Last March, as his employer held a conference down the street about the future of offshore development in Alaska's Bristol Bay region, Rick Steiner held a news conference criticizing the fact that the University of Alaska event featured Shell Oil as a prominent sponsor. “If Shell is allowed to have any influence on the research agenda pursued by the university related to this highly sensitive and controversial issue, it will create great mistrust and harm the credibility for our public university,” said Steiner, a marine conservation specialist for the university and extension agent for the National Sea Grant Program, in a news release about the conference.
When University of Alaska administrators met with officials from the National Sea Grant College Program two months later at their headquarters in Washington's Maryland suburbs, the federal agency's leaders let it be known that they were unhappy with Steiner's "advocacy" for environmental causes. "They felt he was acting as an advocate and asked if he was being paid with Sea Grant funds," the dean of Alaska's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences wrote in an e-mail message to colleagues after the meeting. "The suggestion was made that he not be paid from Sea Grant funds."
This month, Alaska officials informed Steiner that he will continue to receive his full 10-month salary, but that the university would pick up the full tab -- he would no longer receive any money from the Sea Grant Program.
For Steiner and faculty and environmental advocacy groups that have rallied to his defense, that chain of events is slam dunk evidence of what he decries as inappropriate intrusion by a federal agency into the academic affairs of a university and his university's failure to protect his academic freedom.
On the highly contentious topic of marine development vs. conservation, "The message here is that if you say the wrong thing, especially about controversial issues, you can lose your grant funding -- or worse," Steiner says. "It's exactly the wrong message for the faculty to get, and for the state. If Sea Grant can tell the University of Alaska that their grant comes with such stipulations [as restrictions of faculty free speech], then why can't Shell, or Exxon?"
Officials at the university and the Sea Grant Program say the issue is not so simple. Those in Steiner's role -- that of an "advisory agent" with the Alaska Sea Grant Program's Marine Advisory Program -- are supposed to be "neutral brokers," providing decision makers and the public with "science-based information" to help them "understand their choices and the implications of those choices," according to the federal agency's published guidelines.
Bottom line, says Leon Cammen, director of the National Sea Grant Program, is that Steiner, and by extension the University of Alaska, were not fulfilling the terms of the agency's grant, and the change the university made was designed to correct that.
"Rick is supposed to be there as an unbiased neutral educator," Cammen says. "What they are not, and what we as an agency are not, is an advocacy program. We're not in the business of pushing one point of view or another point of view. What we are trying to do is get individuals, coastal managers, and policy makers neutral
"If Sea Grant can tell the University of Alaska that their grant comes with such stipulations [as restrictions on faculty free speech], then why can't Shell, or Exxon?"
information, and the point of it is to provide information on all sides of controversial issues such that they'll be able to make the best decision possible. Our issue in this case is that we reminded the university of what the role of an extension agent is, and we feel that Rick really was acting more as an advocate, and that that was troubling in terms of his ability to do his work as an extension agent," Cammen says.
University officials, meanwhile, insist that they have done nothing to undermine Steiner's freedom of speech by responding to the concerns of Sea Grant officials. The university, not any individual extension agent, is the recipient of the federal grant, says Marmian Grimes, an Alaska-Fairbanks spokeswoman, and Steiner will continue to be paid exactly the same amount to do exactly the same work he's been doing all along. "Of course the university supports all faculty members' freedom of speech," she says. "We have a hard time seeing the harm here."
A History of Conflict
There is little dispute about Rick Steiner's expertise. He has spent nearly 30 years on the University of Alaska faculty, virtually all of that time affiliated with the Sea Grant Program, which at the national level describes itself as focused on "environmental stewardship, long-term economic development and responsible use of America’s coastal, ocean and Great Lakes resources." As a result, Steiner has become an expert on the heavily politicized waters, as it were, of debate about the development and/or conservation of Alaska's coastal and marine resources.
Steiner notes that he has done work that could be seen as taking all sides of that contentious discussion -- his list of publications shows that he has written (especially early in his career) about such topics as "Quality recommendations for ocean whitefish -- care and handling in the plant" and "Detecting vessel hull deterioration."
But it is also hard to argue -- and Steiner doesn't -- that he has increasingly become an advocate for conservation since he was one of the first people on the scene of the Exxon Valdez oil spill 20 years ago. His writings about that legendary environmental accident and about the dangers and damage of development of Alaska's coasts and waterways have increasingly put him at odds with the powerful gas and oil industry and with the Alaska politicians those companies support. (During the 2008 election campaign, he took on Sarah Palin, the state's governor and GOP vice presidential candidate. The none-too-subtle headline of his op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Sarah Palin's record on environment is abysmal.")
University of Alaska documents show that Steiner and his bosses within his Marine Advisory Program and the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences skirmished with growing frequency in recent years, over everything from whether he could stay in his office to his request to transfer to another department. But the hostilities reached a new level in March 2008, when he went public (in an open letter he and others signed) and the aforementioned news conference, essentially accusing the university of favoring development over conservation in putting together its North Aleutian Basin Energy-Fisheries Workshop that month.
Steiner and others cited several facts -- Shell's $25,000 contribution made it the biggest sponsor of the event, and company representatives both suggested and helped plan the event -- to argue that the university and its own Sea Grant program, as well as the National Sea Grant Program, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had shown their biases in shaping the workshop.
University officials were perturbed, and so, it turns out, were federal officials, Steiner later learned through the release of documents through a state open-records request. As detailed in an e-mail message to other administrators from Denis A. Wiesenburg, dean of Alaska's ocean science school, university administrators got an earful when they visited National Sea Grant headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., last May. The national program's deputy director, Jim Murray, told Wiesenburg that he had an "issue with Rick Steiner," and that advocacy by "one agent can cause problems nationally," the dean reported.
Wiesenburg said that he asked Sea Grant officials for documentation of the assertion that the program's advisers should not be advocates, and that the agency pointed him to the program's guidance on "neutrality."
"Our Sea Grant funding is a grant. We have no obligation to pay faculty from the grant unless they are contributing to the goals of the grant. From my discussions with the national Sea Grant office, they do not believe Professor Steiner is contributing to their mission. On the contrary, they worry that his actions in Alaska could have negative implications nationally. ... During FY09, Professor Steiner is receiving one month's salary from our Sea Grant grant. The grant is up for renewal this year. It will be my recommendation that Professor Steiner's salary not be included in the grant and the [sic] he continue to receive his nine-month salary from our [general university] budget as required by the [union's collective bargaining agreement]."
Wiesenburg reiterated his critique of Steiner's advocacy in a post-tenure review letter in December, specifically citing Steiner's criticism of the university's March workshop, whose keynote speaker, the dean noted, "was [the university's] President Mark Hamilton." Too often, Wiesenburg wrote, Steiner has "chosen to be a maverick and to work independently," rather than working within the network of the program's other advisers and researchers.
He added: "Mr. Steiner has every right as a faculty member to take positions on issues of public debate and publicly express his opinions on those issues. We defend his right to do so under the [collective bargaining agreement]. To fully understand academic freedom, I encourage Mr. Steiner to read [the provision of the agreement] that states: 'Academic freedom is accompanied by the corresponding responsibility to provide objective and skillful exposition of one's subject, to at all times be accurate, to exercise appropriate restraint, to show respect for the opinions of others and to indicate when appropriate that one is an institution representative.' Going forward, I ask Mr. Steiner to consider his academic responsibilities [under the collective bargaining agreement] and to find a way to work with his ... colleagues to provide better advisory services to the citizens of Alaska."
Last week, Grimes, the University of Alaska spokeswoman designated to speak on behalf of Wiesenburg and other campus administrators, said that as university officials had finalized faculty workload plans for the 2009-10 academic year, they had indeed decided to finance all 10 months of Steiner's pay out of university funds, stripping him of Sea Grant support. "The Sea Grant grant is to our program, not to any individual folks," she says. "The program's leaders have to evaluate its activities and decide what's an appropriate use of the money. You can't spend federal grant money on just anything. You have to stick to the grant or you get in trouble."
Rick Steiner freely admits that he engages in advocacy. But his point is that so, too, does virtually everyone else affiliated with the Sea Grant program, at Alaska and elsewhere -- they just advocate for different things.
"Their work is generally in support of commercialization of the oceans rather than conservation," he says, noting that he "never had any problems from Sea Grant" when his early work focused on developing commercial fisheries across Alaska or when he advocated for safer shipping. But as the National Sea Grant network's only marine conservation specialist, he says, the core of his work now -- focusing on sustainable use of marine resources, habitat protection, and reducing carbon footprints -- "calls into question where [the critics] get their political support or money."
In Alaska, he says, oil companies and commercial fisheries are the heavy hitters, financially and politically, and "if your work supports industry and commercial resources, there's never a question raised that I've ever seen. ... This state runs on oil money, and I've called into question a lot of the conventional paradigms."
The workshop that seems to have gotten Steiner into such hot water is a perfect example, he says. "My current situation derived out of my calling out their bias in the public eye... I felt that it was biased from the start, just the way the thing was formulated," with initiation and financial backing from Shell.
Steiner strongly disputes the suggestion by Alaska officials that they have taken nothing away by proposing to replace the Sea Grant money he would have received with the university's own funds. First of all, the grant monies are typically awarded to faculty on a multi-year basis, he says, and the university is committing its own funds for 2009-10 for a single year. Secondly, the Sea Grant money "involved me in a nationwide peer network of professionals."
And perhaps most importantly, he says, Alaska and Sea Grant officials, together, have sent a deeply troubling message to academics in Alaska, by "allowing a granting institution the power to restrict what people at a university say." That concerns Alaska's faculty union, which has filed numerous grievances on Steiner's behalf alleging that the university has punished Steiner for his views.
"This is not a slippery slope," he says, "but a cliff."
(This article was updated from an earlier version to clarify one piece of information.)