September 18, 2007 The Pump Handle 3Comment

Yesterday, the University of California at Irvine announced that it was reappointing Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of its new law school. Chemerinsky had been offered the job, but then the University withdrew the offer after the LA Times published a Chemerinsky op-ed critical of the Bush administration. After an outcry from scholars and an in-depth conversation between Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, Chemerinsky was re-offered the position.

This incident has spawned 163 news articles (according to Google News), while another case involving academic freedom gets far less attention. Goldie Blumenstyk reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When Robert W. Van Kirk released a study in January about selenium contamination in trout streams in southeastern Idaho, he expected some flak from the influential phosphate-mining industry. He didn’t expect to feel pressured by the administration of his own institution, Idaho State University, where he is an associate professor of mathematics.

His research, paid for by a local environmental group, indeed raised the hackles of mining interests. Executives of one major mine operator, the J.R. Simplot Company, called the university’s leaders about the study just days after it came out.

The provost, Robert A. Wharton, responded by asking a vice president to investigate Mr. Van Kirk and his collaborator. That inquiry found no irregularities, but Mr. Wharton disclosed to the company the name of the journal where the research was to be published before Mr. Van Kirk could object that it might compromise the peer-review process.


Mr. Van Kirk says he doesn’t know if he will ever want to pursue controversial research again at Idaho State, especially if he wants to make full professor. And his research collaborator, Sheryl L. Hill, who also happens to be his wife, may have already paid a price.

This summer she was removed from her post overseeing instructional biology laboratories at Idaho State in a move that both researchers contend the provost carried out to appease mining interests. She has since been given another position that ends after this academic year.

While it may be commonplace for companies to try to exert pressure on researchers, says Mr. Van Kirk, “it’s the job of the university administration to protect its faculty.”

University leaders defend their actions, but it’s clear that Van Kirk’s and Hill’s careers have been affected. And if companies succeed in pressuring researchers to alter their studies or their career paths, the consequences are far-reaching:

Francesca T. Grifo, director of the scientific-integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says her office, in Washington, regularly gets calls from university researchers — particularly from state universities — who, like Mr. Van Kirk, feel that their institution is buckling to industry pressure instead of defending them against influential parties.

It is understandable that a researcher might feel at risk, she says, if “they asked questions without reassuring him of his importance to the university and the importance of his academic freedom.”

And even if it cannot be proven that Ms. Hill lost her job as a result, she says the situation may have lasting consequences. “There is harm if he hesitates to pursue this line of research in the future,” because good science that is found worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal benefits society, says Ms. Grifo. “If he decides after this experience not to do this kind of applied research, we lose.”

Studies that find negative health effects from particular substances will never be popular with the industries that make or use the substances, but this kind of research is essential for public health. If universities don’t staunchly defend the faculty members who are undertaking it, we could all suffer.

3 thoughts on “Will Universities Stick up for Controversial Faculty?

  1. Interesting post.

    Just a day before your post, Tyler Cowen blogged about Fryer and Levitt’s new paper exploring the political power of the Ku Klux Klan.

    I had another idea which, I am sure given the current environment in America, will not fly but may be in another few years or decades?

    What is controversial is entirely a matter of framing within the dominant social and moral paradigms of the time.


  2. I doubt that Fryer & Levitt will convince many people to view the KKK as a social rather than terrorist organization, but of course they are free to make their arguments.

  3. Thanks, Liz.

    I think in any other setting the possibility cannot even be explored; in academia, it is possible. I agree however that a freakonomic explanation is just that, not an exercise in convincing anyone.

    As I suggested in my post, one might be tempted, but given the circumstances, hard-pushed, to stretch the ‘analysis’ to al-Qaeda…

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