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Tenure, Censorship and Biotechnology at Berkeley

by IGNACIO CHAPELA

We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying, and unpredictable.
He hesitated to answer, and then said judiciously:

“I think I shall praise it.”

Robert Hass

Beginning at 6 o’clock this morning, as I enter the final days of my contract as a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, I intend to mark and celebrate them, by doing what I believe a professor in a public university must do: to further reason and understanding. For the brief time that remains of my terminal contract at Berkeley, I shall sit holding office hours, day and night, outside the doors of California Hall. This is the building housing the Budget Committee of the Academic Senate, and the office of the Chancellor, the two arms of our university governance in charge of my file.

I am saddened by the failure of the administration and the Academic Senate to resolve in a timely fashion whether to grant me tenure at Berkeley. I believe that I have contributed to the mission of the university and my heart and intellect are also vested in its health and growth. All but one of the colleagues who witness my everyday teaching and research in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management have repeatedly stated their support for my tenure, and so have a set of external expert reviewers and the leadership of my College. To the extent that reason can assess, I do not know of any other academic information on the case that might suggest that a negative decision should be reached. Yet as of tonight, well over a year into the part of the process conducted in secret in California Hall, no decision has been made, as far as I am aware. I must therefore conclude that there is another set of criteria that counterweigh the strength of the case, but that such information cannot be publically shared. In the face of such lack of transparency and accountability, I choose to hold office hours in public, in the open, and in the midst of our beautiful campus. I do so in celebration of my vocation and my time at Berkeley, and not in the expectation that such an action will change the course of the decision process, whatever that might be.

It has been suggested that the extraordinary delay in reaching a decision on my tenure case without ostensible reason may be the result of, even retribution for, my advising our campus, academe, the government and the public against dangerous liaisons with the biotechnology industry, as well as my concerns regarding the problems with biotechnology itself. Without doubt, the uncertainty and reproach implicit in the silence on campus surrounding my case has had grave consequences for my professional, public and personal life. But such are the wages of doing work that has significance for the world, and it will be up to those sifting through the files of this case to discern the twists and turns that brought us to this moment, and to pass the judgment of history on the motives and actions of those involved, within and beyond our community. It is difficult to blame otherwise principled individuals for not voicing their best understanding. Fear is justified when even the president of the country equates with criminal acts any questioning of the wisdom of deploying transgenic crops. Against the desire of some to banish critical thinking from the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, I choose to sit, openly available for discourse, in the heart of our campus.

At least one person has said that I should be banned from the academic system, implying that my work harms the public role of the university as a hothouse for the agbiotech industry. Indeed I have long stood against the folly of planting 100 million acres with transgenic crops each year, without knowing even the simplest consequences of such a massive intervention in the biosphere. An increasing number of scientists seem to be reaching the same position. It seems also true that research in my laboratory has prompted serious public concerns that the industry would rather not address. An industry on the crutches of public subsidy for a quarter of a century, an industry that trembles in the face of the simplest token of precautionary research, is hardly an industry that deserves to carry the public trust, much less our best hope for recovery in a flagging economy. It would seem rational that our university–and the public–should strive to keep an independent source of advice on the wisdom of supporting such an industry. Rationality, however, must take a back seat when the university becomes grafted to a specific industry. Such has increasingly been the case at Berkeley and at other universities.

At a time of rampant obscurantism and irrationality, I am proud of the privilege vested in me by the public as a professor at Berkeley. In fulfillment of the duty attached to that privilege, I intend to share the light of rationality during office hours over the next five days, together with those who might wish to join me.

Fiat lux.

Ignacio H. Chapela is Assistant Professor (Microbial Ecology) Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California at Berkeley.

Logistical details and contacts:

I will sit in an “office” without walls. This means that I will most likely not have direct access to an AC electric wall outlet.

My email address is ichapela@nature.berkeley.edu. In case of server breakdown, please use ihchapela@yahoo.com–email responses may be delayed for some hours.

I will foreseeably be in my “office” 24 hours a day (except for short unavoidable breaks) from Thursday to Monday midnight, circumstances allowing. Three chairs will accommodate myself and two others in this transparent office. Bring your own portable chair if you need to. I hope to be able to offer tea and biscuits, but that is not a promise. These last days have been on the hot side, but with any luck the natural “breathing cycle” of the Bay Area will bring fog relief for at least some of the mornings between Thursday and Monday. At meal times, I will have space for company, although the seating may be less than royal, and the menus are still being planned.

Despite President Bush’s emphatic demands this week, the House has yet to pass the BioShield legislation, and there may be further delays in the Senate. Nevertheless, I am making efforts to comply with the current spirit on our campus and across the nation by surrounding my office with protective, gray, duct tape, for added security. Visitors from Toronto and elsewhere in the world, please note that I will also have protective face masks and rubber gloves at hand.

After midnight on Monday, I will be travelling to the Gen-ecology laboratory in Norway until 22 July. I will be underway for a week, subsequently available via my alternate email account: ihchapela@yahoo.com.

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