"In the United States and beyond, the Chapela tenure fight has symbolized the conflict between academics' freedom to challenge policies, and the relationship between public universities and industry."

Ecologist's tenure hailed as triumph for academic freedom
Decision caps years of free-speech challenges.
Rex Dalton, San Diego
Nature 435, 390-391 (26 May 2005) / doi: 10.1038/435390b

In a closely watched test case for academic freedom, the University of California, Berkeley, has granted tenure to an outspoken ecologist.

Ignacio Chapela, who once led faculty objections to Berkeley's research pact with Novartis, was told on 17 May that his five-year quest for tenure had finally succeeded. "It is just amazing," Chapela told Nature. "This is like a new start in academia."

In the United States and beyond, the Chapela tenure fight has symbolized the conflict between academics' freedom to challenge policies, and the relationship between public universities and industry. The case has taken on special significance in recent years as professors at other US universities have come under attack for their views, with leading politicians calling for reduced tenure protections.

The Berkeley campus has become known for its battles over free speech, and as word about the tenure approval spread, there was elation among supporters of the Mexican researcher. "This has restored my faith in the institution," says Wayne Getz, an environmental scientist who championed Chapela's cause.

In 1998, the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley accepted $25 million from the Switzerland-based Novartis (now Syngenta). Shortly afterwards, Chapela raised questions about the impact of the five-year deal on research and teaching. The issue bitterly divided the campus into those who supported and opposed the deal. Chapela's quest for tenure was complicated by a controversial article he wrote for Nature about the flow of transgenes into wild maize varieties in Mexico (I. H. Chapela and D. Quist Nature 414, 541_543; 2001) ”” parts of which were later called into question.

Faculty committees supported Chapela's application for tenure, but in 2003 it was denied by the chancellor at the time, Robert Berdahl, who acted on advice from the final review committee. Chapela appealed to the faculty senate, alleging that the process had been corrupted by pro-industry faculty members. An academic senate inquiry last year decided that there were irregularities, setting the stage for another review by a newly constituted, high-level committee.

Last month, that committee advised Robert Birgeneau, the current chancellor, to grant tenure, which he did last week. Birgeneau was unavailable for comment, but university spokesman George Strait insists the tenure process was normal, if unusually protracted. "This shows the process works," he says.

Chapela, now ranked as associate professor, has a slightly different view. "To me, it shows the system doesn't work, unless you fight," he says.

Chapela plans to reopen his laboratory, which was shut down in 2002 when the ongoing tenure battle affected his ability to secure grants. But he is also assessing his legal options. In March, he filed a lawsuit in a state court against Berkeley, alleging discrimination, retaliation and fraud in his tenure review, which the university denies. Some of his advocates are urging him to continue the fight for compensation.

"This is the first step. The true measure of the university's commitment to academic freedom will be its willingness to fix a system rife with problems," says David Quist, Chapela's most recent doctoral student.

Chapela's anti-industry campaigns continue. He and his supporters spent every night last week cycling round the construction site of a bioengineering centre on the Berkeley campus, to draw attention to planned industrial partnerships.