Rendering courtesy of Drake University

When the new home of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement opens next year on the Drake University campus, it will provide not only more space for the institute to carry out its work, but will also serve as a national model of accessibility for people with all types of disabilities, say organizers. 

Former Sen. Tom Harkin and his wife, Ruth Harkin, on Friday joined Drake University and Greater Des Moines community leaders in a ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the 16,000-square-foot building, which will be built at the southwest corner of University Avenue and 28th Street on the Drake campus. The new facility is expected to open in the fall of 2020.  

“This space will give life to our mission statement to inform, inspire, create cooperation and catalyze change on issues of social justice, fairness and opportunity,” Sen. Harkin said during a ceremony that began indoors in the Cowles Library before clearing weather allowed it move across the street to the construction site. 

Harkin was recognized on Sunday during Drake’s commencement ceremonies with an honorary degree from the university.  

Founded in 2013, the Harkin Institute “has served as a venue and catalyst for dynamic, nonpartisan research, learning and outreach to promote understanding of the policy issues to which Sen. Harkin has devoted his entire career,” said Joseph Jones, the institute’s executive director. 

The institute is currently housed nearby at 2429 University Ave., in a strip mall office space next to Great Clips. Its six full-time staff members work with about 20 undergraduate and law school students each semester.  

“The new building provides expanded space for our fellows to work on important research and policy initiatives, as well as additional rooms for meetings and collaboration with our many partners on campus,” Jones said. “It will also provide more space for public programming, and to display materials from the vast archival collections that are housed in this building [the Cowles Library].” 

Harkin, among whose key accomplishments was passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, challenged the building’s designer, Des Moines-based BNIM, to achieve a new level of “universal design” for accessibility. Some of those features include: 

  • A two-story ramp that will serve as the main method of moving between floors for all visitors and staff.
  • Close proximity of accessible parking spots to the front entrance
  • Wide hallways, which can accommodate multiple wheelchair users at one time. This space is also important for individuals who use American Sign Language, because space is needed to sign and see what the other person is signing


The facility’s large windows and significant amounts of light will also aid people who use visual communication. Also, outlets and light switches will be contrasting colors rather than blending in, so they are easy to identify by people with low vision. 

“We’re extremely proud that the Harkin Institute is leading the way to promote accessibility and increased activity,” said Marsha Ternus, who chairs the 15-member Harkin Institute National Advisory Council. “And we hope that organizations across the country will look to us as an example as they rethink their own workspaces.”  

Through a fundraising campaign, the Harkin Institute has raised $7.1 million toward the $8.1 million project cost. Actual construction won’t begin, however, until the campaign fully reaches its goal, which is expected sometime this summer.  

Harkin noted that about another $300,000 remains in matching funds through a $1 million challenge grant for additional contributions made this year to the project, through the Gordon and Llura Gund Foundation.