Academic Freedom and Scientific Integrity in Jeopardy at UCLA: New Document Posted

By December 30, 2011

FIRE has just posted a letter from the Academic Freedom Committee at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block. In the letter, the members of the committee express "unanimous concern that the decision by the School of Public Health not to re-appoint James Enstrom, Ph.D. in the Professional Research series may represent a violation of academic freedom."

FIRE has been fighting for Professor Enstrom’s academic freedom and free speech rights at UCLA since August 2010. I encourage those who are new to FIRE to read about this disappointing case of a professor whose department cut short his career after decades of service to UCLA. In short, Dr. Enstrom and a few of his colleagues have disagreed strongly about research on environmental health issuesfor example, on the extent of the threat to public health posed by certain air pollutantsa topic of Enstrom’s research which has been the subject of intense debate in California. His research on environmental health issues falls squarely within his department’s research mission, but his department chair declared that "your research is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department."

Non-rehire decisions made because of a scholar’s protected expression, of which this case is an example, violate the First Amendmentand in this case academic freedom as well.

Furthermore, while permitting Enstrom to take his case through UCLA’s grievance process, UCLA has refused to sign off on new research proposals by Enstrom, further violating his academic freedom while he remains at UCLA. This is a central concern of UCLA’s Academic Freedom Committee. As the committee wrote in its April 15, 2011, letter:

[I]n spite of ongoing funding that is projected to last until the end of 2011, Dr. Enstrom was notified that he was to be laid off. Simultaneously, Dr. Enstrom was denied the opportunity to submit further grant applications. He has raised concerns that his non-reappointment was motivated by improper concerns relating to the content of his research and his criticisms of others’ research. [...]

UCLA has an obligation to protect the ongoing research activities of its academic staff. Its failure to do so when their research is funded by extramural agencies has the further serious consequence of preventing him (and possibly the University) from meeting his obligations to his extra-mural funders, although the University represented that it would allow him to do so when it accepted the extramural funding. Retraction of such protection, especially in cases involving individuals, like Dr. Enstrom, who have a lengthy history of research activity on campus, must be supported by strong reasons.

Right now, UCLA is looking for a new dean of its School of Public Health, of which Enstrom’s department is a part. I encourage UCLA to place academic freedom at the top of its agenda when considering candidates for the next dean. UCLA has created a damaging and embarrassing "chilling effect" whereby research scientists now understand that if their research points toward an inconvenient or politically unpopular scientific conclusion, they ought to remain silent lest they be punished or even fired by UCLA. The new dean could resolve Dr. Enstrom’s case and mitigate its very unfortunate repercussions.

If you agree, please read up on the case and then let the executive search firm for this search, Witt/Kieffer, know what you think. You also can include Traci Considine, manager of executive searches in the Office of the Chancellor, at PublicHealthSearch@conet.ucla.edu.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Non-Reappointment of Controversial Professor