CAHNRS conflicts undermining academic freedom, faculty say

Administrators in agricultural college often punish professors who frustrate industry, according to multiple sources

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Several prominent WSU agricultural researchers have described a pattern of retaliation from administrators based on conflicts between their work and business interests, leading to internal turmoil and widespread fear of reprisals.

Many cases throughout the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Sciences echo the concerns of professor Robert Wielgus, who filed ethics complaints against WSU after administrators disavowed his wolf research. Other conflicts stem from disputes between faculty and administrators.

Linda Chalker-Scott, an extension specialist in the department of horticulture, said administrators have consistently used annual performance evaluations to undermine academic freedom.

“This is the only place I’ve been at so far where the faculty are so petrified of speaking up at all,” she said. “It’s just dysfunctional.”

CAHNRS includes 550 faculty, 700 staff, 2,300 undergraduates and 609 graduate students, and tallies nearly $190 million in annual expenditures, according to the college’s 2016 achievement profile.

In interviews with The Daily Evergreen, numerous CAHNRS faculty members have said that business interests and financial pressure from the university’s budget issues have eroded academic freedom, damaged staff morale and potentially hindered the search for a new dean.


Some believe these problems began while Daniel Bernardo, now serving as provost, was dean of the college from 2005 to 2013. Others argue the issues have intensified under the leadership of Bernardo’s replacement, Dean Ron Mittelhammer, with influence from associate deans.

Administrators declined to be interviewed, but CAHNRS communication provided a statement via email on behalf of Mittelhammer, saying the university “vigorously” supports and defends the rights of faculty, staff and students to express their views.

Donna Potts, president of WSU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said she has interviewed about two dozen faculty members in CAHNRS, many of whom fear punishment and reputation-harming investigations. She summarized her findings in a letter to WSU President Kirk Schulz about a year ago.

“There needs to be a lot more transparency and fairness,” she wrote, “or tenure is meaningless.”


Forced out

There is little consensus on the origin of the problems in CAHNRS. What everyone agrees on is the mechanism administrators have used to retaliate against faculty. It’s commonly known as the “three-strikes” policy, a procedure by which tenured faculty are pressured to resign if they receive three negative annual reviews.

After three scores below 3.0, the faculty member faces a choice between investigations and potential legal battles, and a year’s salary if they choose to resign. “Most take the money and run,” Potts wrote in her letter to Schulz.

Nnadozie Oraguzie, former manager of WSU’s sweet cherry breeding program in Prosser, said he found himself in this situation after frustrating the tree fruit industry.


He said administrators began pressuring him after Jim McFerson, then manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, complained about Oraguzie’s pace in producing new cherry varieties.

Commissions like this generally represent the interests of industry, and provide money to researchers working on projects that can be applied in industry. Potts said faculty often lose the university’s support if they don’t bring in external funding.

“It should go beyond short-term economic benefit,” she said, “because otherwise, where would research be? You really need to think long-term.”

Tree fruit research, for example, is relatively long-term. Oraguzie had been at WSU for seven years when complaints about his productivity began, and he said it takes about twice this long to develop new varieties, allowing five to six years for the tree itself to grow.

He pointed to WSU’s Cosmic Crisp apple, which farmers are just now beginning to grow commercially after two decades. And in fact, he said, he had patented two varieties since arriving at WSU.

The commission withheld funding from his program in 2014. CAHNRS Associate Dean James Moyer told Oraguzie to get the money back, Oraguzie said, “but it wasn’t possible.”

The next year he received a negative evaluation, though he said he published five peer-reviewed journal articles and was involved in teaching and working on new cherry varieties, seemingly meeting the academic requirements for a score above 3.0. He said he believes the only reason for the negative review was the commission’s refusal to fund his program.

“That’s not the way to do things,” he said. “Industry shouldn’t interfere with research. It is not supposed to be that way.”

McFerson later became director of WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, in what Potts called, in her letter to Schulz, “a gross example of selling an important directorship to the industry.”

Oraguzie said Moyer warned him that if he did not regain the funding, there would be severe consequences. Soon after, Oraguzie said, former Interim Dean Kim Kidwell gave him an ultimatum — leave the university, or face a multiple-year investigation.


“I feel,” Potts said, “that she was threatening that we’re going to just humiliate you and destroy your reputation unless you choose to resign.”

In November 2016, eight of Oraguzie’s colleagues wrote a letter to Schulz, asking him to address the situation. They cited an article in the magazine Good Fruit Grower, known as the “Bible” of the industry, in which McFerson criticized Oraguzie’s management.

His colleagues wrote that they view this as “character assassination,” making it difficult for Oraguzie to find employment outside WSU in his field of expertise. In the letter, they urge Schulz to “reverse this unfair treatment of an accomplished scientist.”

A year later, Oraguzie said, he is still looking for work.


Falling morale

Incidents like this harm the well-being of faculty and the college at large, many say. Regents professor Norman Lewis, whose whistleblower complaint recently led to a state audit finding that Moyer likely misused grant funds, said morale in the college has “declined enormously.”


“Everyone wants to be in a place they want to work,” Lewis said, “a place they’re excited to come into work, and they can push themselves to their potential.”
He added that it’s the administration’s job to help people achieve this potential, but that he does not think the current leadership is capable of that.

Marta Coursey, director of communication for CAHNRS, provided the statement from Mittelhammer, in which he wrote that WSU upholds academic freedom.

“The university also has a strong interest in creating and preserving an environment that promotes the values of civility, inclusivity and diversity,” he wrote, “and will take measures consistent with the law and university policy to meet those goals.”

Kulvinder Gill, a WSU wheat breeder who feels he has landed on the administration’s bad side, recalled a faculty meeting in which he said no one asked questions because they were frightened by Mittelhammer’s demeanor. Gill and others have said the deans sometimes operate like dictators.

“I don’t talk to my 6-year-old that way,” Gill said.

The negative annual review policy has disheartened many in CAHNRS as well. Chalker-Scott, who came to WSU with tenure in 2004, said she began receiving negative reviews for failing to meet expectations that were not part of her job description.

After her third, she said, administrators met with her to negotiate her resignation. She refused, and said the situation diffused as leadership shuffled around during Schulz’s transition to WSU.

Essentially, she said, her scores dropped because she was not bringing in enough grant funding. She said these are reasonable criteria for evaluating faculty in academia, but that many extension faculty focus on communicating research to the public, rather than conducting original research and bringing in grants.

Multiple sources suggested academic freedom problems have increased as universities have come to rely more heavily on external funding. In the push for greater prestige and more grants, the interests of researchers don’t always come out on top.

Chalker-Scott said this can be at odds with a fundamental principle of universities: generating information for information’s sake. To that end, she said, faculty should not be forced to pursue things with only financial concerns in mind, particularly those with tenure.

“Tenure exists for … the ability to speak your mind, even if it may not agree with what administration wants you to be saying,” Chalker-Scott said, “and the fact that the university has figured out a way to get around that protection to get rid of people who have the boldness to speak up, it makes it a really dysfunctional university.”

However, she and others said the review policy has not been applied consistently. Some accomplished faculty members have been targeted, while some less productive ones have not, seemingly for staying on good terms with their superiors.

“It’s when you run afoul of administration for whatever reason,” she said. “There’s just this culture to go after you, and marginalize you and isolate you, to get you to quit.”


Refusing to quit

Gill was hired into the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences in 2002, under the terms that he would hold the O. A. Vogel Endowed Chair position. However, Mittelhammer removed this title in 2014, citing the “negative results” of a review by the Washington Grain Commission, which funds the endowment.

Mittelhammer, in a letter to Gill, wrote that the position is subject not only to the policies described in the Faculty Manual, but also to these “review provisions.”

However, Gill’s appointment letter mentions only the Faculty Manual. He filed an appeal with Provost Bernardo, arguing that he should not be evaluated based on procedures that were not communicated to him before he was hired. He said he likely would not have accepted the position if he had known this beforehand.

He said the trouble began in 2011, when the commission began to pressure the college to replace him as Vogel chair. He refused to step down and received a 2.9 on his annual review, he said, though he had consistently received between a 4.1 and 4.6 before this.

He said his research output was better than most years in 2011, and in 2013 he brought in a $16-million grant. Nevertheless, the next year he was removed as Vogel chair, and he said his ratings have hovered just above 3.0 ever since.

Gill has received other job offers, but said he doesn’t want to leave WSU, though he believes administrators would have fired him by now if they had enough reason.

“People around here are scared to death, because these guys are so vindictive,” he said. “They go after you, target you, and do whatever is in their power to take it away from you.”


Future of the college

CAHNRS is searching for a new dean, which many faculty members say could be the first step toward fixing the college’s problems.

The college identified three candidates in May, and one came to Pullman to be interviewed. However, the other two withdrew from the race, and Bernardo decided not to hire the only remaining candidate. Kristina Peterson-Wilson, executive assistant to the provost, said they recently resumed the search, but do not yet have new candidates.

Some have speculated that the candidates withdrew after hearing of the problems in the college. However, Potts said, faculty see the search as an opportunity for change.

“They feel that shared governance can be restored if they can get a dean in there who values shared governance,” Potts said.

Based on her interviews with faculty, Potts wrote in her letter to Schulz that many have concerns about Bernardo leading the search. She cited an anonymous source who said they liked Bernardo’s leadership as CAHNRS dean, but that he has “fostered an authoritarian climate” in the college since he became provost.

Several faculty members explained they are not complaining about the university, but pointing out the issues they feel must be resolved for CAHNRS to function properly. All said they like their jobs and their colleagues, and would prefer not to see WSU dragged through the mud.

However, some also said they feel the only way to improve the situation is to make it known outside the college. If the problem goes unnoticed, they worry, it could continue indefinitely.

“This is dangerous for the future also,” Gill said. “I love WSU, I love Pullman. We can’t let this happen here.”


Correction: This article has been revised to reflect that Linda Chalker-Scott came to WSU in 2004, not 2002, and that CAHNRS is not WSU’s largest college.