UC Prof. Continues to Fight Tenure Denial
By Leonie Sherman, September 5, 2004 10:51 AM
As Possibly Last Term on Campus Begins
BERKELEY -- Professor Ignacio Chapela insists that he's "not going anywhere," even though he has been denied tenure and his contract with UC Berkeley is set to expire December 31 of this year. "I'm not looking for other jobs, " he explained, from his spare office on the third floor of Hilgard Hall. " I feel wanted, needed and accepted here, and I am being kicked out illegitimately."
Dr. Chapela, a Microbial Ecologist, has produced some very controversial research about biotechnology and been an outspoken critic of a $25 million agreement between the Department of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley and the Swiss biotech company Novartis. His lengthy tenure process ended in denial last November.
Chapela's supporters heap praise on him for a report published in Nature magazine, November 2001, detailing the contamination of backyard maize plots in the Mexican state of Oaxaca with DNA from genetically modified corn. Mexico has banned the planting of such corn since 1998. Chapela was the first to document the breadth of the consequences of the inevitable planting of a flood of genetically modified corn intended for food. His opponents question the legitimacy of the science he used to arrive at the conclusion that the DNA in modified corn may break apart and potentially cause unpredictable mutations in the corn plant.
In response to the denial of tenure, Chapela filed a long list of grievances with the Academic Senate. According to a confidential letter sent to Dr. Chapela June 28, 2004, the Senate has found "sufficient reason to believe that your rights and privileges may have been violated in two ways."
The first possible violation is a possible conflict of interest in the Budget Committee. Jasper Rine, a Professor of Genetics and Developmental Biology who has publicly criticized Chapela's work, sat on the Ad-Hoc Academic Committee, which makes recommendations to the Budget Committee, until he was rotated out. Rine has worked closely with Novartis and has financial holdings in the biotech industry. During Rine's time on the Ad-Hoc Committee, the Budget Committee received an unprecedented four formal requests from both the Chair and the Dean that Rine follow a standard procedure and formally excuse himself.
"People who have a clear interest in the corporate development of genetic engineering should not be involved in academic decisions of this nature," Said Chapela's attorney, Daniel Siegel. "This is so obvious. It's like asking Dick Cheney to choose the Deomcratic Vice-Presidential candidate."
When contacted, Rine refused to comment on the case.
The second possible violation comes from what the Senate calls an "unjustifiable delay in the review" of his case. Usually, a Dean is notified of a decision about tenure within 21 days of the Ad-Hoc Committee's recommendation; in Chapela's case this process took 410 days. 552 days passed between the time the Department wrote a letter about Chapela's tenure and the time of a final decisions; the average for this procedure is 146 days.
In another confidential letter to Chapela dated August 30, 2004, the Academic Senate admits that the University failed "to provide you with the required notice of termination", however, the letter goes on to say that, "the administration has already remedied" this oversight by extending Chapela's contract. Ten days before his contract was to expire this past June, Chapela held office hours for five days straight in front of the Chancellor's office. The University quickly extended his contract by six months.
The Academic Senate is recommending a formal hearing, which could drag on for months. After the hearing, the Senate will make a recommendation to Chancellor Robert Berdahl who holds final power in this matter. Berdahl's term also expires December 31, 2004; should this dispute last beyond the end of this year, his successor, Robert J. Birgeneau, will presumably make the final decision. Chapela and his attorneys are attempting to reach an agreement with the administration that would preclude a formal hearing.
"I think and hope we are pretty far along in the discussions," said Michael Smith, Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs at the University. He had no estimate of when the process might reach a resolution.
Chapela usually teaches two classes and a seminar in the fall. This semester supportive colleagues who wanted to allow him more time to pursue his legal case have reduced his load to one class, Environmental Biology, where 80 students are enrolled. Although he is consumed with legal matters and this may be his last semester teaching at UC Berkeley, Chapela said, "After three years, I'm pretty used to this level of stress."
"I cannot see how I can lose this one," he said, "I think there's a clear possibility the Administration might see the light and reconsider." He paused, shook his head and admitted, "I still feel strongly that they will say No."