What’s the beef?

College of Agriculture dean criticized over “Meatless Monday” email

Dean Jennifer Ryder Fox said the only thing she regrets is her attempt at humor.

Dean Jennifer Ryder Fox said the only thing she regrets is her attempt at humor.

Photo By Ken Smith

The furor over Chico State’s involvement with a program called “Meatless Mondays” has largely passed, but there are lingering concerns over an email sent to students by Jennifer Ryder Fox, dean of the school’s College of Agriculture.

Last Thursday (Oct. 25), political-science professor Michael Coyle presented questions about the email to the Academic Senate, which promised to look into the matter more thoroughly.

The controversy began with an early October announcement that A.S. Dining Services had signed on to a “Meatless Mondays” program touted by the Humane Society of the United States. More meat-free meals would be offered at campus eateries on Mondays, the stated purpose being to improve personal health and that of the planet.

But on Oct. 5, a deluge of comments hit the university’s Facebook page. Critics said HSUS—which didn’t originate “Meatless Mondays” but encourages schools to participate—has an anti-agriculture-industry agenda.

“It wasn’t just students who complained; we had a lot of upset stakeholders, alums and others in the agriculture industry,” Fox said. “When something says Chico State, people don’t distinguish between administration, the College of Agriculture or the A.S.

“They were seeing that the College of Agriculture was a part of something that goes against agriculture in their mind, and they were pretty much outraged.”

Fox, who was in Southern California on university business when the controversy broke, fired a from-the-hip email to agriculture students Oct. 5. She wrote, “I, too, was appalled by this decision, which was clearly influenced by the Humane Society of the United States, who uses its cover as a caring, moderate animal welfare organization to advance its true mission of ending animal agriculture.”

The email thanked students for speaking out and said she understood not all agriculture students opposed Meatless Mondays (“That’s perfectly fine, too”) and concluded with, “Meanwhile, I personally will be looking forward to the next YCA tri-tip barbecue on campus! And now I’m off to grab a hamburger.”

A.S. dining services eventually conceded; it will continue to offer extra vegetarian dishes but will not use the title “Meatless Mondays” or associate the effort with HSUS.

“We support vegetarian choices,” said Associate Dean of Agriculture David Daley. “This was about stigmatizing one particular protein source, and it was the implication that the entire university had signed on to Meatless Mondays. I think most of that has been cleared up. We’ve had good dialogue, and its time to move forward.”

Coyle and others disagree, objecting to Fox’s appraisal of HSUS—which he calls a misrepresentation—being sent to students. Addressing the Academic Senate, he asked, “What is the role of this senate and the administrative body of this university to hold deans accountable for speech, especially speech that goes in opposition to some very dear common agreements we have among ourselves, such as critical thinking and objectivity.”

Coyle equated Fox’s email to a dean’s telling students, “The ACLU is a godless, communist organization committed to the destruction of the U.S. Constitution.”

“If that happened, the whole nation would be in an uproar,” Coyle said. “I think we need to be careful about politicizing disagreements we have. It’s not the role of education to take sides, but to present arguments and evidence.”

Coyle said he wants to see Fox held accountable, and hopes the whole affair can be an educational moment for the community. He added food choices and animal welfare are separate issues also worthy of further discussion.

Asked Tuesday if she if she stands by her statement, Fox said she believes HSUS is against “animal agriculture as we know it.”

She explained that, in the wake of the controversy, HSUS representative Jennifer Fearing was invited to speak to two agriculture classes.

“Afterwards, I told her I thought perhaps the examples she gave of what she thought was acceptable animal agriculture were not conforming to animal agriculture as we know it,” Fox said. “Their idea of animal agriculture, represented by a few chickens in the back yard, is not going to feed the world.”

Fox believes her email encouraged alternative viewpoints: “I addressed the idea of thinking about this for yourself and coming to your own conclusion.”

She said her sole regret is her attempt at humor (presumably the burger comment) and doesn’t think she overstepped any bounds.

“I felt like I was addressing a concern of my students. I wanted them to know we were talking with the people who had the power to make decisions, letting them know that this would be problematic to people on and off campus, and I wanted them to know that we were doing something. I was trying to communicate with my students, not anyone outside of the College of Agriculture.

“And that’s my job, to communicate with the students.”