Two professors at Miami University are suddenly at risk of losing their jobs over a plant that has been in their collection for over a decade.
A third, nontenured Miami employee says he was forced to resign over the iboga shrub, which can be used to make the psychoactive drug ibogaine.
Advocates for the faculty members say that the university’s response to an apparent oversight by their colleagues is heavy-handed and chilling to research of all kinds.
“These are not two professors smoking dope in the back,” said Daniel Hall, a professor of political science who served as the Hamilton campus dean when the massive plant collection, called the Conservatory, was founded with a $3.5 million gift in 2004. “They care deeply about the institution and are committed to students and the community … What’s happened just sickens me.”
What did happen? The professors, biologist Daniel Gladish and anthropologist John Cinnamon, declined interview requests. But public documents related to the case, along with colleagues’ and lawyers' accounts, provide insight.
Last year, Conservatory staff determined that their sole iboga plant -- native to West Africa and notoriously slow growing and finicky -- was dying. As is common with ailing plants, conservatory staff grew several seedlings, in hopes that at least one would survive and the rare specimen could be preserved. As is also common at the Conservatory, leftover seedlings -- in this case, four -- were offered to students in a discard area.
The story might have ended there. But a student who knew about the iboga plant’s unusual properties brought two of the discarded seedlings home. It would have taken her years to grow them into mature plants, if they survived. Still, the student allegedly told another university employee that she planned to get high off the iboga one day. That employee alerted the new campus dean, who alerted the authorities.
In late November, without notice, Drug Enforcement Agency agents visited the Conservatory and confiscated the iboga. But authorities did not press criminal charges against the professors.
Why not? Hard to say. It's clear, however, that the professors had no intention of using their dying plant to make the drug ibogaine, which in larger doses acts as a powerful psychedelic. Even if the professors wanted to make the drug, they may not have been able to do so. Ibogaine comes from iboga root bark. And while iboga bark is chewed for ritualistic purposes in parts of West Africa, processing the root into a drug is more complicated and may have required more bark than Miami possessed.
Instead, Gladish, the conservatory director, wanted the plant to add to the diversity of the collection. Cinnamon studies Gabon, where the plant is prized and plays a role in some religious ceremonies.
Brian Grubb, the conservatory's former manager who says he was forced out, said, "Never in the years I was there did anybody ever have any ulterior motives" regarding the plant. No one ever warned him about the iboga, in any way, he said.
"It was purely scientific inquiry. We're a biology department for God's sake." The conservatory, which is open to the public, is affiliated with Miami's biology department.
Grubb is the main subject of a Miami campus police report, which says that the conservatory's iboga inventory was off and that a student was once fired for posting about the plant on social media. But Grubb said he misspoke that day, as he was thrown off guard by the sudden visit from authorities.
Eventually, the student who took the seedlings home was suspended, the professors’ supporters say. But Gladish was suspended and banned from campus in December, pending an investigation. He was later allowed to return to campus for certain purposes, but may still not interact with students.
This spring, he was informed that the university intended to terminate him over the iboga.
In the official termination notice, Provost Phyllis Callahan said that Gladish had violated federal laws against possession of a Schedule I narcotic and university policies enforcing a drug-free workplace. Callahan also said that Gladish had accepted the iboga seeds from Cinnamon upon his return from Gabon in 2004, which constituted a violation of a reporting requirement on colleagues' illegal activity.
Cinnamon, who is currently on medical leave, received a similar letter from Callahan, saying that he imported the iboga seeds illegally and “knew that such a tree was being grown” in the Conservatory. In the campus police report, Cinnamon is quoted as saying that he did not declare the seeds to U.S. officials upon returning from Gabon in 2004.
Gladish is currently appealing the move. He’ll have a chance to make his case before an advisory faculty body in the fall.
Cathy Wagner, a professor of English at Miami and president of the campus's American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter, said she hopes that the process plays out in Gladish’s favor. In the meantime, the AAUP has started a petition in support of the professors.
“We think that the discipline that’s been proposed -- termination of faculty -- is incredibly drastic,” Wagner said, noting that the AAUP promotes the idea of progressive discipline.
Academic freedom is also at play, Wagner said, in that “it seems there should be an opportunity to do research on these kinds of plants. There might be an issue with making sure they’re secured and that regulations are followed, but that kind of thing could be clarified and best practices made more consistent across different universities. That could be the positive result of all this." Faculty losing their jobs, "for working in their research areas," meanwhile, "seems like a really sad and unnecessary outcome.”
A spokesperson for the DEA said that all Schedule I drug-related research needs to be registered with and approved by the agency, in concert with the Food and Drug Administration. She declined comment on any specific case.
But possessing a single plant from which a drug could be derived is very different -- practically, if not legally -- from experimental research involving the drug itself. And professors at academic conservatories elsewhere who spoke on background said that norms vary as to whether it’s OK to a hold narcotic plants. Cannabis, coca and peyote plants are among those held in other collections, in part so that students who are studying fields such as ethnobotany can actually see what they’re learning about. University collections also contain some highly poisonous plants, and are managed accordingly.
Ernesto Sandoval, manager and curator of the Botanical Conservatory at the University of California, Davis, said some of these questions make for “a gray area.” In any case, he said, “I don’t think my university would fire me without saying, ‘Hey, can we talk about these plants?’”
Hall, the former dean at Miami, also said that if he were still the professors’ dean, he would have called them to understand what was going on before assuming the worst. He said that he worried the case would not only chill research at Miami, but also make it harder to recruit students and faculty members who may perceive the institution as “risk averse.”
“It puts innovation at risk,” he said, recalling how he and Gladish raised money for the Conservatory with the promise of making the most diverse plant collection possible.
Marc Mezibov, Gladish’s lawyer, said he had due process concerns. The university’s actions are “ham-handed and heavy-handed for no great reason,” he added. “It feels as if they don’t comport with legitimate institutional needs and reasons.”
Grubb said authorities destroyed the iboga -- and that that's a shame. "It's a rare and potentially endangered specimen. So let's say we would have had a rational discussion the day the DEA came. 'This is a national treasure in Gabon, can we get a permit to keep the plant now because we didn't know we needed one?' What would that have looked like?"
Claire Wagner, university spokesperson, said via email that the matter is "being handled following established university procedures -- part of an important obligation to treat all of our employees fairly. It is in process." She noted that the professors' tenure has not yet been revoked but otherwise declined additional comment, citing employees' "right to have the allegations heard in an impartial manner."