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Washington State University settles wolf researcher’s academic freedom claims for $300,000

On May 14, a prominent wolf researcher settled with Washington State University over allegations that the school caved to legislative demands to stifle his research and expression. The $300,000 settlement follows credible allegations of infringements on the researcher’s academic freedom, spurred by complaints from a legislator and cattle rancher upset with the research.

Dr. Robert Wielgus, who will resign as part of the settlement, was a professor and the Director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at WSU. He is a renowned expert in wolf ecology, known primarily for his controversial study showing that the traditional practice of culling wolves that attack livestock actually increases such attacks by disrupting pack dynamic and increasing reproductive rates.

This finding didn’t sit well with State Representative and cattle rancher Joel Kretz, who told the president of WSU in 2015 that he wanted Wielgus’ research shut down. According to a complaint to the WSU Faculty Status Committee filed on behalf of Wielgus by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Kretz followed through by attaching a rider to WSU’s 2016 budget allowing it to limit Wielgus’ research. The university invoked this rider, leaving Wielgus without the means to effectively conduct his field studies. That same year, after Wielgus spoke to The Seattle Times about his work, Kretz instructed the university to denounce him. WSU acquiesced, issuing a press release classifying Wielgus’ research as “inaccurate and inappropriate” and “disavowed by our institutions.”

WSU then instructed Wielgus and his lab members to stop speaking to the press or the public about wolves. The university also required all scientific papers and presentations to be presented to a WSU administrator for vetting and approval before publication. Additionally, WSU threatened disciplinary action against Wielgus if he sought to contradict the university’s claims about his research — a threat that included the possible search of his emails and other communications. After Wielgus distributed his empirical findings to the Wolf Advisory Group, a group of people interested in the state wolf population, WSU investigated him for illegal lobbying activity because he used his university email address. The university did so despite the fact that this prohibition applied only to matters before a state legislature or agency, of which the Wolf Advisory Group forms no part.

WSU’s actions were, understandably, much to the chagrin of Wielgus. The wolf expert stated that, after narrowly escaping a grizzly bear attack, he “would rather face charging grizzly bears trying to kill me than politicians and university administrators, because it is over quickly.”

Digging deeper into this issue, The Seattle Times uncovered a possible motive behind WSU’s treatment of Wielgus. According to documents obtained via open records laws, WSU sought to quell the feud between the legislature and Wielgus in order to secure funding for a new medical school. In conversations between WSU lobbyist Jim Jesernig and WSU Director of State Relations Chris Mulick, Jesernig lamented that the wolf controversy is “making the med school not doable” and that “[w]e’re looking a wee bit like Sonny on the causeway here” by “getting in our own way on the med school enough as it is,” referring to a memorable scene in the film “The Godfather.”

If true, these allegations illustrate a disturbing disregard for academic freedom at a public university bound by the First Amendment. Academic freedom generally protects a professor’s right to freely research, teach, and discuss ideas without censorship or interference from the university or outside parties, including state legislators. WSU’s actions towards Wielgus — from slashing his research budget and imposing a gag order, to insisting on prior review of his manuscripts and investigating him for bogus lobbying charges — represent an impermissible intrusion on his ability to delve into contentious issues.

Furthermore, by agreeing to carry water for a state representative seeking to shut up a professor, WSU abandoned its commitment to uphold its professors’ freedom to pursue truth wherever it may lead, and whoever its conclusions may irk. When a university accedes to calls to punish professors for their research and expression, it sends the message that academic pursuits are subsidiary to appeasing powerful or endowed interests. It diminishes academic freedom from a core institutional principle to a minor factor in the university’s calculus, one that the school will readily abandon once pressure mounts.

This settlement, and the widespread coverage of what happened, should give universities at least 300,000 more reasons to rightfully uphold academic freedom as a “transcendental value” to be cherished and protected.  

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