Berkeley Reverses Tenure Denial

Professor and his supporters said the university was punishing him for criticizing a deal with a biotech company.
May 23, 2005

A professor who harshly criticized the University of California at Berkeley -- and was denied tenure despite strong backing from his department and dean -- won tenure last week.

The reversal came shortly after the professor, Ignacio H. Chapela, sued the university in state court. But in an interview Saturday, Chapela said that the suit had not been withdrawn, and that he wasn't sure why Berkeley had changed its mind. "I have no idea what happened," he said.

Chapela teaches in Berkeley's department of environmental science, policy and management. His research, which is well regarded by his peers, focuses on fungal species and the way they interact with one another and with plants.

He is best known at Berkeley, however, for his opposition to an agreement in 1998 between Berkeley and the Novartis Corporation (a biotech company now part of Syngenta). Under the agreement, the company provided millions of dollars to support research in Berkeley's College of Natural Resources in return for first rights to commercialize basic research breakthroughs. Chapela and many other faculty members said that the deal went too far in giving up rights to a company and that they were not satisfied with university pledges that academic freedom would be upheld.

As Chapela and his supporters have documented in a Web site, when his tenure review started in 2001, everything looked promising. He won a departmental vote by 32-to-1 and his dean recommended him for tenure. But a more senior university committee disagreed and Robert M. Berdahl, then the chancellor, rejected Chapela's tenure bid. Chapela maintains that there were numerous irregularities with the review at the top level and that Berkeley officials sought out letters to criticize him.

Berkeley agreed to another review at the top levels, Chapela said, if he would agree to stop pursuing internal appeals. It was this review that resulted in a positive recommendation, which was approved by the new chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau.

Berkeley officials were not available to comment this weekend, but they did confirm the tenure decision to the Associated Press. Berkeley officials have denied any wrongdoing in the case.

Chapela said that his lawsuit argued that he was denied tenure because of his opposition to the Novartis deal and because he is a Latino. The suit also charged the university with fraud. "I was led to believe I would be promoted on the basis of my scholarship," Chapela said, "but other factors play a much more important role in the process."

He said that he was thrilled to win tenure and that the lawsuit was still important. "This was not just about my tenure," he said. "There is still validity to the issues that the suit raises."


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