Ignacio Chapela has a teaching position at UC Berkeley for at least another year, but his concern about the “secretive” tenure review process he has undergone has led to a very public display of his dissatisfaction.
From 6 a.m. Thursday to midnight Monday, Chapela is holding office hours in a “transparent office” around the clock outside California Hall, the building that houses the ofices of University Chancellor Robert Berdahl and the Budget Committee of the Academic Senate, the two offices that are in charge of Chapela’s tenure file. The question of his tenure has been under review for the past year, and Chapela said that he has been told that a decision will not come until after July 1. Chapela has said that the process has taken twice as long as usual, a claim that some university administrators refute.
“That’s not at all unusual,” said George Strait, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for public affairs. “Tenure is a very, very serious issue at this university, and we conduct thorough reviews no matter how long it takes.”
Chapela, an assistant professor of environmental science, has become one of the leading critics of biotech agriculture. In 1998 he led a fight against a proposed research partnership between UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and Novartis, a biotech firm, a plan that attracted national attention to the issue of universities forming corporate partnerships.
Now, some say that Chapela's position against the university’s plan is keeping him from receiving a fair tenure review process.
At the heart of the dispute is Jasper Rine, a professor of genetics and developmental biology and a member of the nine-person tenure review committee. In 1995, Rine co-founded a biotech company called Acacia Biosciences, a company that maintained a professional relationship with Novartis. Many Chapela allies say that this association raises serious questions regarding Rine’s ability to objectively evaluate Chapela’s tenure file.
"[It] is purely a conflict of interest," said David Noble, a science historian at York University in Toronto.
Chapela himself refuses to speculate on reasons behind the delay in his tenure process because he does not know enough about the workings of the committee. He says that it is precisely this lack of information that he is protesting.
“It’s a black box in there,” Chapela said, gesturing toward California Hall from the site of his sit-in. “I don’t know when they started my case, I don’t know how much progress they’ve made on my case, and I don’t know when they plan to finish my case. They don’t tell me anything about it.”
In response to his concerns about secrecy among top academic administrators, Chapela has taken the opposite extreme: setting up his office outside so that the general public can see exactly what he is doing all the time.
Chapela’s relocated office features all the necessities: food, water, a large tree for shade, a shelf full of books, his laptop computer complete with wireless internet access, and a constant stream of colleagues, students, friends, and strangers stopping by to offer their support. He sent a mass e-mail Thursday morning to everyone he could think of, and has since received responses from every corner of the globe.
“I got cell phone calls from my friends in London, in Latin America,” Chapela said.
Though Chapela’s contract with the university was scheduled to expire Monday, he received a letter Thursday morning extending his contract until July 2004, a move that came as a “total surprise.” Chapela said that the letter was dated June 19th, but that he had heard nothing about a possible extension until Thursday.
But administrators emphasized the need for confidentiality when dealing with personnel issues.
“There are matters that are kept private because there are only very few people who need to know about them,” Strait said.
For now, Chapela is voicing his disagreement through his transparent office. After this, he said, it remains to be seen what will happen in terms of his tenure case and the issue of academic secrecy.
“I’m among those working for change,” he said. “We’re going to keep working.”