The UT-Freeport Connection

How corporations pervert academic freedom: a case study

By Tom Philpott and Scott Henson
July 1990; pages 3, 11; Volume 1, No. 7

Whether or not Freeport McMoRan and ClubCorp. succeed in developing Barton Creek, the incident sheds light on UT administrators' panderings to the two companies.

  • Associate Chair of Geology Mark Cloos call's UT geological survey for Freeport's Indonesia subsidiary "just basic science," claiming "there may be no practical applications that come out of our work." Cloos serves as a principal investigator for the project. But the research proposal, signed by Cloos, states that the project "will serve as a basis for regional exploration in Irian Jaya and similar settings in the rest of Southeast Asia by Freeport, Indonesia, Inc." And as Cloos told a reporter for the UT News and Information Service last year, "Our understanding of the relationship between the deformation and ore deposit formation will give us the background information needed to find the next ore deposit."
  • Dean of Natural Sciences Robert Boyer said in April he was "personally grateful" for a "most generous gift" of $2 million by Moffett to his college. As director of the UT-Freeport Indonesia geological survey, he personally controls $398,000 of the project's $1 million phase-one budget. When Jim Bob Moffett was in college, Boyer supervised his senior thesis. And when Moffett endowed the Robert E. Boyer Centennial Professorship in geology with $255,000 in 1982, Boyer was appointed to fill the chair. Less than two months after Moffett's gift to the college in April, Boyer declared he saw no conflict between Cloos' statement that the project isn't applied research and the research proposal bearing Boyer's signature that claims it is.
  • UT President and Freeport McMoRan director Bill Cunningham refused to grant an interview to The Daily Texan on June 5 concerning the Barton Creek PUD, issuing only a short prepared statement. One June 7, the day of the City Council meeting, Cunningham along with ClubCorp Robert Dedman personally lobbied at least one City Council member to vote for the PUD.

What are these men hiding? Polemicist has decided to examine the relationships between UT and the companies that would develop the Barton Creek PUD.

When the story broke concerning Cunningham's involvement on the board of Freeport McMoRan and on the policy committee of Dedman's country club, UT vice president for administration Ed Sharpe told The Texan that "Dr. Cunningham serves on the board as an individual and that's not related to his position at the University."

But how many administrators must lie or lobby for the company before this becomes an institutional issue?

Both Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett and ClubCorp's Robert Dedman are major donors to the University. Moffett sits on the UT-System's Chancellor's Council, the UT-Austin Development Board and the UT-Austin President's Associates. After two large donations to the University in April, Cunningham even offered to request that the regents name a building after Moffett and his wife.

Robert Dedman, when not busy with his real-estate developments, serves as chairman of the Highway Commission - the Highway department gives UT several million dollars in R&D contracts every year.

Dedman also donated $10 million to the University recently to establish scholarships for elite honors students.

UT, Freeport and Academic Freedom

In the course of the campaign against the Barton Creek development, Freeport McMoRan's environmental record came under fire. Not only is Freeport the number one dumper of toxic chemicals into the nation's waterways, but for 16 years its copper mining operations in Indonesia have dumped raw mine tailings into a local river system.

UT geologists last summer began a 10 year study of orebodies in Indonesia, funded by Freeport and beginning in an area covered by Freeport's mining contract with the Indonesian government. The project, headed by Natural Sciences Dean Robert Boyer, brings up fundamental questions concerning corporate-sponsored research and academic freedom.

Freeport Vice President for State Government Relations/Environmental Affairs D.J. Miller in a letter to the Austin Chronicle (see the June 28 issue) claims the UT project is "basic scientific research" because it will be published in scientific journals. But the letter agreement between Freeport and UT dated April 18, 1989 and signed by the same D.J. Miller reveals the truth:

"The University shall keep confidential any propriety information obtained from Freeport Indonesia, which, where feasible, will be reduced to writing, subject to standard exceptions of public knowledge, prior knowledge, rightful third party disclosure and that which is required to be disclosed by law or other applicable regulation.

"Subject to the confidentiality restrictions hereinabove, the University shall have the right to publish the results of the Project, subject to consultation with Freeport Indonesia as to timing and inclusion of Freeport Indonesia generated information, and subject to considerations of patentability and impact of publication on the operations of Freeport Indonesia and its affiliates."

This clause in the research contract clearly violates traditional principles of academic freedom. Instead of having freedom to publish whatever information their investigation turns up in the academic tradition, UT scientists must clear all published items with their corporate sponsors at Freeport. The content of their publications aren't simply limited by the academic integrity of the authors, but by "considerations of patentability and impact of publication on the operations of Freeport Indonesia and its affiliates."

This phenomenon manifested itself when the editors of Polemicist obtained a copy of the research proposal and contract under the Texas Open Records Act and found that fully 10 percent of the 55-page document had been deleted. UT claims these sections aren't subject to exposure for "proprietary" reasons.

The contract also states that "The University shall have full ownership of all information and data, whether or not patentable or copyrightable, generated during the course of the project." But the contract goes on to state that "Regardless of any patent, copyright or other type of intellectual property protection obtained by the University thereon, Freeport Indonesia will have a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free right to use any and all such Project Data ... [for] any venture or joint venture of Freeport Indonesia or any of Freeport Indonesia's affiliates."

Thus, the agreement takes information generated by state-employed UT professors and gives the University a financial interest in withholding that information from the public unless they can afford to pay. But Freeport gets it royalty-free.

The contract renders absurd Bill Cunningham's prattle about how UT directs its corporate-sponsored research with "public service" in mind. In this case, UT directs its research toward the profit motives of an individual corporation, without any evident consideration for "public service."

What, then, are these men hiding? They're hiding the fact that their relationships with Freeport have perverted the academic process almost beyond recognition. These men are employees of the state, paid by tuition and tax dollars, but they function like the employees of a multinational corporation. In his role as director of Freeport, in fact, Cunningham by federal law must work to maximize the profits of the company.

When the academic freedom of UT faculty conflicts with corporate profit motives, profits, apparently, take priority.