Ignacio Chapela’s Last Stand

The status of an embattled Cal biotech critic may well end up in a judge's hands.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has been on the job less than a month and already he’s in the midst of an inherited tenure tempest involving embattled assistant professor Ignacio Chapela. On his desk is a letter from the Canadian Association of University Teachers urging the chancellor, a Canadian scientist, to reconsider Chapela’s case, which the group claims “casts a dark shadow” on UC Berkeley and “raises serious questions about academic freedom for controversial scholars at your new institution.”

Chapela, a microbial ecologist, was an outspoken critic of a $25 million agreement between the school’s College of Natural Resources and Swiss biotech giant Novartis. He was also the first to report the contamination of backyard maize plots in the Mexican state of Oaxaca with DNA from genetically modified corn — part of a controversial paper that was published and later essentially retracted by the journal Nature (see “Kernels of Truth,” feature, 5/29/02).

Chapela came up for review in September 2001, and although some experts in his field had publicly questioned the validity of his work, his colleagues in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management — a division of the College of Natural Resources– backed him 32-1. Their decision was approved by the college’s acting dean, and then by a campuswide tenure-review committee which voted unanimously in Chapela’s favor — although its chair reportedly resigned shortly thereafter and mysteriously disavowed himself of the decision. The next step, which tends to be a formality, requires approval of the candidate by a campus budget committee. In this case, the committee, which makes final recommendations to the chancellor, voted to deny tenure.

Citing confidentiality concerns, campus administrators were unwilling to comment on how this happened. But the Academic Senate’s own tenure committee, to which Chapela has submitted fourteen grievances related to the process, concluded this past summer that Chapela’s “rights and privileges were violated in two ways,” citing both a conflict of interest and an “unjustifiable delay” in the process.

The former involved Jasper Rine, a professor of genetics and developmental biology who sat on the budget committee when it authored the initial decision to nix Chapela’s bid. His former company, Acacia Biosciences, had business dealings with Novartis, and Rine also served on a committee that oversaw the controversial Cal-Novartis pact. And the professor admittedly has discussed Chapela’s Nature paper with one of his classes as an example of bad science. The chair of the campus tenure-review committee and the dean of the College of Natural Resources both had asked him to recuse himself from the Chapela decision, but to no avail.

Rine declined to comment, but Chapela’s attorney was more than willing. “People who have a clear interest in the corporate development of genetic engineering should not be involved in academic decisions of this nature,” says the lawyer, Daniel Siegel. “This is so obvious. It’s like asking Dick Cheney to choose the Democratic vice presidential candidate.”

As for the delays, Chapela’s review took some eighteen months, far exceeding the four- to five-month average. The holdup was due in part to an extended search by Vice-Provost Jan de Vries for outside scholars to review Chapela’s qualifications. Chapela’s department had already solicited reviews from at least a dozen academics, but de Vries, who oversees the budget committee, demanded more, sought additional reviews himself. Ultimately, eighteen letters were received, and only one advised against tenure.

The Academic Senate’s tenure committee is now recommending a formal senate hearing, which could drag on for months. Administrators offered Chapela a deal last month: If he would drop two claims he has filed with government agencies — that the university is discriminating against him because he is Hispanic, and that it is punishing him for speaking out against the Cal-Novartis deal — thena new budget committee would reconsider his tenure bid.

Chapela, however, refuses to waive the claims. The junior professor is eager for a public airing of the process, which he hopes will clear his name. Barring that, he’s determined to take it to the courts. “It’s obvious to me that negotiations in the university are not going to lead to a resolution of my case,” he says. “I wish I was in court right now.”

Meanwhile, Chapela’s colleagues have cut him a break on his teaching load so he’ll have more time to pursue his case. Though his extended contract expires at year’s end, the researcher insists he’s not going anywhere. “I’m not looking for other jobs,” he says. “I feel wanted, needed, and accepted here, and I am being kicked out illegitimately.”

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