I just learned that my friend (still true, though we have not talked in a while) Jim Enstrom is suing his former employer for unlawful termination and such, and has the backing of a legal foundation. That is great news, considering how appalling the story is (even worse than my own? probably, yes.). I will summarize a bit, but you can read more here (worth doing if you have any interest, and I know there is interest because my early posts about his situation are still some of the most-read on this blog).
I cannot help but think that some of the attack on Enstrom is still left over from the concerted campaign by the anti-tobacco industry, attacking him for daring to publish a study which showed that the risk from second-hand smoke is very small (see here for more). This subjected him to concerted attack by Stanton Glantz and his pseudo-science colleagues at UCSF, as well as Jon Samet and others, though ultimately the real academics in the University of California system prevailed. Not this time.
This time it was not smoking, but his work on fine particulate air pollution (called PM), especially from diesel engines. He not only published research that did not conform to the political preferences of his UCLA School of Public Health (SPH) colleagues and their political allies, but pointed out several bits of fraud being committed (by basically the same cabal) in the policy arena.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his PM research, though it sounds credible based on what I know of the subject, which is limited but not nothing. I do not know whether his results might have been outliers in the current research, though obviously they are what they are. His second-hand smoke research certainly was good work — I can vouch for that, and for the fact that it was more similar to the bulk of the evidence than the politicized conventional wisdom is. Enstrom is a much better scientist, and has ten times the integrity, compared to most people in public health, so I am certainly inclined to believe him about PM.
But even if he was dead wrong about his research, firing him for it, and for pointing out that the SPH was involved in some of the policy fraud on the subject, was the highest of crimes in the academic context. Actually, I will amend that to second-highest — see below. It was also incredibly moronic.
To quote from the above-linked post from the legal foundation:
“The facts of this case are astounding,” said David French, Senior Counsel of the ACLJ. “UCLA terminated a professor after 35 years of service simply because he exposed the truth about an activist scientific agenda that was not only based in fraud but violated California law for the sake of imposing expensive new environmental regulations on California businesses. UCLA’s actions were so extreme that its own Academic Freedom Committee unanimously expressed its concern about the case.”
Astounding, indeed. You can read the rest of the story at the link, so I will take it in a personal direction here, and ask:
How f—ing moronic must the people at UCLA SPH be?????
They not only fired him with nothing resembling a good excuse (among their rotating claims was that his research on PM did not fit the mission of his unit — huh?? — others were doing similar work, so it was just the results they did not like). The administration, agents of the state of California, fired him right after he blew the whistle on government wrong-doing, so it triggers whistle-blower protections. And the suit says that they even looted his research grants.
I find it difficult to believe that anyone who thought this was a good idea is capable of, say, operating an elevator.
As my regular readers know, I was driven from my last academic position by a calculated concerted campaign of efforts to censor my THR research and make my life unpleasant — and that of my students (yes, they attacked my students) and supporters. (Note: In common language, one might use the term “harassment” to summarize such behavior, but my lawyer informed me that to use that word is to make a legal claim, and since my settlement with the university prevents me from making legal claims against them about this behavior, I am not supposed to use the word — a bit tricky for us non-lawyers who just use words to mean what they mean, but I will try.)
The people I was dealing with at University of Alberta School of Public Health were serious dimwits. Basically, the department had entered the 21st century as a fourth-rate backwater with a couple of good people. But then a new chair had turned it to at least a second-tier — and rising — department with new hires, one of whom was me. But thanks to some really bad decisions by the administration, as part of turning the department into a “Faculty” (as they call a School in Canada), the deadwood that had dominated that fourth-rate department managed to gain control again, and drove away all of the good people. Indeed, I hung in until I was the almost the last remaining faculty member who had any hope of getting a job somewhere else (one or two of my highly-productive colleagues inexplicably decided they wanted to stay there). They were desperately hiring anyone they could to meet the minimum requirements for an SPH — their own recent graduates; people living in the city who had been desperately wanting an academic job for decades, ever since their spouse forced them to live there; etc. So the main reason for my leaving was that it had become painfully embarrassing to be part of that department.
But set that aside a moment and consider what they did to hara…. um, I mean give me a hard time into leaving, eventually successfully. And keep in mind that Enstrom was close to retirement and I am not sure he taught at all, unlike me, so it would have been much easier to quietly marginalize him so that he was irrelevant until he left. It would not take a lot of brains to figure this out. Consider, for example, the first Dean of the University of Alberta SPH, who insisted that he could veto what literature I spent my grant money on because he had a right to tell me what I could and could not read as part of my research. I am not kidding! (That, by the way, is the one academic crime I have ever seen — albeit committed by a non-academic, since the guy was just a hack politician warming the chair for a while — that is actually worse than attempting to censor research results.) And he was not even the worst of them. One of the other administrators flatly admitted, in front of witnesses, that their attacks on me were entirely about them not liking the results of my research, and if I changed what I was reporting they would relent.
But even these morons managed to avoid getting sued. They cut off all support for me and my students, including my salary (I existed entirely on my external grants), intimidated students into not working with me, quietly allied themselves with external attackers (anti-tobacco industry people) to interfere with all of my community initiatives, kept the human subjects ethics committee from approving any of our work, etc. They generally made it quite pointless to bother to be there anymore. Of course, their master stroke was making University of Alberta Public Health suck so badly that I was mortified about staying any longer (the last time I taught there, a class for students in their last of four semesters, the feedback from the students was “this is the first material we have been presented with in the entire program that seems useful”). I think that perhaps they did not scuttle the School just to get rid of me — the rumor I recall about whywas that the Alberta government needed a do-nothing public health program so that they could point to it and say “see, they have not reported any health harm coming from our turning the whole province into an oil patch”.
Well, I suppose they did try to fire me, which might have gotten them sued had they actually been able to do it. But ultimately the central administration of the university was clever enough to offer me a position in another department of my choice (which I did not take — you would never want to be a professor in a department that did not actively want you to be there) and then to golden-handshake me to resign. They did not try to loot my grants or anything so blatant, and they may have even topped off my grants a bit at the end to keep my staff paid until my departure date. Wanting to get out anyway, this let me leave in triumph and figure suing was not worth the effort. Yes, it cost them some money, but not as much as the Enstrom lawsuit which seems like a sure loser for the university, and it did not come with any of the embarrassment of academic censure and front-page newspaper articles.
Perhaps, though, Jim’s situation offers some benefits to the world that my exit did not. It is a bit unfair to him, but I kind of hope they let it go to trial rather than settling. The resulting publicity and embarrassment might create some impetus for SPHs to try to live up to the standards of the universities they are part of, rather than continuing their slump toward the standards of “public health” activism.