Professor Camps Out in Front of California Hall in Protest

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UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela is holding office hours-on the lawn of California Hall.

For five days, Chapela will set up camp in front of the administrative hall, after being denied tenure since his case was filed last May.

His "office" is complete with chairs and a mini-library. An audience sits around his feet, Socrates-style, as he lectures about the future of food, biotechnology and the danger of a university financially beholden to what he considers a dangerous industry.

A woman rushes up, sticking out her hand and says, "I just wanted to introduce myself and let you know that you have my support."

Chapela's tenure review has been unusually high-profile.

He is among several professors who voiced fervid opposition to a controversial $25 million deal between the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and Novartis, a biotechnology firm, in 1998. The deal, he charged, compromised the academic integrity of the university.

In a study he co-wrote, he also argued that bioengineered crops could pollute normal harvests.

Some have suggested that the controversy surrounding Chapela and his research is what has delayed administrators from granting Chapela tenure.

"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 technology," wrote professor E. Ann Clark of the University of Guelph in Canada in a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl in April.

Chapela took his seat in front of the university's administration building at 6 a.m yesterday morning and is planning to stay there until Monday at midnight, when his contract was scheduled to end.

The university offered Chapela a one-year contract renewal early yesterday morning, about an hour after he set up camp.

The contract extension was not related to Chapela's vigil in front of the hall, said university spokesperson Sarah Yang.

"The letter confirming this renewal was dated June 19, 2003, so it was not created as a reaction to today's events," Yang said.

The university declined to comment on whether the contract extension meant that Chapela would receive tenure saying that a decision had not yet been made.

Although Chapela accepted the extension, he still plans to remain for the full five days and nights, "except for short unavoidable breaks."

California Hall was chosen as the campsite because it is the "black box" where many academic decisions are made. Chapela criticized the administration for obscuring the decision-making process.

"Academic decisions are complex, and keeping them private is OK, to a certain extent," he said. "But when that privacy is abused it becomes secrecy, and that is not OK."

Chapela's new "office" has no walls. It is transparent, to symbolize the need for transparency higher up in the university, he said.

He also understands the importance of keeping the university free from accountability, to make sure it remains academically independent, he said.

But when an institution is financially beholden to a company, it is no longer independent Chapela said, referring to the Novartis deal.

Chapela entertains a steady stream of visitors at his makeshift office-some bearing food, some offering their support, some just coming to discuss the issues of the day. None leave without signing his guestbook first.

"This is a celebration of my days at the University of California at Berkeley," Chapela said. "It's teaching-teaching to students, the public. I view it as an incredible opportunity."


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