Biologist Protests his Lack of Tenure
MICHELLE LOCKE / AP
Modified crops critic camps out Berkeley
assistant professor camping out to protest lack of tenure
BERKELEY—A biologist known for his outspoken criticism of
genetically modified crops was camping out at UC Berkeley on Friday to protest
his lack of tenure.
Ignacio Chapela, who began his protest Thursday morning and
planned to continue through midnight Monday, said he is not sure what is
preventing administrators from confirming him as a professor.
Ignacio Chapela in
his "open office"
Photo by Paul Goettlich
He said he wanted to move his office outdoors to serve as a
transparent contrast to the closed-door secrecy of the tenure
Chapela, who is in the Environmental Policy, Science and
Management department, began teaching at Berkeley in 1996. He is on a "tenure
track" which means if he is not granted tenure, a permanent appointment, by the
end of his contract he must leave the university.
Chapela's contract was scheduled to expire on June 30. However,
on Thursday, university officials informed Chapela his contract had been
extended for one year.
Administrators say they decided on the extension before
Chapela's protest began, noting that the letter announcing it is dated June
Chapela says he was approved for tenure by his department last
year, but he has yet to hear from university administrators about his
Chapela has been a controversial figure on campus, loudly
opposing a five-year, $25 million deal Berkeley signed with Novartis Corp., a
Swiss-based agriculture giant, in 1998. Two years ago, Chapela co-authored a
study published in the journal Nature that concluded that DNA from genetically
engineered corn contaminated native maize in Mexico.
The study was denounced by the biotechnology industry and Nature
later said there wasn't enough evidence available to justify publication of the
paper. The journal did not retract the original paper but printed two harsh
criticisms of the work as well as a defense by the researchers, who presented
Chapela's supporters say one of the professors reviewing
Chapela's tenure has ties to the biotech industry. UC officials declined comment
on that or any of the details of the tenure case.
On the question of whether Chapela is being punished for his
controversial stands, George Strait, Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor for
public affairs, said Chapela "is a valued and respected member of the Berkeley
faculty. We respect his scholarship and his teaching."
Chapela's camp out was proving a rigorous one as Berkeley
abandoned its usually wintry June weather for temperatures near 90.
Chapela, who is maintaining a 24-hour presence with some short
breaks, said he'd discovered it is legal to be on campus at night, but not to
sleep there. "You have to keep your eyes open. The police come by and
Friday morning, Chapela was greeting a stream of supporters,
some of whom brought offerings of coffee and muffins. His office, parked under a
shady tree, consisted of a few chairs and a small bookcase.
Earlier, Chapela had taught a high school chemistry class
brought to campus by their teacher, said supporter Jason Delborne, a graduate
student in the environmental department.
"This has been a crazy couple of days," Delborne
Biotech researchers say their work splicing foreign genes into a
variety of plants to enhance such traits as pest resistance will produce more
food. But critics worry the consequences of the work are not known.
"My concern is really with the widespread release into the
environment of transgenic organisms," Chapela said.
Some view the tenure-track period as a time to avoid
controversy, but Chapela said he doesn't regret speaking out.
"If you're scared enough to shut up for tenure you'll be scared
enough to shut up for (office) space, for privileges here, for recognition
there," he said. "I would rather be able to look at myself in the mirror every
morning than be a professor at Berkeley."
Open Letter from
Ignacio Chapela Regarding
His Tenure at the University of California,
Berkeley, California, 26 June
We asked the captain what course
of action he
proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying,
unpredictable. He hesitated to
answer, and then said
"I think I shall praise it."
Dear friends, dear colleagues,
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.
Ignacio H. Chapela
Assistant Professor (Microbial
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and
Logistical details and
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. Nevertheless, I will have a battery-operated cell phone
(USA-510-207 7331). My cell phone will need to be recharged occasionally;
if you do not get an answer, please leave a message and I will call
My email address is email@example.com.
In case of server breakdown, please use firstname.lastname@example.org - 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.
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
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: email@example.com.
on and by Ignacio Chapela