a well-intentioned plan to help feed Africans.
More recently, critics were angered by Rastetter’s moves to nudge University of Iowa President Sally Mason into retirement in 2015 and the process by which the board installed businessman Bruce Harreld to replace her.
Critics said Rastetter orchestrated the search to favor Harreld, a former IBM executive who had no prior higher education management experience, over more qualified candidates. Rastetter backed the hire as a way to shake up the school. He and other regents face trial later this year in a lawsuit alleging they violated the open meetings law when they met privately with Harreld during the search.
Rastetter also faced questions about his relationship with Iowa State University President Steven Leath, who turned to Rastetter’s company for help finding, buying and dividing a $1.1 million plot of land to build a home in central Iowa in 2015.
Rastetter announced in December that the board would keep Leath as president despite an audit that found he used university airplanes for personal flight training, to attend medical appointments and to take relatives to an NCAA basketball game.
Critics had accused Leath, a pilot, of keeping quiet a 2015 hard landing in which he damaged one of the planes while returning home from vacation. But Leath had informed Rastetter about the landing weeks after it happened.
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