Reversing a decision by his predecessor, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has granted tenure and retroactive pay to embattled Professor Ignacio Chapela.
The action comes a month after Chapela filed suit against the University of California.
“I don’t know what I will do next,” said Chapela, a biology professor. “This was a very shocking decision, but I’m glad that this small chapter in my story is over. This takes the tenure issue out of center stage and allows us to concentrate on the questions of the corruption of the university and how decisions are made.”
The outspoken instructor has been a thorn in the side of the College of Natural Resources where he taught in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management until last December.
Chapela took a lead role in challenging the 1998 $25 million five-year deal collaborative agreement between Swiss biotech giant Novartis—now renamed Syngenta—and his college, citing the potentials for conflicts of interest and corporate control of research.
A study conducted last year by Michigan State University concluded that Chapela’s attack on the pact had played a major role in the denial of his tenure.
In a written statement released Saturday, UC Berkeley spokesperson George Strait denied that Chapela’s attacks played any part in the original decision to deny tenure. If anything, he said, the criticisms may have actually worked in his favor—a point Chapela strongly contested.
Chapela’s lawsuit, filed April 18 in Alameda County Superior Court by Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, cited three actions of alleged wrongful conduct by the university: 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 didn’t seek specific monetary damages, but called for remuneration for lost wages, earnings and benefits, compensatory damages for humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress and attorneys’ fees and costs of the action.
Siegel hailed Birgeneau’s decision as “really great, a big victory for Ignacio and the people who have supported him. We didn’t even know it had gotten this far.”
The chancellor’s decision also granted one of the demands in the lawsuit, granting him full pay as a tenured professor back to 2003.
Siegel said he didn’t know what effect Birgeneau’s decision might have on the lawsuit. “I’ll have to have discussions with Ignacio,” he said.
“I have to consult with my attorney,” Chapela said, “but the point must be made that the merit of my claims remains intact. It’s a meritorious lawsuit that can allow the public to know what happened. It would be a painful process to pursue it, but I feel a commitment to the public—though I don’t know if I’ll have the energy to continue.”
In a prepared statement, the university denied that Chapela’s tenure had been denied for improper reasons.
“The campus administration believes that the initial review of the case was fair and that there was no conflict of interest,” according to the statement. “This was a case in which reasonable reviewers can disagree, depending on how different elements are weighed.”
The original denial of tenure was made despite widespread support from faculty in his own college, which voted 32 to 1 in favor of Chapela’s tenure in 2002. Their decision was ratified unanimously by an ad hoc tenure committee.
The first decision to deny was reached by the campus Budget Committee in June, 2003, and reaffirmed that November.
Former Chancellor Robert Berdahl issued the formal denial on Nov. 20, 2003 despite repeated recommendations for approval by his department chair and the college dean.
The budget panel reported that it had decided against tenure based on controversial research by Chapela and graduate student Donald Quist reporting that strains of genetically modified corn had been found deep in the heartland of Mexico where the grain was adapted to cultivation and genetically modified crops were banned.
The research, published in the November 2001 issue of the prestigious British journal Nature, resulted in a firestorm of controversy.
One British website featured scathing critiques from “scientists” who turned out to be figments of a publicist’s imagination, while hostile letters poured into Nature, including one from a Berkeley colleague of Chapela’s. Nature responded with a partial retraction, the first in the journal’s history, but subsequent research has verified the presence of manmade genes.
Marie Felde, director of media relations for the university, said that the recommendation to approve tenure was made on April 25 by a special six-member budget committee that didn’t include any of the nine-member panel that had voted against tenure.
Chancellor Birgeneau reached the decision to grant tenure on May 17, and Chapela was informed of the decision on the following day by College of Natural Resources Dean Paul Ludden, a supporter.
Chapela has emerged as perhaps the leading academic critic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and a champion of opponents of the increasing corporate control over the world’s food supply.
He said he will begin consulting with colleagues in his college to begin working out a research program. Whatever he settles on, Chapela said, will include a focus on biotechnology and GMOs.