Colleagues Fear Professor's Research May Adversely Affect His Tenure Review

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Some academics are questioning the fairness of the long-lasting tenure review for a UC Berkeley faculty member whose virulent criticism of biotechnology has highlighted the growing link between universities and industry.

Professor Ignacio Chapela's tenure case has been in the hands of an Academic Senate committee since it was given approval from his department in the College of Natural Resources last May.

Critics said Chapela's opposition to the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology's 1998 deal with biotech firm Novartis, now called Syngenta, put him on thin ice.

The five-year, $25 million contract is slated to run out this year with no signs of renewal yet.

"Dr. Chapela is just the latest in a series of academics and government researchers whose findings, and indeed their very careers, are threatened by corporations with a clear vested interest in biotechnology," wrote professor E. Ann Clark of the University of Guelph in Canada in a letter to Chancellor Robert Berdahl this month.

Chapela's own research has sparked controversy. He co-authored a study published in the scientific journal Nature arguing that bioengineered crops could pollute regular harvests.

After scientists criticized some of his findings about maize crops in Mexico, the journal printed an editor's note saying the evidence "was not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper."

Chapela's history on campus makes his tenure review an unusual and highly politicized one.

His allies point to an apparent conflict of interest with one of the nine review committee members, plant and microbial biology professor Jasper Rine-an ardent critic of Chapela's work.

As a founder of the biotech company Acacia Biosciences in 1995, Rine's business dealings tie him to the very industry Chapela criticizes. Rine did not return multiple phone calls.

Even the chair of Chapela's department, Professor Steve Beissinger expressed concern about Rine's oversight in this case, according to a March 2003 memo to the dean of the College of Natural Resources.

Plant and microbial biology professor Richard Malkin, who did not return multiple calls, told the San Francisco Chronicle last month he had suggested Rine remove himself from the committee.

In December, after months in the Academic Senate committee, Vice Provost Jan de Vries requested new letters of recommendation for Chapela's tenure review be sent to the committee, according to the memo.

Faculty and administrators have refused media inquiries, saying that tenure decisions are personnel matters required to be kept quiet.

Tenure cases often vary in length-from as short as a few days to up to a year, depending on the situation, said UC Berkeley German professor Robert Holub, who sits on the committee.

Although the university has a policy that requires members to recuse themselves when there is a conflict of interest, it goes into no detail.

"This case will be judged like any other case, and extraneous views will not enter into the judgement," Holub said.

Meanwhile, Chapela's contract runs out in June. He continues teaching but is worried about his future here.

"It sends a message to those in academic positions-do not ask the wrong question," Chapela said.


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