If oil and water don’t mix, what about oil and academic freedom?
That’s the issue confronting Berkeley’s Academic Senate next Thursday afternoon when a divided faculty will consider competing resolutions about a proposed agreement between their internationally renowned university and a transnational oil firm.
The company is an acronym soup called BP plc, with BP being the rechristening of British Petroleum and plc standing for “public liability company,” British legalese for a publicly traded corporation.
Behind closed doors, negotiators for the English petroleum giant and one of America’s most prestigious universities are working to hammer out details of a half-billion-dollar agreement which could become the largest single corporate funding pact in the history of the American academy.
Beyond the lucrative cash stream and the visions of even richer patents, a more profound question may be at stake—the very definition of academic freedom itself, and whether it is an individual right backed by a passionate administrator or a commons jointly owned by all the faculty.
While Chancellor Robert Birgeneau portrays academic freedom as an individual right, those like Robert Post who have made a study of the issue define the concept as a collective right of faculty governance.
Birgeneau outlined his position during a forum called by Academic Senate Chair William Drummond in March:
“The idea that any person in our community would try to prevent Jay Keasling and his post-docs and graduate students—or Dan Kammen or Steve Wong at the University of Illinois—prevent them from doing their research because of the source of their funding, I consider that abhorrent and to represent a violation of the most basic principles of academic freedom. So this is about academic freedom ... it’s about the freedom of our faculty to pursue the research that they want to pursue.”
As defined by UC Berkeley’s chief administrator, the unvoiced corollary to a researcher’s right to seek funds anywhere is the corporation’s freedom to seek out any academic willing to fulfill its research agenda.
To Robert Post, a former Berkeley faculty member and now David Boies Professor of Law at Yale, the chancellor’s words ring hollow.
One of the nation’s leading experts on academic freedom, as well as a 20-year-veteran of the Boalt Hall faculty and a former member of Berkeley’s Academic Senate Budget Committee, Post said Birgeneau’s interpretation was “unfortunate.”
In a paper presented to the Academic Freedom Forum in 2003, Post traced the origins of the movement in the U.S. to the firing of Stanford economist Edward Ross, who was fired in 1900 by Jane Stanford, widow of the university’s founder, for his heretical views on immigrant labor and for backing a silver standard for currency.
Shock waves from that incident continued to reverberate. The American Association of University Professors tracing its founding 15 years later to the Ross dismissal.
From its inception, Post said, the essence of the concept of academic freedom is not an individual faculty member’s right to seek funds, but a collective right, concerned with “the faculty’s decisions about who should be tenured, and about the quality of their work.”
And such decisions, he said, should be made either by the faculty or by the administration “only with very strong consultation” with faculty.
The lack of consultation with faculty when Birgeneau hired two faculty members specifically to work on the EBI proposal was the principal reason Post signed the petition calling for further review by the Academic Senate.
Post said Birgeneau’s unilateral decision to hire two new faculty members to work with the EBI proposal without consulting the senate “was contrary to the concept of shared governance.” Chris Somerville, a world-renowned plant geneticist and corporate founder, was hired from Stanford and the Carnegie Institute, along with his spouse, Shauna, to work on EBI projects.
Somerville has appeared for campus discussions of the project.
Post also described as unfortunate comments in February by Academic Senate Chair William Drummond, in which he stated that no further review of the BP proposal was needed by the senate beyond the previews of the proposal given to two of the Senate’s committees.
“I doubt if we get a preview of the contract,” said Drummond on Feb. 15. “The terms will be proprietary information as far as the university and BP are concerned.” That review, he said at the time, was sufficient.
But many faculty members have since gone on record as declaring that the senate needs to play a more active roll in supervising the proposed $500 million contract that would bind the university and one of the world’s largest oil companies over the span of a decade.
Others who side with the chancellor’s position see their research threatened by meddling faculty members who would interfere with work funded by the fastest growing sector of financial support for research—patent-hungry corporations.
Their competing resolutions will be presented to members of Berkeley’s Academic Senate at their special meeting next Thursday from 1 to 3 p.m. in Booth Auditorium at Boalt Hall.
Both sides are invoking the cause of academic freedom in support of their position, but lines are drawn with almost surgical precision betwen faculty most likely to win corporate funds and those who rely on the more traditional sources of government and private foundations.
The split evokes the “Two Cultures” described by British molecular physicist, novelist and critic C.P. Snow in a memorable 1959 lecture in which he decried the split between the hard sciences and humanities.
Molecular and cell biologists and chemists dominate the signatories of the petition calling for the BP agreement to move forward as it is, while humanists and the human sciences dominate those calling for more oversight.
Ardent supporters of the proposed UC/BP agreement are backing a resolution proposed by Randy Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology who serves as chair of Birgeneau’s Advisory Committee on Biology.
Of the 153 faculty who signed his on-line petition between Monday and Thursday morning, all but two—an economist and a political scientist—come from the hard, patent-rich biological and physical sciences.
At least 19 signatories are specifically cited as project leaders and members in the university’s winning proposal to BP.
Schekman’s campaign for signatures was launched with an email to all faculty senate members which began: “I would like to bring to your attention a serious threat to our academic freedom that could have adverse consequences to our reputation and operation of our campus,” he wrote in an email to fellow faculty members.
“A few faculty have petitioned” the senate “to restrict the right of faculty to obtain research funds. This effort is shortsighted and could have disastrous consequences for Berkeley’s reputation and tradition of collegiality.”
His resolution, posted on the Internet at epmb.berkeley.edu:8080/freedom/ vote. php, declares that “professors have the obligation to respect and defend the free inquiry of their colleagues,” and to oppose resolutions that are “seeking to deny public or private resources to individual faculty or groups of faculty.”
Neither of the other two petitions calls for an outright rejection of the proposed half-billion-dollar pact that would fund the Energy Biosciences Institute—and some of the same signatures are affixed to both.
They share in common a call for creation of a “blue ribbon ad hoc committee” of senate members who haven’t been involved with the BP agreement who are “free of any real or perceived conflict of interest” to review any aspects of the contract that might infringe on the senate’s prerogatives and provide ongoing oversight.
The committee would also be charged with formulating protocols to govern any future contracts between the university and profit-making research funders.
In the 10 days between March 12 and 22, 130 professors—overwhelmingly drawn from the humanities and the human sciences—signed another petition posted on the Internet at www.
Their specialties run the gamut from history to English, journalism to psychology, physics to geography, law, anthropology and mathematics.
Michael Pollan, a best-selling author and member of the journalism faculty, said he signed “because I have a real issue with transparency, and I am in favor of anything that will increase the amount of information that is available for evaluation and for input from the faculty.”
While he said he has concerns about whether ethanol is the appropriate solution to energy problems, “my first concern is with transparency and how a proprietary project fits into a university founded on the basis of the free exchange of information.”
Other well-known signatories include Ignacio Chapela, who figured prominently in the Novartis controversy, anthropologist Laura Nader, linguist and “framing theory” advocate George Lakoff, art historian Timothy J. Clark, and agroecologist Miguel Altieri.
Historian Martin Jay said he was concerned about the potential for erosion of faculty governance through the senate’s budget committee.
“I am troubled by the procedural issues for faculty governance, which if it was not ignored, was not fully acknowledged and presented as a fait accompli.”
Jay said he’s not opposed to the university being benefited by support from corporations, “but it needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.” Similarly, he said, research aimed at providing alternate fuels “seems laudable.”
But Berkeley “has a strong tradition of faculty governance,” he said, sparked in part by the existence of an autocratic administration in the 1920’s, and the specter of two faculty hires made without consultation of the senate is cause for concern.
Perhaps the most surprising signature came from Yuen-Ron Shen, a professor of condensed matter physics and particle science who holds dual appointments at the university and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where support for the proposal is the strongest, starting with lab director and Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu.
Shen said he had signed after receiving an email from a friend while he was away from campus.
“Apparently the budget committee and a number of other committees
didn’t known much about it, and it was suggested that the issue should be considered more carefully by a newly established committee. I felt that was reasonable,” he said.
Asked he if had faced any criticism from colleagues because of his signature, Yuen said “Steven Chu talked to me about it, and I talked to him, and he understands. I think everybody understood.”
Only one of the proposed BP participants has signed the opposing petition that led to calling the upcoming meeting of the senate.
David Winickoff, a law school graduate who serves as assistant professor of bioethics and society in the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management of the College of Natural Resources, is listed as a collaborator of the EBI’s Social Interactions and Risks Laboratory.
Winickoff signed the petition calling for Thursday’s Academic Senate meeting and has called for a committee to monitor the EBI grant. In an email to colleagues, he said he was disturbed by the strident tone of Schekman’s email and “its mischaracterization of the ...petition as an attack on academic freedom and an attempt to restrict the right of faculty to receive research funds.”
At least two other petitions have circulated, one endorsed by the graduate assembly and available online at http:// ga.berkeley.edu/delegates/meetings/Apr07/Final%20BP%20Resolution.pdf.
That resolution was adopted at the assembly meeting last Friday, and in addition to repeating the call for an oversight committee, the measure asks that two graduate students be appointed to the body.
An online petition is also being circulated by the student group StopBP-Berkeley.org on their website. Signatories, many of them anonymous, can be viewed at www.thepetitionsite.com/ takeaction/147963846?ltl=1176402916.