Michael Pollan Controversy: Speaking of diverse views, here are two

Administration gave students object lesson in servility

I’ve been poring through the Cal Poly catalogue and just can’t seem to find “Intestinal Fortitude 101.”

Maybe it’s listed under a different title. Let’s try “Fending Off Bullies 101.”

Nope, it’s not there, either.

That’s a shame, because either class would be a nice counterpoint to “Rolling Over and Playing Dead 101,” which is apparently required for all Cal Poly administrators.

To recap: The university scheduled Michael Pollan, a critic of agribusiness and best-selling author, to speak to students Thursday. A heavy hitter from agribusiness, Harris Beef Ranch Co. Chairman David Wood, threatened to withhold his planned donation to the university if Pollan spoke solo.

Faster than you can say “Nice doggie,” Pollan found himself demoted from lone guest speaker to one of three members in a panel discussion.

Pollan is not the first Cal Poly speaker to waltz into town carrying controversy in his backpack. Former ’60s radical Angela Davis and neocon Daniel Pipes, among others, also have spoken in recent years.

The appearances of both Davis and Pipes created a mini-furor, and Pipes was picketed. But neither was forced into a panel discussion.

I can see only one significant difference here between them and Pollan: No donor threatened to withhold money if they spoke.

Cal Poly President Warren Baker has given The Tribune a statement denying that donors have influenced this or any other decision about who will speak on campus.

Baker said the panel discussion served academic freedom. He did not mention why presentations by Pipes, Davis and other speakers would not have served academic freedom by transmogrifying from a solo speech to a panel.

Ironically, the Pollan event did turn out to serve the public’s right to know. But that was inadvertent. It happened because of the bad press the university was getting, negative publicity that filled the Performing Arts Center and gave Pollan’s remarks wide circulation in the media.

Baker praises Pollan for acquiescing to the panel format. But I’m guessing he didn’t have much choice.

Pollan, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley, said Thursday that Wood’s threat constituted an attack on academic freedom, adding that bullying has no place at a university.

I agree, and I keep coming back to a remark made by Cal Poly’s Dean of Agriculture, David Wehner.

“We’re trying to educate students,” Wehner said.

The university certainly has done that. It has educated them that money talks and even great institutions can be shoved around.

Mission accomplished. Woof.

-Tribune Reporter Bob Cuddy

Discussion was no disservice to academic freedom

I would hope that ardent defenders of free speech and academic freedom would appreciate what really happened. That is, we exposed our students to diverse viewpoints on one of the most important issues of the day, one that affects all of us and deeply affects one of California’s most important industries.

I believe the panel discussion served our students well and cannot even remotely be considered a disservice to academic freedom, a core value that I have dedicated my entire professional life to protecting and defending.

Indeed, some alumni expressed concern that Michael Pollan was coming to campus. They suggested that there be a diverse set of viewpoints expressed. I happened to think that was a good idea.

Alumni — or for that manner any special interest groups including donors — do not dictate classroom content, and they do not dictate who will come to this campus and who won’t. Alumni, donors and special interest groups have no more influence on these issues than advertisers have on The Tribune’s news content.

Alumni and other supporters of all means do help shape the university in many ways, some visible, and some invisible. The obvious ways can be seen in the many campus facilities bearing the names of some of our most ardent alumni and friends. We’re also fortunate that we have many alumni who have quietly, behind the scenes, helped Cal Poly secure federal and state grants and corporate contracts for research and other projects, not to forget the many alumni and friends of the university who advise us on curriculum, hire our graduates, mentor our students and generally support Cal Poly students and faculty.

Several alumni have indicated that they might not honor their contribution pledges as a result of Michael Pollan’s visit. I hope they will reconsider. The students — the future leaders of California’s agriculture industries — need their support.

As to the fact that other controversial speakers have appeared on campus without benefit of panel discussion, it’s also true that we have used the panel discussion format as a way to address controversial issues, as we did when Measure Q was on the ballot. (Measure Q, which went before voters in 2004, called for a ban on planting of genetically engineered crops.)

In the process of engaging Michael Pollan for his services, when the Cal Poly organizers raised the idea of a panel discussion that would follow his remarks, Michael freely chose to participate in the panel discussion. He chose not to give a lecture. Michael was cooperative in the process, and I thought spoke eloquently, thoughtfully and freely on this controversy during his remarks Thursday. Certainly his freedom was not impinged.

-President of Cal Poly, Warren Baker