Big money on campus

When corporate donations squelch academic freedom

The freedom to express impolitic or unpopular opinions is not just a protection given Americans by the First Amendment. It also is a hallmark of U.S. higher education. In fact, it is a principal reason for tenure at colleges and universities. If professors faced material risks for their teaching or research, the country’s scientific and intellectual progress would suffer dramatically.

This is why we are disturbed by two recent instances of prominent profs getting squelched by jittery donors.

The first is Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor and author of the best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was scheduled to lecture last week at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but when the chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co. threatened to pull his $150,000 pledge for a new meat-processing facility on campus, the university president decided that Pollan could appear only as part of a panel with agribusiness supporters. The professor, who faced similar resistance in Washington and Wisconsin, called the move “part of what appears to be a more aggressive industry pushback against critics of industrial agriculture.”

That this would happen at a sister campus of Chico State brings the specter of censorship too close to home.

The second is Rick Steiner, a marine-conservation scientist at the University of Alaska. Steiner lost both his grant funding and his office after the university got pushback from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over his criticism of the oil industry’s development plans for the Arctic. “This decision,” Steiner said, “undermines the university’s credibility as a place where ideas can be developed and discussed without fear of reprisal.”