Posted on October 16, 2019 | Comments Off on UVic bows to outside pressure and rescinds my adjunct professor status
As you may have heard, this summer I lost my status as Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada (UVic), a position I had held for 15 years. This action followed my expulsion from the roster of the university’s volunteer Speakers Bureau in May 2017. However, until April 2017 the university and the Anthropology department proudly promoted my work, including my critical polar bear commentary, which suggests someone with influence (and perhaps political clout) intervened to silence my scientific criticism.
Losing my adjunct status
An adjunct professorship is an unpaid position with a few responsibilities that in return allow a scholar to operate as a qualified member of the academic community, such as making applications for research funding. However, an adjunct has no rights. Adjunct status must be renewed every three years or so, at the discretion of the individual department. I was first appointed as an adjunct in the Department of Anthropology in 2004, shortly after I had successfully defended my Ph.D. dissertation at UVic.
When I approached members of the Anthropology Department with a request to undertake an interdisciplinary Ph.D. (in Anthropology and Biology) on the evolution of humans and animals, they could not have been more welcoming and supportive. Both Anthropology and Biology departments and the Faculty of Graduate Studies enthusiastically accepted my research proposal despite the fact that it challenged all conventional thinkers about how one species transforms into another: not only historical heavy-weights but contemporary experts in evolutionary theory as well.
My testable hypothesis that thyroid hormones (in part due to their actions on genes) provide a mechanism for evolution to work via natural selection was truly innovative and revolutionary. No one at the university suggested it was inappropriate to question accepted authorities on this topic. In fact, they applauded it.
After my book based on my dissertation was published (above), the university PR department promoted my participation in a 2007, two-hour NATURE documentary (“Dogs That Changed the World”), which came with widespread media attention. I was chosen, out of all the people involved in the film, to work with the executive producer of NATURE to promote the show via a ‘satellite media tour’ of TV and radio interviews taped in New York City.
Our local paper, the Victoria Times-Colonist, produced an above-the-fold feature on the story of my evolution research that challenged conventional wisdom (see below), and at least one major US newspaper carried a similar story.
[Dog domestication is an important component of my testable scientific theory because it’s an aspect of evolution that the public can wrap their heads around. But the theory is scientifically powerful because it applies to virtually all species: it explains the rise of polar bears and humans from their ancestors, as well as all mammal, fish, bird, and reptile species. It may also explain the origin of invertebrate and unicellular species.]
More importantly, the university Provost Office supported me in 2012 after a letter from Greenpeace was sent to the university president suggesting I should be fired for conflict of interest for having taken a small contract from a think tank called The Heartland Institute for some research on their Climate Change Reconsidered II report. The information about this contract was made public by scientist Peter Gleick, who was so obsessed with knowing who funded Heartland that he used someone else’s email address to fraudulently obtain private documents. Since I was not a paid employee of UVic at the time and thus could not be fired, the issue was moot but I was contacted by the provost because the letter to the university president had also been sent to the media.
Despite the negative international media attention the Greenpeace stunt generated, going forward I continued to give free lectures about polar bears as well as on dog domestication and speciation to the public through the university’s Speakers Bureau, which I had done since 2009. In 2016, the Anthropology Department happily renewed my adjunct status application for 2016-2019: my acceptance letter said the decision was unanimous. Even at that time, the department was not only fully aware of my activities with regard to the polar bear status controversy, but proudly shared that information.
For example, twice – in June 2013 and again in January 2015 – the department published announcements on their news webpage regarding opinion pieces on the status of polar bear populations I had written (see below from 2015). The 2015 Financial Post article also garnered a mention in the newsletter sent out to department alumni that year.
As late as 12 April 2017, the university was also on board: on that date, the University Media Relations department tweeted an announcement about an interview I had done with the CBC about the status of Newfoundland polar bears:
In addition, the university also paid me to give several expanded polar bear conservation lectures for its students and the public. I gave a two hour lecture for the English Language Centre in 2014 and again in 2017 for students whose first language was not English and developed a two-part lecture series for adults offered through the Continuing Education Department in April 2015. I had also been giving free lectures to the public on polar bears, in my own time, through the University’s Speakers Bureau since 2009 (see discussion below).
In other words, up until mid-April 2017, both the Anthropology Department and the University at large were not only aware of my work that was critical of some aspects of polar bear science (as well as the controversy it was generating), but they were happy to tell others about it and to have their students learn about it.
As far as I am aware there had been no complaints registered regarding the performance of my adjunct duties or polar bear research activities: if there were concerns or complaints, no one mentioned them to me.
In May 2019 my appointment was up for renewal for 2019-2021 and I submitted my application by the due date. However, the Department Chair, April Nowell, citing a decision by the department’s ARPT committee (‘Appointment/Reaapointment/Promotion/Tenure’), refused to renew the appointment. No reason whatsoever was given for this decision, nor was there any avenue offered for appeal (it is my understanding that all tenured faculty members vote on such ARPT decisions and the fact that “unanimously” was not part of the announced decision, as it had been in 2016, leads me to believe not everyone on the faculty was on board with this outcome).
I did point out in my request for renewal that my position on polar bear conservation supports that of Inuit in Nunavut, who are fighting against sanctioned scientists and the Canadian government regarding the status of polar bears because their lives are threatened by an abundance of these dangerous predators. Two young Inuk men were fatally mauled by polar bears in 2018 and there have been many close calls before and since. Anthropologists at UVic are avid champions of aboriginal rights – but apparently, that support goes out the door when it comes to polar bears.
Expulsion from the Speakers Bureau in 2017
The seeds for losing my adjunct status were planted when I was expelled from the UVic Speakers Bureau in May 2017.
It appears the impetus for that action was a lecture on polar bears I had given at the International Climate Change Conference hosted by the Heartland Institute on 23 March 2017 that was video-taped and posted online in early April. During the question and answer session after my lecture, I happened to mention that during my talks about polar bears to elementary school classes over the past year (through the university’s Speakers Bureau), I had been astonished to learn that every single teacher believed that only a few hundred to a few thousand polar bears were left in the world. This was in stark contrast to reality, since the 2015 official IUCN Red List assessment of the species put the global population size at 22,000-31,000 (and which I contend is plausibly higher still).
I believe that someone in Victoria with political clout saw the video-taped Heartland Q & A session (posted online 5 April 2017) and that they, alone or along with others, contacted the university to complain about me talking to school children about polar bears. But this time, no one involved the media.
About two weeks after the Heartland lecture was posted online, on April 20 an email notice arrived to my in-box regarding the annual renewal of topics for the Speakers Bureau, addressed “Dear Adjunct Faculty Member”. The email explained that this year there was a new requirement that adjunct professors had to have departmental approval to participate in this free community lecture service. When I asked for an explanation, this is what I was told (my bold):
With this change, we’re recognizing that the nature of the relationship between adjuncts and the university can vary widely from Faculty to Faculty and that it is substantially different than that with employees, whether faculty or staff. By asking the head of the unit to approve the participation of their adjuncts, we’re asking someone with direct knowledge of the individual and accountability to UVic to confirm that the volunteer speaker is able to represent the university on their intended topics.
Graduate students are also allowed to give such presentations to the community: did they also need permission? Were all adjunct faculty sent the same email? It all seemed very odd but I decided to go along and asked permission. My department chair, Dr. Ann Stahl, refused. She said only this:
“While I respect issues of academic freedom, your talks at schools have generated concern among parents regarding balance that have been shared with various levels of the university.”
That is all: no further information about what these unspecified “concerns” from “parents” entailed, except a vague suggestion that my lectures at schools lacked unspecified “balance” and that those “concerns” had perhaps reached the highest echelon of the university. The chair did not request a copy of my school presentation or question me in any way about my Speakers Bureau participation. Polar bears were not specifically mentioned and I was not presented with any avenue of appeal. I suspect the details of this decision were not revealed to the rest of the department, although undoubtedly some colleagues and staff would have been made aware that the administration was not prepared to defend my academic freedom on this issue.
Thus began an academic hanging without a trial, conducted behind closed doors.
I should add as background that although I had been speaking to adult audiences about polar bears since September 2009 (in a popular lecture called “Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change”), I did not add a presentation geared specifically towards elementary school children until September 2016, which I called “Polar Bears: Facts and Myths.” I did so because teachers kept asking me to speak about polar bears to their classes. As far as I am aware, Mandy Crocker, who managed the Speakers Bureau, had no misgivings when I submitted the description of the presentation for elementary school audiences to her for approval in May 2016. Her actual words were: “This will be a popular [topic] with the community for sure.”
I had heard nothing from the Speakers Bureau or anyone else regarding complaints or concerns from parents or teachers of children I had spoken to in the 2016-2017 school year.
Anthropology Chair’s refusal to allow me to participate in the Speakers Bureau meant I could no longer connect to any community members, even adults, about anything: not even my evolution research of which the department was previously so proud. I dared to tell children the truth – that polar bears are not currently on the verge of extinction – and for that I have been pilloried and drummed out of the university community.
The measures taken to have me removed from the Speakers Bureau are characteristic of a bureaucracy trying to cover an impropriety: the failure to inform me of complaints, the pretense that I was not being singled out for censure, and the carefully-worded correspondence. Moreover, the refusal of the female Chair of my department to support me had ‘pressured from above’ written all over it.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of the end of my academic career.
Stifling scientific criticism
It appears certain to me that the Anthropology Department bowed to pressure from the administration, who themselves bowed to pressure from outside the university community, in an attempt to stifle my legitimate scientific criticisms of polar bear conservation issues. This kind of bullying has been happening far too often at universities, even in Canada.
Recall that until my Heartland conference lecture was posted online in early April 2017, both the department and the university had been supportive of my work that was critical of accepted authorities on the topics of evolutionary theory and polar bear conservation status. I had been a valued adjunct professor for 15 years: someone from outside the university applied the pressure that turned that support on a dime. When push came to shove, UVic threw me under the bus rather than stand up for my academic freedom.
An adjunct professor is the most vulnerable member of an academic community: how a university treats its adjuncts regarding issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech is a true reflection of how they value those principles. Clearly, these are not concepts UVic holds in high regard, especially for women.
The university administration poisoned the well of departmental support I might have garnered for my adjunct renewal in 2019 when they insisted (over the Speakers Bureau expulsion two years earlier) that the department deny me the academic freedom tenured faculty enjoy.
I am sure there will be some people clapping their hands in glee at this development, like sly children do when they think they have gotten their own way through manipulation. However, the loss of adjunct status will primarily prevent me from continuing scientific research on speciation and domestication mechanisms in evolution: without an academic affiliation I will be unable to secure research funds or academic collaborations.
My scientific credentials are not diminished: they stand on my career accomplishments.
What a lack of academic affiliation has not done – and cannot do – is stop me from investigating and commenting on the failures and inconsistencies of science that I see in published polar bear research papers and reflected in public statements made by polar bear specialists.
I am still a former adjunct professor and I will not be silenced.
At the moment, I am en-route to Oslo to talk about the polar bear catastrophe that never happened – and then it’s on to London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich for more of the same. If you’d like to help defray incidental but unavoidable travel costs not covered by the organizers over my five weeks in Europe, that would be very much appreciated: there is a button on the upper right on the sidebar of my blog (“Support Polar Bear Science”) that will accept your donation via credit card or PayPal.
Crockford, S. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3
Harvey, J.A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T.W., Roessingh, P., Verheggen, B., Nuijten, R. J. M., Post, E., Lewandowsky, S., Stirling, I., Balgopal, M., Amstrup, S.C., and Mann, M.E. 2017. Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. Bioscience 68: 281-287. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix133 Open Access, available here. Supplementary data file available here and the data for the principal component analysis is available here and (h/t to R. Tol), the R code is available here Corrigendum here (issued 28 March 2018). Scheduled for the April print issue.
Rajan, A. and Tol, R.S. 2018. Lipstick on a bear: a comment on internet blogs, polar bears, and climate change denial by proxy. Open Science Framework osf.io/7j3z2. January 2018, DOI10.13140/RG.2.2.18048.12804. Available here.
See a list of some of my publications, reports, books, and videos here.