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UC Berkeley Web Feature

For controversial biology researcher Ignacio Chapela, the long and winding road ends with tenure at Berkeley

– Putting the final twist in Ignacio Chapela's tortuous road to tenure, a UC Berkeley faculty committee has reversed the university's earlier denial of his bid to become a permanent member of the Berkeley faculty.

Chapela learned of the decision in a call late Tuesday, May 17, from Paul Ludden, dean of the College of Natural Resources. In a statement posted on his website, the controversial microbial biology researcher called the decision "a clear message of vindication," both for himself and for his supporters.

"I know of no other case where the public's role in the conferring of tenure has been more evident," Chapela wrote. "There is no doubt in my mind that I owe this tenure to you, as well as to others beyond yourselves who, without knowing, have been prodigal in support of a place to think and speak freely."

Campus officials attributed the reversal to a re-evaluation of Chapela's record that grew out of his appeal of the original decision to reject him for tenure, and categorically denied charges by Chapela and his supporters that he had been turned down for improper reasons.

"In his appeal of the original decision, Professor Chapela asserted, among other things, that the tenure review process had been improperly influenced by conflict of interest and/or bias on the part of one or more of the faculty committee reviewing the case," read a statement released by the university on Friday. (The participation on that committee of Jasper Rine, a professor of genetics and developmental biology, had raised concerns among Chapela and others about a perceived conflict of interest on Rine's part, based on his membership on a committee charged with oversight of the controversial UC Berkeley-Novartis agreement and participation in a classroom discussion of Chapela's published research that concluded a key journal article was "flawed.") "The campus administration believes that the initial review of the case was fair and that there was no conflict of interest. This was a case in which reasonable reviewers can disagree, depending on how different elements of the case are weighed."

An assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management since 1996, Chapela has claimed he was denied tenure in November 2003 largely due to his vocal opposition to "dangerous liaisons with the biotechnology industry," and particularly the campus's 1998 partnership with Novartis, a five-year, $25 million deal that gave the Swiss biotech firm rights to patents by Berkeley researchers and influence over research projects.

But Chapela's own research has been a source of contention as well, frequently cited — together with his admittedly modest publication record — by those who opposed granting him tenure. His highest-profile paper is a disputed 2001 article in Nature, in which he reported that traces of DNA from genetically modified corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, had contaminated the genomes of indigenous maize varieties. The science journal later said it had erred in publishing the paper, an extraordinary step, just short of a formal retraction, that some attributed to a pressure campaign by the biotech industry.

Whatever the impacts of such dust-ups on Chapela's academic career, they conferred a celebrity status rarely seen among junior faculty. The campus's normally secretive tenure process, meanwhile, acquired the trappings of a hotly contested political race, replete with support rallies, whispers of behind-the-scenes intrigue, and protests by members of key committees.

Faculty in his department in 2002 had voted 32-1 (with three abstentions) to grant tenure to Chapela, followed by a unanimous vote in his favor by an ad hoc tenure committee. But the standing, nine-member budget committee — the Academic Senate panel that serves as the final review board in Berkeley tenure cases — gave his application the thumbs-down, and then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl accepted their recommendation.

Under the terms of a grievance settlement filed last year, the university in January agreed to create a special, six-member panel to take another look at Chapela's case. After reviewing the same evidence as the original budget committee, this modified committee "chose to weigh more heavily certain aspects of Chapela's contributions," said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Gray. The panel then recommended to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau that he grant tenure, Gray said, "and the chancellor has accepted that recommendation."

Chapela's appointment has been extended several times during the protracted, three-year tenure process, throughout which university officials, citing the confidentiality required in personnel matters, have said little about the case. They were similarly reticent about this week's reversal.

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jan de Vries, who works closely with the budget committee, said members typically serve three-year terms, with three members cycling off and three new members joining the panel each year. The special committee resulting from the grievance settlement consisted of four current members who had not previously looked at Chapela's case, along with two faculty members whose experience on the standing committee pre-dated the Chapela case.

Their re-evaluation of Chapela's research, teaching, and service — the three legs upon which all tenure decisions rest — was "not part of the normal review process," de Vries acknowledged, adding that reversals in tenure cases are rare. But while "it's not common" for the university to reach settlements in response to faculty grievances, he said, such agreements are not without precedent.

Chapela filed suit against the UC Regents in April, alleging discrimination based on his Mexican national origin, retaliation for disclosures made under the California Whistleblower Protection Act, and fraud stemming from "the existence of secret, de facto requirements for promotion to tenure." His attorney, Daniel Siegel, said at the time that the latter allegation refers to "a requirement of political correctness, that one does not speak out strongly against people who are providing a lot of money for campus research. Professor Chapela didn't know that that was a requirement for tenure here at Berkeley when he decided to come to work here in 1995, and didn't learn about this secret requirement until his tenure application was turned down."

Campus spokesman George Strait said the university denies the charges, insisting "there's not a shred of evidence" that race was a factor in the original decision. As for Chapela's vocal opposition to the Novartis deal, he said that may actually have worked in his favor.

"If anything, his outspokenness in controversial matters was likely a positive factor in the consideration of his tenure case," Strait said, "because the university views itself as a place for open debate, and honors and values people who take strong positions."

Gray and de Vries made clear that the review of Chapela's case was independent of his decision to go to court. "The settlement agreement and the constitution of this special committee happened before his public statement that he was going to file a lawsuit," noted Gray, adding that when the suit was filed, "the committee was already in the middle of its deliberations."

Both sought to portray the reversal as one in which the tenure process was severely tested, but proved elastic enough to permit a resolution.

"Our academic personnel process has several mechanisms for review of decisions and appeal of decisions, and in this case those avenues were used." Gray said. "This was a close and difficult case upon which reasonable reviewers could disagree."

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