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UHM faculty condemn academic freedom violations

The university's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources has restricted and violated one of it's own professor's academic freedom, and a group of his professional colleagues are speaking out against his mistreatment.

Will Caron

Sixty faculty members at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have signed a letter sent to Manoa Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman, the vice-chancellor for academic affairs, and Maria Gallo, Dean of the university’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) asking that the university acknowledge the restrictions and violations of academic freedom imposed on CTAHR Professor Hector Valenzuela.

For years now, the college has been accepting money from agrochemical companies such as Monsanto while simultaneously advocating for a style of agriculture that is dependent on the products created by these companies, namely Genetically Modified Organisms that can withstand the use of the companies’ lucrative pesticides. Dr. Valenzuela’s field of expertise involves discovering ways in which crops can thrive in our climate without the use of the GMO-pesticide model of agriculture. The 20+ year CTAHR veteran spent six years in the early ‘90s developing the first long-term organic farming research project in Hawaii and the Pacific region. But around 1998, when Monsanto money began entering the equation, his research plot was shut down by the college. Over the next 15 years, Valenzuela tolerated what he calls a climate of “bigotry, retaliation and hostility” in retaliation for his failure to tow the dominant CTAHR line (documented in Paul Koberstein’s article “The Silencing of Hector Valenzuela,” published here). The university denies his accusations.

Maria Gallo was the only one of the three addressees who has responded to the faculty letter so far (originally sent July 6). However, her response did not satisfy the undersigned professors that their two primary concerns (the violations of academic freedom and of freedom of speech, and deviations from CTAHR’s publicly stated mission, both of which came to light as a result of the Koberstein article) would be addressed. They elected to publicize their letter as a result and The Independent has obtained a copy for publishing:

To: Robert W. Bley-Vroman, Chancellor, UH Manoa
Reed W. Dasenbrock, Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs
Maria Gallo, Dean of CTAHR
From:  Concerned Faculty Members of the University of Hawai‘i.
We, the undersigned faculty members of the University of Hawai‘i, request that the University publicly recognize the restrictions of academic rights and freedoms that have been imposed over the last two decades on Professor Hector Valenzuela of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), see that all those restrictions are fully rescinded, and ensure that future policies of CTAHR do not deviate from CTAHR’s stated mission in ways of which the aforesaid restrictions are merely symptomatic.

Professor Valenzuela came to CTAHR in 1991, and is currently a Vegetable Crops Extension Specialist, S5.  The first restriction on his activities was the 1999 closure, for no valid reason, of a series of research projects in organic farming that Professor Valenzuela was carrying out at the University’s Waimānalo Experiment Station.  Subsequently there followed a series of harassments that included bans on workshops and other events he had planned on neighbor islands, an activity involving outreach to the community that formed part of his duties as an extension specialist, as well as discrimination against him with regard to the use of university transport and phone services.  In addition he received abusive e-mails and was verbally abused by both colleagues and administrators.

The ostensible justification for such measures was that Professor Valenzuela was “criticizing CTAHR faculty and programs with intellectually dishonest arguments and actively supporting the poisonous activities of groups basically opposed to CTAHR, science and progress,” in the words of one CTAHR administrator.  In fact, all that Professor Valenzuela was doing was providing farmers and other interested parties with information about organic farming methods and expressing his doubts about some of the methods employed in biotechnology.  Far from his position being “opposed to science”, we can cite hundreds of scientific articles that are equally critical of various aspects of biotechnology.  In other words, controversies involving biotechnology are not the single, simple conflict between pro-science/pro-biotechnology and anti-science/anti-biotechnology that CTAHR administrators have claimed, but a series of legitimate scientific arguments.  Yet he was explicitly informed by his Head of Department that he could not discuss such issues in the course of his professional duties.  To limit his right to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry in this way is a violation of the principles on which all universities are based, as well of the right to free discussion on which all non-totalitarian societies are based.

We are aware that some of the restrictions on Professor Valenzuela have since been rescinded, but the harassment and the denial of academic freedom continue.  He has been told repeatedly by his Dean not to notify students at Mānoa and other UH campuses about meetings where biotechnology and/or pesticide use will be subjected to critical scrutiny.  Insulting and abusive e-mails addressed to him have been distributed to other colleagues in breach of State privacy laws, a misdemeanor in Hawai‘i. We therefore call on the University to (a) condemn such activities on the part of CTAHR officials or any other University employees, (b) ensure that Professor Valenzuela’s right to free expression of his opinions in the performance of his duties as an extension specialist remains unabridged, so long as the content of his speech bears directly on topics involved in his subject area (the normal criterion in issues of academic freedom), and (c) that the plots on which he was carrying out his research projects be allotted him for the duration of his tenure in CTAHR.

That said, it must be pointed out that the treatment accorded to Professor Valenzuela, serious though it is in itself, is merely a symptom of broader and deeper problems with the current policies and procedures of CTAHR.  What these problems are may be best illustrated by comparing three sentences from CTAHR’s own statement of its “Philosophy on Agricultural Technologies” with the pattern of CTAHR development over the last two decades.

1)  “Hawai‘i has a centuries-old tradition of food production, and CTAHR is continuing this agricultural tradition into the 21st century.”

That agricultural tradition is indeed centuries old.  But it was a tradition not of producing foods primarily for export to other areas, still less one of producing substances for non-food purposes, but a tradition of providing sufficient and nutritious food for the people of Hawai‘i.  When Captain Cook arrived in these islands, Hawai‘i was entirely self-sufficient, producing a plentiful supply of food for a population almost as large as today’s.  Today, the quantity of food grown in Hawai‘i and consumed here has fallen from 100% to little more than 10%.  A problem of which everyone is aware but which those in government, industry and academia rarely if ever refer to is that if some disaster, whether due to natural or human causes, were to interrupt the flow of imported food for as little as one week, the people of Hawai‘i would find themselves on the brink of starvation.  In an era of rapid climate change and growing political instability, to be so dependent on outside sources is potentially suicidal.  Yet instead of supporting local production to help raise the percentage of homegrown food, CTAHR has increasingly devoted its resources to serving the interests of biotechnology and non-food commodities.  At times, as many as 60 or 70 CTAHR faculty and staff have worked on biotechnology projects, despite the fact that, after the initial success of the Rainbow papaya, not one of CTAHR’s more than a dozen attempts to produce a commercially-viable genetically engineered plant species has proved successful.

2) “The role of CTAHR as a land-grant institution is to assist all members and sectors of Hawai‘i’s food and agricultural system to reach their full potential in an environmentally and socially compatible way.”

Increasingly, large areas of agricultural land, representing over 70% of the area devoted to the production of diversified and edible crops in Hawai’i, have been acquired through lease or purchase by five large seed-and-pesticide corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, BASF and DuPont-Pioneer) that have come to Hawai‘i over the last five decades.  Their purpose was not to improve or increase Hawai‘i’s food production but rather to exploit Hawai‘i’s ideal soil and climate conditions in order to grow and test genetically-engineered and pesticide-resistant seeds for export to other areas worldwide.  It is surely questionable whether, in terms of a land-grant institution’s mission, such corporations should even be treated as members of “Hawai‘i’s food and agricultural system” at all.  Yet CTAHR does not merely regard them as an indispensable part of “diversified agriculture”, it gives the appearance of favoring them over other branches, and has provided its full support, in articles, workshops, and outreach programs, to the various activities of these corporations.  Time and energy used in such ways have inevitably detracted from time and energy that could have been spent in support of Hawai‘i’s food producers.

3) “We uphold the values of academic freedom and respect the rights of farmers and consumers to decide which technologies are most appropriate.”

Clearly, in the case of Professor Valenzuela, the values of academic freedom were not upheld.  The views he expressed involved, as stated above, issues on which scientific disagreement is perfectly legitimate.  While it would be foolish to condemn, as some do, every aspect of biotechnology, some of its practices have a clear potential for harm, in particular the growing of herbicide-resistant crops, thereby creating herbicide-resistant weeds that require more, and more frequent, spraying with stronger and stronger herbicides, some of which are known carcinogens and/or endocrine disruptors.  Practices such as these may be far from “environmentally and socially compatible”, and in deciding “which technologies are most appropriate”, both “farmers and consumers” have a right to be warned of potential risks they may run in applying pesticides, in consuming food from crops that have been sprayed with known toxic substances, and in damaging the health of the environment on which any sustainable agriculture depends.

In short, CTAHR has failed in at least these three respects to adhere to its own publicly stated policies.  Professor Valenzuela’s particular concerns result from these larger, and highly consequential failures, and, perhaps because the mistreatment he has experienced is symptomatic of these institutional problems, they have not yet been satisfactorily addressed through the available channels. We therefore request that the University, in addition to addressing those concerns, review the current implementation of CTAHR policies with a view to determining the extent to which such policies may deviate from CTAHR’s stated mission, and take whatever measures may be necessary to bring CTAHR into full compliance with the terms of that mission.  As these are matters of some urgency, once the three of you have had a chance to confer, we would appreciate receipt of an outline from one or all three of you of how you intend to respond to these concerns. We ask that you respond within ten working days of your receipt of this letter (July 20).


Ibrahim Aoude, Professor of Ethnic Studies
Cristina Bacchilega, Graduate Chair and Professor of English
Derek Bickerton, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics
Dharm Bhawuk, Professor, Shidler College of Business
Eileen Cain, Leeward CC Language Arts
Jim Caron, Professor of English
Kimo Alexander Cashman, Associate Specialist, College of Education
Arindam Chakrabarti, Professor of Philosophy
Gaye Chan, Professor and Chair of Art
Kahelelani Clark, Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Studies (KCC)
Haruko Cook, Professor of East Asian Languages and Linguistics
Vrinda Dalmiya, Professor of Philosophy
Marcus Daniel, Associate Professor of History
Monisha Das Gupta. Associate Professor of Ethnic and Women’s Studies and Director of the Center for South Asian Studies
Emmanuel Drechsel, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies
Kahea Faria, Assistant Specialist, College of Education
Kathy Ferguson, Professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies
Cynthia Franklin, Professor of English
Candace Fujikane, Associate Professor of English
Vernadette Gonzalez, Associate Professor of American Studies and Honors Director
Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, Associate Professor of Political Science
Michael Hadfield, Professor Emeritus of Biology; Researcher, Pacific Biosciences Research Center
Ku‘ualoha Ho‘omanawanui, Associate Professor of English
Ruth Y. Hsu, Associate Professor of English
George Kent, Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Noel Kent, Professor of Ethnic Studies
Jesse Knutson, Assistant Professor of Indo-Pacific Languages and Literature
Eiko Kosasa, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Leeward CC
Karen Kosasa, Associate Professor of American Studies
Sankaran Krishna, Professor and Graduate Chair of Political Science
Charles R. Lawrence III, Centennial University Professor of Law
Laura Lyons, Professor and Chair of English
Paul Lyons, Professor of English
Margaret Maaka, Professor, College of Education
Kieko Matteson, Associate Professor of History
Susan Curtin Miller, Project Director/PI UH-Manoa Aquaponics Workforce and Greenhouse Cooperative Initiative, College of Education
Kalawaia Moore, Assistant Professor and Coordinator Hawaiian Studies (WCC)
William O’Grady, Professor of Linguistics
Jonathan Osorio, Professor of Hawaiian Studies
Gary Pak, Professor of English
Craig Santos Perez, Associate Professor of English
Ann Peters, Professor of Linguistics
Joan Peters, Professor of English
Sarita Rai, Study Abroad Director
Rich Rath, Associate Professor of History
John Rieder, Professor of English
Joe Ritter, Laboratory Director, UH IfA Maui ATRC
Tara Rojas, Associate Professor of Spanish, Language Arts
S. Shankar, Professor of English
Nandita Sharma, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the International Cultural Studies Program
David Stannard, Professor and Chair of American Studies
William Steiner, retired Dean of UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management
Ruslan Suvorov, Language Technology Specialist, Center for Language & Technology
Ty Kawika Tengan, Associate Professor and Chair of Ethnic Studies
Les Watling, Professor of Biology
Valerie Wayne, Professor Emeritus of English
Laiana Wong, Associate Professor & Graduate Chair, Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language
Mari Yoshihara, Professor and Graduate Chair of American Studies
Ming-bao Yue, Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures
John Zuern, Associate Professor of English