Berkeley Denies Tenure to Ecologist Who Criticized University's Ties to the Biotechnology Industry

By SHARON WALSH
The Chronicle of Higher Education
January 9, 2004

The University of California at Berkeley has denied tenure to Ignacio H. Chapela, an assistant professor of ecology and an outspoken critic of the university's ties to the biotechnology industry.

The professor and other scientists critical of academic links to corporations and of genetically modified crops have anxiously awaited the tenure decision for three years.

"My immediate reaction was extreme disappointment in the chancellor," said Mr. Chapela, who joined the university's department of environmental science, policy, and management in the fall of 1995. "I hoped he could see the evidence and take his role as a leader," he said of Robert M. Berdahl, the chancellor.

The university's decision, which was first reported in the December 11 issue of the British journal Nature, overruled recommendations for tenure by a faculty committee in Mr. Chapela's department and by an ad hoc panel of specialists in his field. A committee of the Academic Senate had recommended against tenure.

Mr. Chapela and his research became controversial when he published an article in Nature in November 2001 that said that native corn in Mexico had been contaminated by material from genetically modified corn. (A 1998 law had made it illegal to plant transgenic corn in Mexico.)

Six months after the article appeared, and after receiving a number of letters contesting the research, the journal published an editorial note saying that "the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the original paper" and that the editors wanted "to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves."

Mr. Chapela said at the time that he suspected he was the target of pro-industry scientists and of the biotechnology industry itself. He had been a vocal critic of a deal the university made in 1998 with Novartis, a Swiss-based biotechnology company, in which the company paid Berkeley $5-million each year for five years in exchange for early review of all proposed publications and presentations by faculty members whose work the company supported.

George A. Strait Jr., assistant vice chancellor for public affairs, said he was surprised that the news media would be interested in Mr. Chapela's case.

"He didn't get tenure, period," Mr. Strait said. Berkeley's tenure process, he added, "is among the most strenuous, the most fair, and the toughest in the country. ... No one person, no one institution, no one group has any undue influence."

Mr. Chapela's findings, made with a graduate student, David Quist, and reported in the 2001 article about Mexican maize, were important -- and controversial -- for several reasons. First, agricultural companies that have produced genetically modified plants have said that the engineered material does not travel from one field to another. Second, Mr. Chapela and Mr. Quist contended that the transferred genes that appeared in the genetic material of native Mexican corn were multiplying and hopping around inside the plant's genome, which could interfere with the normal functioning of other genes.

"This opens up the whole question of what happens in the next generation of transgenics," he said. "The finding means there is no control ... especially in plants that are wind pollinated," like corn.

Unanimous Recommendation

Mr. Chapela had been unanimously recommended for tenure by his department's tenure committee. The decision then went to a committee of the Academic Senate, which appointed the ad hoc group of specialists to give an opinion. The ad hoc committee, whose membership is normally secret, unanimously said tenure should be granted, according to Wayne M. Getz, a professor of environmental science who identified himself as a member of that committee after he found out that Mr. Chapela was not getting tenure.

"I've been here 24 years, and my understanding is that if the department and the ad hoc committee recommend for tenure, you get tenure," he said.

Mr. Getz wrote a letter to the vice chancellor for academic affairs questioning the process, and sent copies of the letter to the ad hoc committee members. The chairman of the ad hoc committee then notified Mr. Getz that the senate's committee had asked him to reconvene the ad hoc committee to review Mr. Chapela's research again.

At that point, Mr. Getz says, the chairman resigned and disavowed the committee's report, saying he did not have the expertise to judge Mr. Chapela's research. The chairman, whose name Mr. Getz declined to reveal, did not tell any of the members of the committee about his decision at the time, Mr. Getz said.

The senate's committee then advised the chancellor to reject Mr. Chapela's tenure bid -- which the chancellor did.

"I have no direct evidence of anything," Mr. Chapela said of the chancellor's decision. "But the crown jewel of Berdahl's chancellorship is a bioengineering building."

"There's still an enormous amount of animosity against me because of [my criticism of] Novartis," Mr. Chapela said. "I cannot help but think that this influenced the decision" on tenure.

Mr. Chapela said the Academic Senate's tenure committee had recognized him as an excellent teacher, but cited the serious challenges to his research and an inadequate publications record.

Mr. Getz said that the ad hoc panel had carefully considered Mr. Chapela's research record, but after noting both the Nature controversy and the amount of research, decided to recommend tenure anyway. "It's clear that plant geneticists don't contest his findings, but his methods," he said.

"I believe the [Academic Senate] committee was pushing to get a different outcome" from the ad hoc committee, he said. Mr. Getz is in the same department as Mr. Chapela, but he is not close to him either personally or professionally, he said. He called the tenure review's result "disgraceful" and added that he feared that powerful researchers who benefited from the Novartis deal had made Mr. Chapela a victim of politics.

In June, Mr. Chapela staged his own protest, decrying the length of his tenure process. He moved a small desk, two chairs, tea, biscuits, and books outside of California Hall, where the senate's committee meets and where the chancellor has his office. For five days and nights, he held a vigil to protest the unusually long time that the university was making him wait for a tenure decision.

Now Mr. Chapela says he plans to appeal the decision within the normal university process. However, he says he also plans to sue the institution: "In the last few days, I've had a lot of phone calls from attorneys."

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