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Ousted Professor Holds Final Class By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday December 10, 2004

It began inside a classroom, where a world-renowned professor was holding his last session with students, barring a decision from UC Berkeley’s new chancellor. 

Then it moved outside as ever-growing numbers of students, academics and journalists marshaled for a march on California Hall. 

It climaxed in a chant outside California Hall, a cascading chorus of protest aimed at Chancellor Robert Birgeneau: “Justice Now! Justice Now! Justice Now! Justice Now!” 

For Ignacio Chapela, a member of the Cal’s department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management faculty since 1995, the day marked the end of the latest chapter of his battles for academic freedom and his challenges to an increasingly corporatized academic culture. 

An overflowing crowd of students, faculty, and supporters crammed into his last class. As the 8:30 a.m. class drew to a close, Chapella thanked the crowd and vowed to “keep raising hell.” After a standing ovation, the group led a march to the chancellor’s office in California Hall. There they protested Chapella’s dismissal and called on the university to grant him tenure. 

Chapela’s once-promising career at Berkeley foundered on two critical issues. 

When Swiss biotech giant Novartis (now renamed Syngenta) struck a five-year $25 million deal with the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, Chapela was quick to criticize, citing the obvious potential of conflicts of interest and corporate control of research. 

His frankness did nothing to endear him to college Dean Gordon Rausser, one of the architects of the agreement. 

But the crowning blow followed from a discovery made by Chapela and one of his graduate students, David Quist, one of the founders of Students for Responsible Research. 

A native of Mexico, Chapela has remained deeply involved with his homeland, conducting research and helping indigenous people work toward economic self-sufficiency. 

Quist and Chapela discovered strands of genetically modified DNA in the genome of native strands of corn cultivated in the heart of the region where maize was first domesticated. 

Chapela and Quist submitted their findings to Nature, the British scientific journal which remains the world’s preeminent scientific publication. Their publication in November 2001 ignited a firestorm. 

Their discovery wasn’t the first instance of artificial genetic intrusion. Reports have surfaced of strands of DNA conferring resistance to the pesticide Roundup finding their way into the weeds the herbicide was designed to kill.  

But the Chapela/Quist discovery was especially troubling to the agribusiness giants whose patented strains of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are being spread throughout the world and generating huge profits. 

The implicit threat their research raised was of homogenized crops, of a reduction of genetic diversity that could render crops far more vulnerable because diverse varieties with a wide range of resistances would vanish into a giant genomic blender. 

The attack was instant and fierce. A British web site posted scathing critiques from non-existent scientists who turned out to be creations of a corporate advertising and Nature received letters, one from a UC Berkeley colleague of Chapela, who questioned the scientists’ methodology. 

In the end, Nature published a partial retraction—the first in the publication’s history—that advised readers to make their own interpretations of the findings. 

Other research has since verified their findings, buy the damage was already done. 

Chapela was already up for tenure when the Nature furor erupted, but the flap didn’t prevent department members from voting 32 to 1 in favor of tenure, followed by tenure recommendations from both his department chair and the dean of the College of Natural Resources. 

On Oct. 3, a five-member Campus Ad Hoc Committee voted unanimously in favor of tenure. 

The first blow came on June 5, 2003, when the university’s budget committee made a preliminary vote against tenure. 

Then, on Nov. 12, the vice provost asked the ad hoc panel chair to reevaluate tenure in light of new critical letter, prompting the resignation of the chair. 

After another negative vote from the budget committee, Chancellor Robert Berdahl denied tenure on Nov. 20, 2003, despite repeated tenure recommendations from the chair and dean. 

Chapela’s supporters are hoping for a more receptive hearing from new Chancellor Birgeneau, an academic with a history of involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Professors, journalists and supporters joined the regular student contingent for Thursday’s final class, an undergraduate course in environmental biology. They filled the seats, lined the walls and sat on the floor. 

The discussion was wide ranging—“part of the class is to show how environmental biology is connected to everything else”—and he invited all those in attendance, students and others, to comment on a current event and show its connection to environmental biology. 

One student raised the issue of Proposition 71 as corporate welfare, the voter-approved $3 billion in funding for stem cell research, embodied in the California Institute for Regenerative medicine. 

“It’s the bailout of an industry that was in pretty bad shape,” said Chapela. “It’s exempt from public scrutiny. The Legislature can scream and scream, but they really can’t do much.” 

Another student cited the Bush administration’s decision to undo protections for salmon spawning runs and to include hatchery populations in the census of wild salmon. 

Other issues raised included the implications of Bush administration research bunker-busting nuclear weapons and UC’s long-standing in nuclear weaponry and the planned nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. 

During the class volunteers passed out cut sections of ribbons, red and earthy green, and audience members tied them to their forearms, reminiscent of two forms of protein on which so much of life depends, hemoglobin and chlorophyll. 

As class drew down to the end, Chapela declared, “I will keep raising hell in different forms.” 

After a standing ovation, one after another, professors rose to pay tribute to their colleague. 

“Today is also my last class,” Professor Andrew Gutierrez told the crowd. Unlike Chapela, Gutierrez is retiring. 

“I have come to the conclusion that Aristotle could not have made tenure here,” he said. “Honesty is not something that’s appreciated at this campus. The Mario Savio Steps and the Free Speech Cafe are two monuments to hypocrisy.” 

Miguel Altieri, a professor of insect biology, urged the audience of “the need to remember that this is a public university. We cannot allow this hypocrisy.” 

Two weeks ago, Altieri said, he had written the new chancellor, “saying this was your chance. I didn’t even get a reply. The university does not belong to the university or to the corporations. It belongs to us.”  

Jennifer Miller, an assistant professor in the English Department, said that the last time she was in Chapela’s classroom she’d been lecturing on oppression 

“We are very, very lucky to have had Ignacio as a teacher,” she said.  

Miller recalled a time when she and Chapela had been serving on a committee and Chancellor Berdahl had asked them what might cause them to leave the university. 

“He said, ‘Is there something so wrong that it would cause you to leave?’ 

“Ignacio and I replied, ‘If there was something so wrong, the last thing we would do is leave. We would stay and fight.” 

Then everyone filed outside and began the march on California Hall. 

After a pair of chants calling for tenure, the audience listened as speakers addressed them through an amplified bullhorn. 

First up was Dan Siegel, Chapela’s attorney in his fight for tenure and a veteran of the ‘60s protest movement. 

“The last time I came to California Hall, I was sitting in,” he said. “I was arrested for protesting the actions of another chancellor.” 

Birgeneau, he said, “is caught in the conflict between doing the right thing and doing the expedient thing. As time goes on, we may need to escalate our tactics, but we will succeed.” 

Siegel pointed to another colleague of Chapela’s who had run afoul of corporate power, “Professor Tyrone Hayes of the Department of Integrative Biology, whose research discovered the unintended consequences of corporate intervention into biology.” 

Hayes discovered the effects of the pesticide Atrazine on frogs, which developed severe malformations when exposed to the toxins. 

Hayes then stepped forward. “If we lose Ignacio, diversity in the biological sciences will decrease by 50 percent. Isn’t it a coincidence that Ignacio and I have wound up on the wrong side of the same corporation that was funding research here at the university?” 

Hayes said he had consulted for Novartis and his work had been published in Nature and by the National Academy of Sciences. “I was lucky I had tenure; the vice chancellor wrote a letter saying I shouldn’t be doing any work here on campus. 

“This is bigger than frogs or corn.” 

David Quist, Chapela’s collaborator on the transgenic corn research, said Chapela’s tenure case should’ve been open and shut. “Then we get to the top levels of the administration and they show him the door.” 

Carolyn Merchant, professor of environmental history, philosophy, and ethics, said the denial of tenure is “unethical and unprecedented. I would urge the chancellor to look at the process and grant tenure, Right here. Today. Now.” 

“Something is rotten, not in Denmark, but here in Berkeley,” said Ethnic Studies Professor Carlos Munoz. “This case send a clear message that faculty who challenge the dominant paradigm are not welcome, especially if they don’t accept corporate funding.” 

Barbara Epstein, professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, blasted the tenure denial. “The university is egregiously violating its own rules. I hope this struggle continues.” 

Joe Nielands, emeritus professor of biochemistry, came to UC Berkeley in 1952. In a firm, clear voice, he decried “the privatization and the corporatization of the university,” harkening back to the days when the school’s funding came primarily from Sacramento. 

“The Budget Committee knows the chancellor wants to get his hands on that corporate loot. . . Chapela is exactly the kind of person we need around here. He has wisdom, and above all he has courage and integrity.” 

After more praise from John Garcia, instructor at the University of San Francisco, it was finally Chapela’s turn. 

It wasn’t his first time outside California Hall. After his denial of tenure, Chapela had brought a desk and held “office hours” outside administration headquarters in protest of the decision. 

Chapela said the idea of the march first came up Saturday, and when the word got out, e-mails and phone calls poured in from around the world. 

“You are standing here for many others,” he told the crowd. 

“At exactly the moment this was scheduled, the university scheduled another media event,” a press tour at the university Richmond Field Station, where the university is planning a major corporate/university research park adjacent to Campus Bay. 

“Now we are all students and teachers together, and I hope you will get the word out.” 

And then came the last chant, “We Want Justice!” repeated over and over again. 

While Birgeneau refused to meet with the protesters, one of his staff did agree to accept copies of a letter signed by 145 university professors and 174 others calling for a review of Chapela’s case and extension of his employment. 

Calls placed to the Chancellor’s office met with no response.?