Environmental Health Sciences Professor Still Fighting for His Job at UCLA

By on March 14, 2011

FIRE began reporting last September on the case of Dr. James Enstrom, an environmental health sciences professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who has worked at UCLA as a researcher and professor since 1976. UCLA refused to reappoint him, stating that his controversial research failed to accord with the department’s "mission." In reality, Enstrom had engaged in successful whistleblowing against a prominent member of the department, and there had been many years of debate between Enstrom and some of his colleagues over research on air pollution. After FIRE intervened, Enstrom was given an eight-month reprieve until March 31, 2011, or until his appeals are resolved. Since then, UCLA has been very slow to get through the process.

UCLA has been so slow, in fact, that he has been given yet another reprieve to June 30, 2011. His grievance regarding his treatment has advanced to the point of formal arbitration hearings, which are scheduled to begin on April 4.

At an earlier stage of the grievance, the case reviewer, UCLA School of Medicine Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Richard H. Gold, determined way back on October 20, 2010, that

Dr. Enstrom’s research is fully aligned with the department’s mission. By its very name, the Department of Environmental Health Sciences [EHS] embraces the research foci of Dr. Enstrom, i.e., determining the effect of diesel exhaust fine particulate matter on overall mortality in California …" [Emphasis in original.]

This seems to me to be an unavoidable conclusionthe surprise is that someone would assert otherwise. Gold further stated that Enstrom’s grievance on this point was "justified" (emphasis in original).

It is also revealing that when Gold asked Environmental Health Sciences Chair Richard J. Jackson about the allegation against Enstrom, Jackson reportedly said that the allegation had been "based in part on his belief that Dr. Enstrom, an epidemiologist, belonged not in EHS but in the Department of Epidemiology." That’s strange, considering that Enstrom had already been a member of EHS for years and that, according to Enstrom, EHS had offered a faculty position to epidemiologist Michael Jerrett (now at UC Berkeley’s EHS studying air pollution and other topics) in 2006.

Five months after Gold presented his findings, Enstrom is still fighting for his job.

This is partly because there was another allegation against Enstrom: the vague charge that he had not met the "minimum requirements" of the department. When Gold asked Jackson about it, Jackson trotted out a document dating back to February 8, 1995, that Enstrom (and probably most others in the department) had never before seen.

The document allegedly refers to publication rates that are expected of faculty at the rank of assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor, stating an average of two peer-reviewed papers per year. The document apparently did not apply to faculty at Enstrom’s rank, even if the department actually used it, for UCLA has been arguing that Enstrom is not a professor after all and only holds the rank of "researcher." UCLA Chancellor Gene Block even wrote us stating that "Dr. Enstrom is not a professor at UCLA." Chancellor Block added, "A researcher appointment such as Dr. Enstrom’s is subject to an entirely separate and distinct process" from that for regular faculty.

Yet, the record at UCLA shows that Enstrom is an "Assoc Resident Professor" or "Assoc Res Prof," and UCLA’s Office of Media Relations apparently was happy to call him an "associate research professor" in 2009 and in 2005.

Well, which is it? Is Enstrom only a professor when it’s convenient for UCLA? It seems like someone has been giving Chancellor Block some bad information.

At any rate, the 1995 document has never been revealed to Enstrom, even though he has asked for it. He asked Jackson for it directly in December 2010, and here was Jackson’s response in January 2011, in relevant part:

I learned from UC Counsel that the APM-140 procedure does not provide for requiring a response to this request.

For this reason, I will not be responding to your request directly …

Perhaps Enstrom is too polite to say, "Thanks for nothing."

And then there are some questions I would like to return to later, and for which I already have some evidence:

  • Did the faculty of his department even look at Enstrom’s vita before deciding whether he met the "minimums"? Did they read or evaluate any of his papers?
  • Did the faculty even have Enstrom’s full vita to look at? Did Jackson, as chair, provide them with a complete dossier?
  • Have all other members of the department met the stated minimum of an average of two peer-reviewed papers per year? Did any get special indulgences?

You don’t have to be an environmental health sciences researcher to smell the pollution of this process.

FIRE continues to follow Enstrom’s case. We find that universities usually choose not to keep violating someone’s rights in public after trying to get away with it in private. We hope UCLA will finally start to follow this pattern and avoid the continuing public shame that the Department of Environmental Health Sciences has caused the university. If the department just doesn’t want someone who rocks the boat, why won’t Chancellor Block put the whole matter to rest and help Enstrom find a home in a different department?

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