When donor squawks, teacher walks

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJanuary 23, 2010 

I think I’ll double down on the lottery this week, and donate my winnings to Cal Poly to build a new center. I’ll call it the Center for the Study of Integrity in Academia (CSIA).

The university won’t be able to turn it down, no matter what strings I attach, because for them it will be free money.

So I will tell Cal Poly what to teach at my, oops, sorry, its new center, whom to hire, and, most important, what not to teach and whom not to hire.

If they don’t do it my way, no dinero for them.

What do you mean, that sounds like a bribe? Piffle. It works for cattle ranchers; why can’t it work for me?

OK, the scenario is a bit fanciful, mostly because my chances of winning the Lottery are … well, you know the odds.

The bribery part, however, is all too real.

The owners of Harris Ranch have threatened to withhold $500,000 that would go toward a new meat-processing center unless the university teaches agriculture the way Harris Ranch wants it taught.

They also managed to turn a speech by progressive agriculturalist Michael Pollan into a “panel discussion” that greatly watered down anything Pollan, who (horrors!) sees things differently than Harris Ranch, has to say.

Finally, they pressured a veteran professor, Robert T. Rutherford, to stop teaching a class he helped to develop in the 1990s called “Issues in Animal Agriculture.”

All things considered, it has been a pretty good season of bullying for Harris Ranch. Louie the Lug couldn’t have done any better mugging the theater crowd in an alley off Broadway.

Of course, the theater-goers might have fought back.

And, it goes without saying, our muggings here in genteel San Luis Obispo County are more elegant than the Big City street variety, what with Cal Poly sitting smugly on the hill like the Lord of the Manor.

Still, you have to wonder if there is much of a difference when you look at the appalling e-mail exchanges between Harris Ranch and the university.

Here, for example, is David E. Wood, chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef company, asking Cal Poly President Warren Baker, “How do I know that the new meat science facility … will not someday be under the direction of someone like Mr. Rutherford?”

He happened to mention in passing that he was thinking of donating $500,000 toward the facility.

Mike Smith of Harris Ranch, darkly suspicious that he and like-minded citizens would be excluded from the Pollan presentation, warned “If they are, I would suggest you begin shuttering the doors to the College of Agriculture at Cal Poly.”

Here is Smith again, demanding that the university tell him the names of those who voted to bring Pollan to campus and those who voted against it. Describing agriculture as a “tough business,” Smith wrote, “I do not need Cal Poly making this business even more difficult by giving this activist an audience.”

These guys aren’t worried only about the impressionable young minds at Cal Poly being exposed to views different from theirs; they see the problem as nationwide.

“This whole mess is having a profound impact … on ag schools across this great nation,” Wood and Smith wrote.

“We believe this is a wakeup call to those in academia. We hope and pray that you’re listening.”

I’ll tell you who is listening. Those who believe this kind of thuggery has no place at an institution of higher learning.

One of those is Leland Yee, a state senator who has introduced a bill, SB330, that would let the public find out whether donors received something in return for their donations.

We know about Harris Ranch now, but how much other arm-twisting is secretly affecting faculty and curriculum at Cal Poly?

Our local legislators, Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and state Sen. Abel Maldonado, should be aggressively supporting Yee’s bill.

Even if Yee prevails, however, more disclosure about those who offer bribes won’t help bring those on the receiving end into line. That will take some spine.

Instead, we have a series of depressing e-mails, unearthed through the Public Records Act by our reporter Nick Wilson, in which various supine Cal Poly administrators try to soothe the money-lined egos of Wood, Smith and their compatriots.

The people running this university need to instruct Smith and Wood, forcefully and unambiguously, to remove the strings with which they’ve wrapped their half a million bucks, take it and their threats to a remote corner of the ranch, and dump the entire reeking mess with the rest of the cow pies.

Meanwhile, if you’re thinking of sending your kid to Cal Poly, go right ahead if you want to hear how great the status quo is. If you want Junior and Sis to learn about what constitutes ethical behavior, you’ll have to send them elsewhere or wait until my ticket pays off.

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