EVANS: Rekindle the conversation

Concerns about academic integrity at University of Kansas mirror similar issues at the University

Last week the Managing Board directed our attention to the problem of partisan influence in higher education. They referenced a recent case at the University of Kansas where students and faculty are concerned about the hiring process of Dr. Arthur P. Hall, the current director of the Center for Applied Economics at KU and former public-sector chief economist for Koch Industries Inc. Students are demanding “greater transparency regarding Dr. Hall’s background, connections, and affiliations” and all documents pertaining to several KU faculty suspected of being brought in by Charles and/or David Koch.

Corporate influence in higher education is not necessarily wrong, as long as faculty operating within privately-funded programs are hired to represent and serve their respective academic fields, not the ulterior agendas of political interest groups. But we should not readily construe private giving as an unconditional contribution for the good of higher education. U.S. corporate executives do not support public institutions just out of altruism. And yet ironically, Hall argues for the protection of private documents in the name of academic freedom despite his close ties to the very people who spend millions undermining scholarly research every year.

I return to the conversation on “Integrity and influence” because such issues of transparency are of equal importance here on Grounds. University historian Robert Geraci published a piece in the Guardian in November 2012 revealing evidence of a potentially controversial sidestory to Helen Dragas’ unsuccessful ousting of President Sullivan. Geraci speculates that beneath the apolitical discussion over the future of higher education, Board members and University faculty clashed over the hiring of Michael Mann — an assistant professor in the University Environmental Sciences department from 1999 to 2005. In Spring 2012, Mann received a faculty nomination to fill an endowed chair in “environmental change” at the University.

Despite being one of the nation’s most esteemed and accomplished climate scientists, Mann has become a primary target for climate skeptics and conservative politicians. For years, critics have attempted to defame Mann for publishing allegedly fraudulent data — allegations that have since been disproven. The political parade against Mann reached a peak in May 2010 when climate change denier and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued a subpoena against the University, demanding it release all documents pertaining to Mann’s research. The University blocked Cuccinelli's attempts, announcing that his move was an “unprecedented and improper governmental intrusion into ongoing scientific research.” However, Mann again entered the public spotlight in 2012 upon fresh attacks from critics — hot press which incidentally came out just months before the Dragas-Sullivan fiasco. It was during this same time that Mann’s nomination for the endowed position was rejected.

Geraci argues apparent political differences between Sullivan and the Board warrant close investigation into a possible connection between the Mann and Sullivan debacles. He states, “It's no secret that board members, who are mostly businesspeople, are much more likely...to be on the conservative-Republican side of things than employees and students, who are significantly, if not predominantly, liberal-Democratic. Sullivan is, no doubt, in the latter camp.” If politics did in fact influence the Mann hiring decision then the socio-political composition of the Board should be held up to greater scrutiny. And given the close link between conservatism and climate denial, one can’t help but ponder the judgment of our own Board members. After all, the University administration does not have the best reputation when it comes to supporting a more sustainable energy economy — a future contingent on the admirable work of scientists such as Michael Mann.

It’s no secret that Republican Thomas Farrell – former University Rector and current director of the bottom-line driven Dominion Virginia Power – pumps $200,000 per year into the pockets of Board members Helen Dragas (Sullivan’s chief ouster) and former McDonnell appointee Mark Kington (chief donor for the currently empty endowed chair of environmental change). And we well know that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni – a chief aggressor against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools who issued the University a warning for failed compliance with transparency policies during the 2012 Board debacle — is (you guessed it) saturated with Koch brother influence.

The very people who exist to support the integrity of higher academia appear to be the least likely to encourage its efforts, particularly when that research is centered on climate change. Did the political interests of University administrators squash the qualified judgement of their own environmental scientists to prevent what would have arguably been one of the most important hiring decisions in University history? Did a political assault on core principles upheld by the American Association of University Professors somehow underlie the already unwarranted attack on President Sullivan? If so, the integrity of our academic hiring process is up for serious questioning.

I do not intend to point a finger at specific past or present members of the Board of Visitors for deliberately interfering with the University’s academic hiring process. In fact, the Board does have final say when it comes to faulty positions, salaries and promotions. The issue is that partisanship should not be permitted to enter that decision making process, period. And yet the unspoken but obvious priority of any university administration is the protection of institutional reputation, and thus security of private financial streams. Sadly — and with overwhelming evidence nationwide to show for it — school administrators often find themselves acting on behalf of outside private interest, which unavoidably exerts political sway. Given the heated politics surrounding the Mann controversy, one can’t help but wonder if such interests directly contributed to the silencing of Geraci’s findings.

Regardless of how guilt should be assigned, when a professional historian finds certain evidence significant enough to publish, one would expect a more thorough investigation from both the University and local media. Given the trend so far, I have little hope this piece will help rekindle that conversation. I put my faith in the facts.

Will Evans is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at w.evans@cavalierdaily.com.

Editor's Note: Mark Kington contacted the writer expressing concern that the article unfairly represented his views. Kington is an advocate for the environment, has donated generously to environmental groups and to both democratic and republican politicians. He was appointed to the Board of Visitors by Mark Warner in 2002 and again by Bob McDonnell in 2010. Kington said he did not know Michael Mann was ever under consideration for the Kington endowed chair position.

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