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UC Academic Senate Confirms BP Contract

By Richard Brenneman
Friday April 20, 2007

Berkeley’s Academic Senate handed a victory to supporters of the proposed half-billion-dollar contract between the former British Petroleum and the university. 

Microbiologist Randy Schek-man, sponsor of the winning resolution, modified his original  

proposal to create a review committee with four Academic Sen-ate committee chairs, but insisted on striking any reference in a proposed compromise measure that would mention a study critical of the latest major academic/corporate research pact. 

Schekman later said the creation of the committee was made at the suggestion of Academic Senate Chair William Drum-mond. 

But the key vote, striking any reference to a study the senate ordered after the university’s last corporate funding controversy, was defeated on a 186 to 82 show of hands. 

“I wanted to expunge any mention of the Michigan State study,” he said after the meeting. The study, commissioned by the senate, was critical of the university’s handling of the five-year pact between Novartis, a transnational Swiss agro-pharmaceutical giant, and the Department of Environ-mental Science Policy and Man-agement of the College of Natural Resources. 

“This is not about BP,” said Drummond, after the meeting. “On one level it’s about whether members of the faculty want to stall the deal with BP. The answer was emphatically ‘no.’ 

“On another level, there is a sense of alienation and a sense of fracture among some of the faculty,” with teachers in the social sciences and humanities “because they feel the resources and attention are being taken away from them and given to the schools of law, engineering, chemistry and so forth.” 

BP p.l.c. has announced the award of $500 million to create the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which would be located at the Berkeley campus, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

UC Berkeley would be the recipient of the funds and subcontract with the other two institutions. 

The EBI proposal has won the endorsements of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who praise the idea of creating vehicle fuels from plant crops as a “green” solution to the global warming. 

Critics on the Berkeley faculty have challenged the close ties the agreement would create between the university and a multinational giant with a checkered past. 

From the first vote taken at Thursday afternoon’s meeting, the end result was clear, and when it came to a show of hands, an amendment to modify Schekman’s resolution by including a recommendation to consider the recommendations from the Michigan State review of the Novartis agreement were rejected. 

The only compromise was the creation of “an adequately supported committee” consisting of the chairs of the senate’s Budget, Research, Academic Planning and Resource Allocation, and Academic Freedom committees. 


Heated moments 

At one point during a discussion, Schekman appeared to compare dissident faculty member Ignacio Chapela to Don Imus, the trash-talking radio host recently fired by CBS radio and MSNBC television for racist and sexist remarks about women athletes. 

Schekman said a professor had called Birgeneau a prostitute during that session, adding, “Don Imus was fired by CBS for such remarks and I regret we don’t have the power to” do the same. 

Applause followed. 

But a review of a transcript of the March 8 forum reveals the only use of the words ‘prostitute’ or ‘prostitution’ came during remarks by Professor Ignacio Chapela, one of the 17 faculty members who had called for the Thursday senate meeting. 

As associate professor in the College of Natural Resources, Chapela was one of the leading critics of the Novartis decision and was released by the university two years ago and rehired only after he filed suit. 

During the March meeting Chapela had said of the BP proposal, “I have tried for size the word ‘prostitution’ as best describing that for which the Chancellor and his associates would like us to sign.” 

“I never called the chancellor a prostitute,” Chapela said. “I wouldn’t do that.” 

“It was very interesting that it came right after Anne Wagner was booed when she said that there were rumors about people being threatened with loss of tenure or their positions if they opposed EBI,” he said. 

Wagner, a professor of art history, was the principal speaker for the defeated resolution calling for a blue ribbon oversight committee. 

The meeting consisted of a long series of votes dictated by parliamentary procedure, and critics of the BP lost on every one, whether by show of hands or by voice. 

Schekman and his allies presented the calls for oversight as a threat to academic freedom—specifically the freedom of researchers to seeks funds wherever they want. Critics portrayed the BP proposal as a potential threat to the openness and collegiality of a public university. 

Drummond later blamed the course of events on Proposition 13, which has forced universities to turn to corporate coffers. 

“Blame it on your parents,” he told a young reporter. 

Earlier, during the meeting, anthropologist Charles Briggs said he wanted more oversight because during fieldwork in Venezuela in 1995 he discovered a secret agreement between the government and then-British Petroleum that called for oil exploration in an environmentally sensitive rain forest. 

“I contacted activists, and they forced a public debate,” he said, calling for close scrutiny of BP’s dealing with Cal. 

Chapela said he found the Senate meeting “a very educational experience,” in which “we ended up voting on Schekman’s resolutions and didn’t even get a chance to vote on our own.” 

He said backers of the agreement mobilized effectively, citing an email sent to engineering faculty in which the meeting “was billed as their ten-year immunization against people like myself.” 

Publicity drive  

Thursday’s vote followed an extensive campaign by the university. 

The university’s public relations staff has been lobbying hard for the BP project in recent days. The push started with an April 10 story about a story, describing an upcoming article in Vanity Fair that portrays the BP deal in glowing terms. 

Two days later, the PR staff followed up with a package of seven items covering the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), the name given the project that would be funded by BP’s half-billion-dollar research grant. 

Another story followed Tuesday, discussing a biofuels rating system being developed on campus that would rate fuels “like the Michelin stars for hotels and restaurants” according to their ecological and social goodness. 

The campus PR site also linked to paeans of project praise written by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Steven Chu for the San Francisco Chronicle and a similar piece by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer for the Sacramento Bee. 

The PR site didn’t mention that accompanying the Birgenau/Chu encomium piece were a highly critical article by Los Angeles attorney Al Meyerhold and a Chronicle editorial opposing the half-billion-project carrying the headline “UC and the perils of partnership.”  

Nowhere in any of the articles did the word “Novartis” appear, though it was very much in the minds and on the lips of critics, who have often referred to the warnings issued by a research team hired by the university to examine the school’s last major gown/boardroom collaboration. 

Debate over the 1998 five-year, $25 million Novartis research agreement effectively drew the line in the sand which has again divided faculty at the prospect of the BP accord. 

A team from Michigan State University was hired by the Academic Senate to look at the agreement while the contract was running and examine its actual results and its implications. 

While the researchers said the worst fears of critics hadn’t been realized, they said the agreement itself posed vexing issues, especially because it involved the entire Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management. 

The researchers specifically recommended that no future deals should be allowed which involve entire departments or large numbers of faculty. The recommendations were never implemented, despite the study’s cost of $225,000. 

Also on hand for Thursday’s votes was John M. Simpson of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which has organized support for critics of the BP agreement. 

“Our only recourse now is to continue and try and shine light on what’s happening and to raise the issue with UC regents,” he said.