Ignacio Chapela, the UC Berkeley professor denied tenure after his outspoken criticisms of genetically modified crops and corporate/academic ties, filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court Monday against the UC Board of Regents.
The action, filed by Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, alleges wrongful conduct by the university on three separate grounds: discrimination on the basis of national origins (Chapela was born in Mexico), violation of the California Whistleblower Protection Act, and false representations by the university of the real grounds of “secret, de facto requirements for promotion.”
The lawsuit doesn’t include specific monetary damages, which Siegel said would be determined later in the course of the action. The suit does call for remuneration for:
• Lost wages, earnings and benefits.
• Compensatory damages for humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress.
• Injunctions to mandate redress of the alleged wrongs.
• Attorneys’ fees and costs of the action.
“I’ve been at UC Berkeley for eight years, and I have very mixed feelings about the case moving away from the internal processes of the university,” Chapela said Monday.
Monday’s filing was forced by the impending statutory filing deadline for filing a discrimination lawsuit, Siegel said. Chapela filed a discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing last April 21, and received immediate notice of his right to file suit.
According to the discrimination statue, any lawsuit must be filed within a year of state notification, forcing Chapela to act this week. On June 24, the professor also filed a complaint with the university alleging that he had suffered retaliation for his whistleblowing activities. He said Monday that the university failed to respond within the time required by statute.
Chapela serves on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management of the College of Natural Resources.
By most accounts, the controversial professor’s career foundered on two issues: his outspoken critique of UC Berkeley’s financial partnership with Novartis, a Swiss biotech giant since renamed Syngenta, and his publication of a report describing man-made genes in native strains of Mexican corn.
Chapela and graduate student Richard Quist published their findings in Nature, long considered the world’s preeminent scientific journal, in November 2001. Agribusiness giants, alarmed by the implications of the findings, immediately launched a countercampaign designed to discredit the researchers.
Much of the heat came from a British website that offered criticisms from supposed scientists who were later revealed as fabrications of the site’s creator. Critics also sent scathing letters to Nature, which responded with a quasi correction, the journal’s first, that advised readers to decide for themselves on the accuracy of the report.
Despite the Nature flap, Chapela’s colleagues voted 32 to 1 in favor of tenure, followed by a unanimous vote for tenure by the Campus Ad Hoc Committee on tenure on Oct. 3, 2002. But on June 5, 2003, the university’s budget committee voted against tenure. After a second negative vote by the budget panel, then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl denied Chapela tenure on Nov. 20.
The university agreed to keep Chapela on staff through the remainder of this academic year, and Chancellor Robert Birgenau is currently considering his case, Chapela said.
“I believe there are illegal channels of influence driven by corporate, academic and political forces that are not disclosed to faculty,” Chapela said. “The university is governed by a shadow process, which I really look forward to shedding some light on through this action.”
The net result of the process, Chapela said, is to harness the university, its faculty, and its students to benefit profit-making corporations rather than the common good.
“This has gone on way too long,” he said. “My hope is that this action will open up the case to the public of Berkeley, this country, and the world.”
Following massive academic and public outcry against the Novartis pact, UC Berkeley submitted the agreement for review by Michigan State University. Though their report found that many of the worst fears of critics hadn’t materialized, both UC Berkeley and Novartis agreed to end the compact when the five-year term ended in 2003.
Siegel said he assumes the case will take 14 to 18 months to come to trial. UC Berkeley did not respond to a request for a comment on the lawsuit.›