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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Catangui Firing Threatens Academic Freedom, May Earn Censure for All SD Universities

The SDSU Collegian reports that the university's possibly improper firing of tenured professor and Extension Service entomologist Mike Catangui could have repercussions for the entire South Dakota public university system:

Political science professor Delmer Lonowski, SDSU's AAUP representative said the AAUP is waiting for the grievance process to conclude before deciding whether or not to investigate a possible censure.

However, [SDSU labor union COHE president Bill] Adamson said an investigation is very likely.

"If you read between the lines, the AAUP will probably conduct an investigation," he said. "They won't censure just SDSU. They'll censure all the universities in the entire BOR system" [Emma DeJong, "Faculty Reviews Dismissal," SDSU Collegian, 2010.09.15].

According to DeJong, Catangui is asking the Board of Regents to review SDSU's decision to dismiss him. So if the Board of Regents gets it wrong, the AAUP could well drop the hammer on the whole system.

Upholding SDSU's decision looks more and more like the wrong decision. DeJong reports that the university is confirming that Catangui's research was part of the reason for his firing:

SDSU officials have declined to comment about personnel matters, but Rich Helsper, SDSU's attorney, made a general statement that SDSU "follows the COHE agreement to the letter," and "every faculty member is afforded all due process rights, not only under general law, but under the COHE agreement."

The BOR fired Catangui June 21 for reasons that have not been completely made public. Helsper confirmed that part of the reason for Catangui's termination is that he followed his own research, instead of a mandated requirement, in deciding when to spray for the removal of soybean aphids.

"Really it's becoming a public issue at this point because there is a serious threat that the university is going to get a censure from AAUP," said Bill Adamson, president of the SDSU chapter of COHE [DeJong, 2010.09.15].

Yikes. A professor gets fired for following the results of his research. That's a textbook definition of violation of academic freedom.

DeJong reports that Catangui had an opportunity to address the SDSU Acaademic Senate at its regular meeting yesterday. No word yet on the outcome of that meeting. The professors' governing body is waiting until its September 28 to make a decision as to what if anything it will do concerning Catangui's dismissal. The profs are waiting to act because they think there's more to this case than the university is letting on... and they're saying it publicly:

Senators Sandy Smart, animal and range sciences associate professor, and Patty Hacker, a health, physical education and recreations professor, said they think there is information that they likely won't be able to know.

"There's something darker under the surface," Smart said. "Somebody's out to get somebody." Hacker agreed.

"There is a distinct possibility that there is something under the surface we will never be privy to because it's a personnel issue," Patty Hacker said. "…I would hesitate to push something forward for immediacy knowing what the ramifications are going to be down the road" [DeJong, 2010.09.15].

Somebody's out to get somebody—that's a pretty serious statement to put on the record. But one can perhaps understand strong feelings from professors who look at a colleague's dismissal and see no reason given other than a pretty clear statement that speaking and acting on the basis of freely and fairly conducted research can get you fired.

What is the deep dark something under the surface? Is it manipulation or suppression of research unfavorable to Monsanto, whose executive board member David Chicoine also serves as SDSU president? Is it something else? Is there some other ethical, financial, oor political issue afoot?

Lest our state's entire university system suffer AAUP sanction, SDSU and the Board of Regents had better lay out the full story and either make clear they have done the right thing or quickly rectify any errors they have made.


  1. The attempts to lift previous sanctions by AAUP resulted in the sanctions being placed on the entire system. Individual campuses found that their efforts to resolve cases were frustrated by the control and authority of the BOR, so the sanctions were placed on the BOR as the ultimate level of authority responsible.

    This case is complicated by what has developed as the major ploy to keep administrative decisions from being made public. That's the constant refrain that something is confidential because it is a personnel matter. This plagues all levels of government, as it did a few years back in the Aberdeen Police Department when some officers were sacked or suddenly resigned. There were things going on that on the face looked like petty grudge motives and incompetence on the part of some administrators--this touched the investigation of a suspicious shooting death on NSU's campus--but that confidentiality-because-it's-a-personnel-matter rule kept the real situations from being made known. Some administrative shenanigans were clearly being hidden under the guise of protecting some information about the people against whom actions had been taken.

    When people asked for assistance by the unions or professional organizations, they were asked to sign a release which made all records and information gathered in an investigation public. I wonder what the situation is regarding such a release in this case.

    However, this case is quite demonstrative for those who are advocating the abandonment of tenure. The ultimate resolution of this case has bearing on whether tenure means anything or not.

  2. Michael Black9/22/2010 11:15 AM

    And just what effect does a "censure" from the AAUP do to a school or the whole higher ed system?

  3. A censure is largely a matter of reputation. It is like a physician or medical organization being found guilty of malpractice.

    I came to NSU at a time when faculty jobs were extremely scarce. I received the job offer less than a month before classes began, so I did not do all the backgrounding. After I signed a contract, I got a call from a professor I knew who it turns out had been on a AAUP review committee for Northern. He asked me what the heck I was doing and informed me of the situation. I most likely would not have even come for an interview if I had known about the censure.

    SDSU was censured in 1962 and NSU in 1968. Both censures were removed from the institutions and were placed on the BOR, as that is where efforts at resolution bogged down. Eventually, both censures were resolved with compensation to the faculty and agreements on following due process procedures. Those agreements are most likely what is at issue in the current case.

    I got involved with having the NSU censure removed when I was involved in search committees and grant writing. Under censure we could not get the most qualified faculty or administrators to apply, and many granting organizations would not consider grants for institutions under censure. A number of academic research and development projects are multi-institutional, and many institutions refused to work with people from institutions under censure.

    In addition, many disciplinary organizations warn faculty away from working for or with institutions on the censure list. A professional organization I belonged to listed NSU as an "undesirable" place for faculty to work even after the censure was lifted. Although South Dakota is not much involved in competing for the top students, a censured institution is eliminated from consideration when top students look for a college.

    A censure tells the academic world that an institution does not meet the standards of integrity required for high level academic work. It seriously hurts the reputation and the effectiveness of an institution.

  4. Thanks for the explanation, David. Just curious: could censure impact our ability to apply for the kinds of federal grants that DSU has been big on lately?

  5. Corey,

    In the grant business, we found that the peer faculty committees that review the federal grants are where the objections because of a censure might be raised. When we received grant money to start the Dakota Writing Project our college president at the time supplied a statement that the circumstances that led to a firing and the pursuant censure were corrected.

  6. Mike Catangui is a good man.
    People are not disposable.
    I have dealt with Mike for many years with mosquito control (and other pest issues). Mike was always interested in what chemicals and environmental tactics we were using. His ability to explain things in lay terms is great. Mike has passion for his work. I have talked with Mike at Weed and Pest conferences, mosquito conferences (and confrence calls), chemical recertification classes, Arborist meetings, Park and Recreation Classes, etc. SD Public TV Garden Line will never be the same.

    I graduated from SDSU in 1984 and I am sad for the loss of such an asset. I wish the best for Mike and his family (he has a wife and school aged children). A man of his talent will have no trouble finding another great job. Hopefully, we will be able to recruit great research/educators. This issue concerning for the future of the entire education system.

    Good luck Mike!

    Ted LaFleur (Madison)

  7. Thanks for the comment, Ted. Your comment shows the benefits good professors and good research provide to our entire state.


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