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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2005

Berkeley Reverses Tenure Denial of Outspoken University Critic

The University of California at Berkeley has reversed a controversial decision to deny tenure to an outspoken critic of the university's ties to the biotechnology industry.

Ignacio H. Chapela, an assistant professor of microbial ecology, was initially denied tenure in late 2003 after a university senate committee overruled the recommendations of both a faculty committee and an ad hoc panel of specialists in the field.

At the time, Chapela maintained that the senate committee, and Berkeley's chancellor Robert Berdahl, had denied him tenure because of his persistent criticism of the university's multi-million dollar deal with the biotechnology company Novartis (now known as Syngenta). That deal, which ended in 2003, gave the company first rights to commercialize the research of faculty members.

Chapela told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he was surprised by the reversal. "I couldn't see a reason that they would say yes, after they had said no," he said. "I would have gone had it not been for the public attention."

Chapela found himself at the centre of controversy in November 2001 when an article he and a graduate student published in Nature claimed that native corn in Mexico was being contaminated by material from genetically modified corn. The findings ran counter to the assurances of the biotechnology industry that genetically engineered material does not travel from one field to another.

Six months later, after receiving a number of letters contesting the research, the journal published an editorial saying the evidence cited in Chapela's research was not sufficient to justify his conclusions.

Chapela in turn argued he was the victim of a carefully-orchestrated smear campaign launched by pro-industry scientists and the biotechnology industry. The controversy spilled over into his tenure bid. Despite positive recommendations from his department, his dean and 14 external referees, the University Budget Committee advised the chancellor to reject tenure.

That decision unleashed a storm of protest from academics and others around the world.

"I have no direct evidence of anything," Chapel said at the time. "But the crown jewel of Berdahl's chancellorship is building a bioengineering building."

In 2004, Berkeley responded to the mounting criticism by appointing a team of outside scholars to assess the deal with Novartis. Their report suggests there was a potential conflict of interest among administrators that had adversely affected Chapela's tenure review.

Last month, the university announced that the faculty committee had reversed its earlier decision and recommended that Chapela be granted tenure. Berkeley's new chancellor, former University of Toronto president Robert Birgeneau, agreed.

"This decision is a clear message of vindication not only of myself, but also of the innumerable individual and collective efforts put into this process by all of you," Chapela said in a statement, which he sent to his supporters May 18. "You have generously added your voices to the many questions raised around my tenure review and demanded a process free of conflict of interest or undue influence, and for this I am thankful."

CAUT followed the case closely and last fall wrote to chancellor Birgeneau urging him to "see that Professor Chapela is treated justly and to ensure that measures are taken to ensure that academic freedom is protected for all faculty at Berkeley."