The conflicted Virginia university
Virginia's schools of higher learning are in the thick of national conflict on several hot-button research issues, according to a new publication of the American Association of University Professors.
The most recent edition of the AAUP's "Academe: the Conflicted University" includes some Virginia examples as the organization examines how seriously academic freedom and research are being challenged.
One article, "The Costs of a Climate of Fear," reports how gingerly researchers into climate change must tread because of the highly polarized, political fervor surrounding the issue.
In California, for instance, one researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory got a message about his global warming work. His doorbell rang and when he answered, he found a dead rat on his doorstep and a man driving away while shouting obscenities. The incident was part of a long pattern of harassment over his work.
In Virginia, the backlash may be more civil, but it is far more serious, namely right-wing Attorney General Kenneth N. Cuccinelli's continued assault on global warming research at the University of Virginia. The report's author, Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists, reviews how Cuccinelli has doggedly gone after former U.Va. researcher Michael Mann for alleged fraud, even though several academic reviews have cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Attorneys general from across the nation are watching closely to see how Cuccinelli's gambit plays out, but Halpern notes: "A court of law is not the place to settle scientific disagreements, and an attorney general should not be in the business of evaluating scientific research."
Another part of the AAUP study delves into an issue dear to Virginia's heart: tobacco. Author Allan M. Brandt, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, notes that more and more schools are refusing tobacco research money, including the business school at the University of Texas at Austin, the Emory University School of Medicine, Harvard Medical and Public Health Schools and Johns Hopkins.
The University of Virginia accepted $25 million in research money from Philip Morris in 2007, Brandt reports, although he doesn't mention the controversy three years ago in which it was revealed that Virginia Commonwealth University had accepted research money from Philip Morris USA along with agreements to keep the deals secret. After a national firestorm, VCU admitted its mistake and agreed to no longer accept such one-sided contracts, although it still takes tobacco money.
Brandt notes that at least one federal court judge found Philip Morris guilty of racketeering charges for conspiring to keep secret tobacco's health dangers and that the firm and other tobacco companies have been effective in shouting down research findings they believe are bad for business. Brandt has been an expert witness for the government in legal cases involving tobacco.
The difficult thing about tobacco is that it has been deeply ingrained in Virginia history since Jamestown. Philip Morris employs about 6,000 people in the state, mostly in Richmond, and is a major contributor to charities and arts such as symphonies and festivals. The money is welcome, especially as some other corporate donors have gone belly up.
But one has to wonder what makes Virginia universities continue to treat the weed with such reverence when such big-name schools as Harvard, Johns Hopkins and UT Austin ban tobacco money outright.
As for global warming, the AAUP is right that Cuccinelli's "going rogue" harassment of U.Va. smacks of the politically charged witch hunts of the McCarthy era. And with the Republicans winning big Nov. 2, the issue issue isn't going away.
Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.
| November 10, 2010; 5:00 PM ET
Categories: HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, arts, development, economy, education, environment, health care, history, public health, schools, smoking, taxes, weather
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