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Friday, August 6, 2010

Catangui Dismissal Raises Academic Freedom Questions

I continue to read up on the science and politics surrounding the contested dismissal of entomologist Dr. Mike Catangui from South Dakota State University.

Catangui's predecessor at the Cooperative Extension Service, Professor Emeritus Ben Kantack, says SDSU gave Catangui the boot for refusing to advocate soybean-aphid-spraying guidelines from other states for South Dakota. Catangui's research indicates that following different spraying guidelines in South Dakota will increase South Dakota farmers' yields and income.

Kantack says Catangui's dismissal violates academic freedom. Readers may wish to review the statement on academic freedom in the collective bargaining agreement our profs sign:

The parties to this agreement recognize and accept the importance of academic freedom to teaching and learning. Academic freedom includes the right to study, discuss, investigate, teach and publish. Academic freedom applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of students to freedom in learning. It includes the freedom to perform one's professional duties and to present differing and sometimes controversial points of view, free from reprisal. The faculty unit member is entitled to freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the performing of other assigned academic duties [2008-2011 South Dakota University Faculty Collective Bargaining Agreement, 14.1.1].

This academic freedom statement makes it pretty clear that SDSU can't fire a professor for publishing and discussing the results of his or her research. But I wonder: does work in the field for the Extension Service fall under "other assigned academic duties"? Is there some clause that excludes those public outreach activities from the academic freedom clause?

Worth noting: SDSU Extension entomologist Kelley Tilmon quite firmly advocates the 250-threshold and regional aphid guidelines in this July 27 Extension Service article. Tilmon and Catangui have disagreed on aphid recommendations previously and publicly. Catangui has recommended treatment at one to five aphids per plant, a threshold challenged by other researchers. Some questions about Cantangui's research center on caging soybeans, which prevents beneficial insects from helping control aphids. But cage studies are used regularly in entomology, and subsequent field research seems to show better yields under the lower aphid thresholds.

Scientists have honest disagreements. They deal with complicated questions like when to spray soybeans for aphids—at least it seems complicated to me, what with a range of variables like soybean growth stage, yield potential, spraying cost, soybean market value to consider. They come up with different answers. That's why we have academic freedom: to protect professors' right to challenge the prevailing wisdom when their research (not to mention their conscience) says a challenge is warranted.

(Hmm... Dr. Blanchard, care to offer a turn on this topic on climate change?)

Meanwhile, outside the halls of academia, what are you farmers up to? Are you spraying for aphids? Do you follow the Extension guidelines? Are they working in South Dakota?


  1. As one who negotiated the COHE contracts and wrote portions on academic freedom and the reasons and procedures for just cause actions, I find many problems with this case. As a matter of full disclosure, I should state that I was also involved in attempting to get the AAUP censure removed from NSU and the Regents for the firing of a political science professor. I wss both a local and state president of COHE, and eventually dropped my membership when COHE and its parent organization were unable and unwilling to require that the provisions of the contract be followed.

    The current contract provides explicit procedures for due process, but is undercut by two factors: it is, I believe, an imposed contract which the faculty have not approved; and it is rendered useless by a statement in it that says the Regents do not consider performance standards for professors as negotiable.

    That old bugaboo that personnel matters are confidential and cannot be discussed publicly makes it impossible to know what is actually going on. The probable article being used for the firing in this case is refusing to follow a lawful order by a superior. And I suspect that what is at real issue is a personality dispute with some superiors. While the contract contains lofty language about academic freedom as it pertains to teaching and research, the fact is that the contract has been shystered into a document that conforms to the at will employment policies which are the official law of the state, which gives employees no official rights.

    The only organization that has ever been effective in upholding basic standards of academic freedom and the integrity of research and teaching is AAUP. South Dakota is a place where faculty jobs are ensured only by dutiful obedience and conforming to an authoritarian rule which does not value actual academic freedom.

    The contract as imposed contradicts all the protections that it seems to offer in terms of due process. At this point, it is an obscene sham.

  2. I have a very hard time believing that he was dismissed over a position he took on an issue. What probably happened is that he had a disagreement with his supervisor, supervisor asserted his authority, and then he didn't follow his supervisor's instructions.

    Even the HR drones know what needs to be in place to dismiss someone. It's always a fight and they won't let it go forward unless it's an obvious slam dunk.

  3. I used to be amazed at how quiet DSU (and other SD faculty) were about important, possibly controversial topics in my assumption they were safe to speak their mind. Thought it was their role even, but when pressed I would hear teachers felt intimidated to do so. A stifling part of our Midwestern culture. We have a good work ethic, yes, but we are expected to do as we are told and avoid conflict to the detriment of what greater openness would bring. SD is ranked near the bottom in the category of Innovation for a reason.

  4. Indeed, David, the confidentiality of it all makes it impossible for the press or blogs or the public paying the bills to understand what's really happening.

    John, good connection to the bigger issue: academic freedom is essential, among other things, to the innovation the I-29 corridor study group says we need to drive economic growth.

  5. You might want to check into who got promoted and who didn't in the department involved.

    You might also ask why Ben Kantack, who is apparently not in very good health, had to sit for over a day before being allowed to speak...if he was allowed.

    I have wondered without any reason other than my normal skepticism if the contracts the President of the University has with Monsanto or whichever company has him on their board might have something to do with the firing of a professor/researcher who is not promoting chemical applications at high rates or multiple times.. whatever.


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