Richard Steiner Responds

Richard Steiner

Editor's note: After NAS published "Sustainability Skepticism Has Arrived" last week, we contacted Professor Richard Steiner to let him know about the article. He asked that we publish his response, as follows. At his request, we also attach three documents relevant to his situation at the University of Alaska. NAS replied in "Neander-Thoughts: A Reply to Steiner."

* * *  

I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight with the NAS article about my situation at the University of Alaska. My situation here should cause serious concern for anyone who believes in the fundamental importance of academic freedom on college campuses. Some highlights of my case are as follow:

In 2005, I was told by university administrators to "not criticize state government as that is where we get our money;" not to "advocate;" and to have my name taken down from an NGO website as an "information resource."

In 2008, I was specifically excluded from meetings between Shell oil and university faculty, students, and staff, in violation of the state's Open Meetings Act and university open meetings policies. We later learned (through public records requests) that in response to my request to sit in on the meeting, the university Chancellor sent an email to other administrators saying: "Rick is not on a need to know basis with these meetings," and that others had expected me to "be a spoiler."

The recent episode of violation of my academic freedom derives from comments I made at a press conference in March 2008, in which I was critical of a particular offshore oil and gas lease proposal -- in Alaska's fish-rich Bristol Bay (North Aleutian Basin); and a conference sponsored by Shell, the University of Alaska, and NOAA on "how oil and fish can coexist" in this region. I, and many Alaska natives and conservationists, felt that the conference was biased toward the pro-drilling option, and we felt obliged to say so. NOAA and university administrators objected to my comments, and decided then to terminate my NOAA Sea Grant funding due to these comments. This much is perfectly clear and not disputed by the university. We have a clear written record documenting this (I will attach the "smoking gun" documents here). Ironically, while NOAA had such objection to my concerns about the offshore oil lease sale planned for Bristol Bay Alaska in March 2008, in September 2009 it's official position was released, and they now feel this lease sale should not go forward, as the region is too productive to put at risk from offshore oil drilling. So, NOAA has now come full circle, and endorses my perspective on this particular offshore lease sale entirely.  Further, NOAA says now that ultimately, it is the university's responsibility as to who is continued in the Sea Grant funding - not NOAA's. Nevertheless, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in Washington DC is preparing a formal rule making they will propose to NOAA this week, that would prohibit the agency from attaching any such gag order as a condition of its grants in the future.

This is the first time we know of anywhere in the nation where federal grant funds were removed from a university faculty member due specifically to their public comments. I have had this funding for almost 30 years. In response to our faculty union grievance filed on this, and to media inquiries, the university administrators decided to cover the federal funds they had terminated with state funds, but just for one year (the Sea Grant funding is a multi-year commitment). And, terminating my NOAA funding removes me from a nationwide network of professional peers with whom I have associated for 30 years. Further, the university then terminated my office lease, attempting to move me into an office in which their own internal investigation found to be hostile to many faculty, but particularly to me. This forced move was clearly retaliatory for the grievance and media coverage of this episode.  The university's academic freedom policies are perfectly clear and unambiguous (they are attached here).  They do not require that financial harm occur in order for there to be a violation of academic freedom -- just that a faculty member feels "anxiety or fear" from publishing or speaking their informed opinion. 

 On the issue of advocacy, all faculty "advocate," as we all have perspectives. Sea Grant funded faculty advocate all the time, but almost always for commercial development and exploitation of ocean resources, rather than conservation. The problem arises here when a faculty member raises concerns about powerful industrial interests in Alaska, which is what I have done. The University of Alaska receives several hundred million dollars each year directly or indirectly from oil. 

A fundamental issue at stake here is whether or not a university can cede authority over faculty free speech to a grant-making institution.  In my case, the university ceded to NOAA the right to dictate to the faculty members they fund what they may and may not say.  To many of us, this is a very straightforward infringement of academic freedom.  If universities allow a federal agency to attach such restrictions on faculty speech to its grants,  then why can't Exxon, BP, Merck, of Raytheon?  This seems not just a slippery slope, it is a cliff -- either we are on top of it, or we are off it.  In this case here at the University of Alaska, we are obviously off the cliff.  And who decides what is advocacy and what is not?  The irony of this particular episode is that what I was saying publicly was actually calling into question the biased advocacy of the university and NOAA in their collaboration with Shell on the Bristol Bay offshore oil conference in March 2008.  That irony is not lost on any of us here.    

These are all clear examples of this university administration violating my academic freedom. The administration conceded to remove the hostile dean's review from my file, and to host a 1-day workshop on academic freedom by the AAUP. Other than this however, they have not been able to admit this was wrong, and that they have violated their own policies on academic freedom. I have endured continuing, even escalating, attempts by certain university administrators to silence my free speech over the past 4 years, and all I really need as remedy for this is to be transfered into another administrative unit where I would be free from such repression, where I would be able to do my environmental sustainability work without threats, intimidation, hostility, and repression of my free speech. That is not too much to ask, but they will not do so. They clearly know what has happened to me is wrong, and that they do not want to admit it, or remedy their wrong in any way is a very troubling precedent.

As I will not compromise my ethics, professional integrity, or suspend my free speech or work, I will be resigning from the university during this academic year. I truly worry about the cloud this leaves over the faculty here at the university though. Everyone now knows here that if they say "the wrong thing" (in some administrator's opinion), they can and likely will suffer adverse administrative action, including having grants terminated. Further, they know there is little chance for remedy through the grievance process, as the faculty union's Collective Bargaining Agreement is stunningly weak on issues of faculty rights -- there are no remedies provided to the victim of violations of academic freedom, no consequences to the offending administrators, and no deterrence to future such violations.

As NAS bestowed upon University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton an award for his support of academic freedom in 2002, I think the only honorable course for NAS at this point is to rescind that award. President Hamilton has said many things in support of free speech and academic freedom over the years (even in support of my 2005 case), but here he actually had the opportunity to make a decision in support of academic freedom. Instead, he chose to join his other administrators in their opposition to my free speech. That action most certainly does not qualify for anyone's accolades for support of free speech. NAS should rescind the award it bestowed upon Mr. Hamilton.

If you do not rescind this honor, you will demonstrate that NAS believes in academic freedom and free speech only when you agree with what is said, but not when you do not agree with what is being said. Friends, this is not academic freedom. As Descartes once said: "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

I appreciate your offer to set the record straight, and to posting this information.



July 9, 2008 email from Denis A. Wiesenburg, dean of the university's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

Chronology of Steiner Case

Dean's Recommendation




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