U. of Alaska Rejects Retaliation Claim From Scientist Who Criticized Big Oil

Courtesy Richard Steiner

Richard Steiner, a U. of Alaska scientist whose complaints of violations of his academic freedom were rejected.
October 20, 2009

A prominent University of Alaska marine-conservation specialist appears to have lost a battle against changes in his working conditions that he had blamed on his institution's unwillingness to alienate the oil industry, which holds considerable sway in his state.

Richard Steiner, a professor of marine conservation at the university, had become a cause célèbre among some environmental groups after he accused the university of responding to his outspoken criticism of oil interests by denying him federal grant funds, subjecting him to harassment, and subsequently moving his office to punish him for filing a grievance about such matters in March.

The university's faculty union, United Academics, had challenged the administration's actions, but that effort appeared to have exhausted itself last week as a top university official resoundingly ruled against Mr. Steiner in the final stage of a formal grievance process that had gone against him every step of the way.

In a harshly worded memorandum rejecting all of Mr. Steiner's claims, the university's general counsel, Roger Brunner, who had been designated by President Mark R. Hamilton to hear Mr. Steiner's final appeal, characterized the professor as having a history of unsuccessfully bringing complaints of violations of his academic freedom in efforts to gain an upper hand with his supervisors.

"In many regards, the current claims appear to be a continuation of Professor Steiner's attempt to free himself from supervision and to have the university create a different job for him which would be more to his liking," Mr. Brunner wrote in the memorandum, which noted that the grievance requested that the university establish a "permanent, autonomous faculty chair for environmental sustainability" on the professor's behalf.

The general counsel acknowledged that university officials had heeded concerns from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant College Program about grant funds being used to finance advocacy, but he argued that the university's decision to deny Mr. Steiner such grant funds centered on its conclusion that the federal grants were not intended to finance advocacy work of any sort, and had nothing to do with the specific views he expressed.

'End of the Road'

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Steiner said Mr. Brunner's decision "looks like the end of the road" and he doubts he will choose to stay there given the circumstances he now finds himself in. "I have very few options here other than to leave the university, which I am likely to do very soon."

"This is the university circling their own wagons," Mr. Steiner said. "They know what they did was wrong."

Although United Academics has the option of taking Mr. Steiner's grievance one step further, to binding arbitration, he said he has seen no indication it will choose to do so. Neither the union's president, Carl Shepro, nor the lawyer who handled Mr. Steiner's grievance, Sarah E. Josephson, returned calls Tuesday seeking comment.

An advocacy group that had backed Mr. Steiner, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, issued a statement arguing that Mr. Brunner's memorandum amounts to a concession that the university had given in to pressure from NOAA "to silence the scientist's public critique of the oil industry's Arctic development plans."

"President Hamilton seems to believe that his faculty still enjoys academic freedom even while he permits imposition of penalties for views simply because they conflict with the university's financial backers—big oil," the group's statement said.

The university issued its own statement Tuesday, saying it believes in academic freedom and freedom of speech and has not infringed on either in the case of Mr. Steiner. "He's not being muzzled and 'big oil' isn't influencing the university's dealings with Professor Steiner," the statement said.

Criticism of Big Oil

Mr. Steiner, who has been at the university for about 30 years, became a vocal critic of the oil industry after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, and has alleged that he has been under pressure from university administrators to curtail such criticisms since the early 1990s.

The grievance he filed last March traced Mr. Steiner's latest round of conflict with university administrators back to his decision to hold a news conference last year to protest Shell Oil's partial sponsorship of a university conference on offshore development.

Two months after that protest, Denis A. Wiesenburg, dean of the university's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, sent an e-mail message to other university administrators saying that Jim Murray, deputy director of the federal Sea Grant program, had told him at a meeting in Washington that he had "an issue with Rick Steiner" and suggested that Mr. Steiner not be paid with Sea Grant funds if he is engaged in advocacy. The university subsequently chose to replace the Sea Grant money Mr. Steiner had received as partial pay with its own funds.

The requirements for the Sea Grant program specify that the extension agents who receive such grants should be "neutral brokers of information" based on science, and should avoid engaging in advocacy "at all costs."

In an interview on Tuesday, Leon M. Cammen, the program's director, said, "To be an effective extension agent, you have to be able to work with all parties on all sides of an issue. Part of what they do is conflict resolution. They do facilitation of discussion. That is all very difficult to do if you are associated with one side or the other."

If Mr. Steiner "had been advocating for the oil industry, that would have created exactly the same problems," Mr. Cammen said.

Mr. Steiner argued, however, that grant recipients who advocate on behalf of commercial interests do not face such pressure to be neutral.

The university noted in its statement that, because it replaced the federal grant money denied Mr. Steiner with its own funds, he did not experience any drop in pay. Mr. Steiner has argued, however, that by denying him the federal grant money, the university has blocked him from a long-term source of grant income and from access to the grant program's network.

Mr. Steiner's grievance accused the university of moving his office from the university's Cooperative Extension Service to its Marine Advisory Program in retaliation for filing the complaint. In rejecting that claim, Mr. Brunner said that the office move had "been contemplated for years" and that Mr. Steiner had been delaying it. "There is no harassment nor retaliation in requiring Professor Steiner to work with his coworkers in their facility," Mr. Brunner wrote.