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University of Oklahoma censors fracking research at the request of oil company CEO

A former University of Oklahoma researcher claims that OU administrators and an oil magnate pressured him to suppress scientific researching regarding the harmful effects of wastewater injection. The researcher’s testimony describes a callous disregard for academic freedom at OU.

According to the Oklahoma Daily, OU’s student newspaper, the trouble began for Austin Holland after he published his research on how wastewater injection, a process commonly associated with hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking), has led to an increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma. He then met with OU President David Boren and Harold Hamm, the CEO of a large oil company, who told Holland that he should be aware of the needs of the oil and gas industry in conducting his researching. Boren advised him “to listen to, you know, the people within the oil and gas industry,” and Hamm told Holland “to be careful of the way in which . . . [you] say things, that hydraulic fracturing is critical to the state’s economy in Oklahoma, and that . . . [you] publicly stating that earthquakes can be caused by hydraulic fracturing was, you know, could be misleading.”

In addition to these warnings, Holland alleged that Larry Grillot, former dean of OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, unilaterally altered his research presentations, interfered with his publication efforts, and reprimanded him for successfully publishing his findings on the nexus between fracking and earthquakes. Apparently Grillot had marching orders from Hamm, who told the dean that he wants scientists studying this connection banished from OU — as if expelling the scientists would erase their findings.

If Holland’s testimony is true, this degree of intrusion into his academic affairs is an egregious infringement of academic freedom.  

If Holland’s testimony is true, this degree of intrusion into his academic affairs is an egregious infringement of academic freedom. The right to dive into unexplored avenues of scientific research is imperiled when university researchers are at the mercy of power brokers at their respective institutions. At a university that explicitly promises its scientists “full freedom in research and publication” and that is committed to “excellence in teaching, research and creative activity,” Holland’s allegations illustrate OU’s cowardly betrayal of these principles by doing the bidding of an oil tycoon.

Although the vast majority of universities grant academic freedom to their researchers, these rights are meaningless if they are not backed up when challenged. Colleges frequently hear calls to fire faculty for their research or expression, and when administrators cave to these demands, their promises of academic freedom aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. It is the responsibility of the university administration to ensure that their professors are free to teach, write, and research without outside interference.

At OU, the administration not only failed to uphold Holland’s academic freedom — they actively undermined it. OU’s president and the dean of Holland’s department could have stood up to Hamm by upholding OU’s mission statement and written policies, but instead they choose censorship over their own scientists, ultimately causing Holland to leave his “dream job.

Academic freedom rings hollow if university administrators refuse to protect it. FIRE stands ready to hold colleges accountable for defaulting on their academic freedom promises to faculty, and we encourage professors seeking redress in this area to contact FIRE.  

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