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University of Alaska professor in danger of losing federal funding

The Anchorage Daily News

OUTSPOKEN: Rick steiner’s comments upset Sea Grant.

An outspoken University of Alaska professor is in danger of losing his federal funding after criticism by federal officials and some of his own colleagues in Alaska.

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Rick Steiner

At the center of a controversy over academic free speech is Rick Steiner, an Anchorage-based marine scientist who has worked around the world on oil spills and ocean conservation projects.

Last year, Steiner co-signed a letter charging that a public meeting in Anchorage — hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he works, and Sea Grant, a federal science and education program that has paid a portion of his income for nearly 30 years — was biased toward the oil industry.

A few months later, the national deputy director of the Sea Grant program complained to Steiner’s dean. Saying the professor had breached the neutrality required of Sea Grant agents, the federal manager suggested that Steiner’s Sea Grant funding be ended. The dean concurred, with a final decision expected this spring.

A federal employee whistle-blower group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, has been seeking national publicity for Steiner’s cause. It’s outrageous that Steiner is being punished after pointing out Sea Grant’s own bias, said PEER’s executive director Jeff Ruch.

Some Alaskans see Steiner — who has been involved with the Sea Grant program since 1980 — as a hero for his work after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. He helped organize Prince William Sound fishermen’s emergency response to the spill. He worked on state, federal and international spill legislation and helped develop regional citizen councils in Alaska and the Lower 48 to monitor oil shipping.

But Steiner also has been criticized for advocating too stridently and straying from his academic duties. He has criticized state and federal agencies, the governor and his own supervisors. In an evaluation last year, the dean of UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences called Steiner a “maverick.” Even though the professor’s work showed “a high level of activity,” very little of it focused on the goals of UAF’s Sea Grant program, the dean wrote.

Here’s one incident that irritated Sea Grant officials: Steiner last year joined environmentalists and Native organizations in signing a protest letter alleging pro-industry bias in a UAF and Sea Grant-hosted meeting designed to seek common ground between offshore oil developers and Bering Sea fishing fleets. The biggest financial sponsor of the workshop was Shell Oil, which hopes to develop offshore leases in the region.

The meeting was “highly biased toward the interests most supportive of offshore oil and gas development” and excluded Bristol Bay residents who remained opposed to it, according to the March 18 letter. 

Sea Grant defended the way the meeting was set up, saying every effort had been made to include differing viewpoints.

 

Acting as advocate?

 

In July, a national Sea Grant deputy director told UAF’s fisheries school dean during a meeting in Maryland that Steiner had violated his neutrality requirements as a Sea Grant agent, according to an e-mail from the dean, Denis Wiesenburg, to fellow UAF staff members.

Sea Grant deputy director Jim Murray suggested that Steiner’s Sea Grant funding be eliminated, Wiesenburg wrote.

“From my discussions with the national Sea Grant office, they do not believe Professor Steiner is contributing to their mission,” Wisenburg wrote. “On the contrary, they worry that his actions in Alaska could have negative implications nationally …”

The dean ended up agreeing with Sea Grant. He recommended that Steiner’s Sea Grant funding this year — roughly $10,000, a 10th of his salary — be cut.

Steiner says he doesn’t care about losing the money. He’s concerned about the negative message it sends to other university faculty.

“Can the feds give a grant to the university and attach a gag order to it?” he said.

“We either have free speech or we don’t,” he said.

Wiesenburg sees things differently.

“In my discussions with (Sea Grant), they mentioned to me that it was important for Sea Grant agents to be neutral brokers of information. I agreed,” Wiesenburg said in an interview last week.

He said he will ask UAF Provost Susan Henrichs to review his ultimate decision. Wiesenburg normally has final say on Steiner’s Sea Grant funding. But the matter isn’t final yet because faculty work assignments for the coming year haven’t been sorted out, the dean said.

 

STICKY SITUATION

After PEER, the national whistle-blower group, publicized Steiner’s situation a few weeks ago, Alaska Sea Grant officials hosted a teleconference for its staff members and its 28-member public advisory committee to talk about it.

Steiner was notified but chose not to attend.

“I guess you might say it’s a bit sticky,” said Stan Stephens, a long-time Valdez tour boat operator, oil industry watchdog and member of the Sea Grant advisory committee. He participated in the Feb. 12 meeting and said it seemed like people were “coming down” on Steiner.

“I hate to see this happen because he’s such a great asset to the university,” Stephens said.

The university needs “Rick Steiners” — professors who are willing to take a stand on controversial issues, he said.

Stephens said that Steiner hasn’t received much backing from the university for the projects he has pursued. “Everything he has done has been on the outskirts of where the university wanted to be,” he said.

“It’s complicated and there are two sides to it,” Stephens said, noting that a wall seems to have developed between Steiner and his colleagues in UAF’s Marine Advisory Program, which receives more than half of its funding from federal sources. At least twice in the past five years, Steiner has requested a transfer out of his long-time post in the program.

 

FACULTY RESPONDS

In December, Wiesenburg wrote in Steiner’s three-year post-tenure review that the professor had “every right as a faculty member to take positions on issues of public debate.”

But, academic freedom also comes with responsibilities that include accuracy, restraint and respect for others’ opinions, the dean wrote, quoting from the university system’s contract with its faculty union.

Under the principle of academic freedom, Steiner will continue to receive his university salary; however, Steiner regularly takes public positions and Sea Grant does not want the university to use federal funds to support those activities, Wiesenburg wrote.

The university’s faculty union says it is displeased with the dean’s recommendation to pull Steiner’s Sea Grant funding.

“It’s very clear that there is an academic freedom issue and we will certainly flock to his defense,” said Carl Shepro, a political science professor and president of United Academics, the university’s faculty union.

“We are opposed to cutting off his funds, especially if it’s done because of statements he’s made as an expert in the field,” he said.

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