University pays US$300,000 to settle ‘gagging’ complaint

Washington State University (WSU) has agreed to pay a leading researcher US$300,000 to resolve a complaint about infringement of academic freedom by university administrators whom he accused of threatening him with disciplinary action, impeding his research and imposing a gagging order.

Revelations by The Seattle Times indicate that the WSU administrators were caving into political pressure from the ranching industry to silence Professor Robert Wielgus, director of WSU’s Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory, which did groundbreaking research into how to reduce conflict between gray wolves and livestock.

The settlement was announced in a joint statement representing the researcher and WSU, published on 15 May by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national non-profit that specialises in government scientist whistleblower protection.

PEER said the complaint concerned WSU administrators’ acquiescence to political pressure brought by the livestock industry to muzzle research showing that ranchers could largely eliminate wolf-related predation by following inexpensive best practices.

Wielgus’s work became controversial after he showed that lethal control was not an effective means to reduce livestock depredation and that certain ranchers were provoking wolf predation to trigger policies requiring the state game agency to kill the entire wolfpack, PEER said.

According to PEER, after Wielgus reported his findings and repeated them in the press, WSU administrators harassed him by:
  • • Repeatedly threatening him with disciplinary action, including a “cease and desist” order from making further public statements which they claimed constituted improper “lobbying”.

  • • Issuing official statements erroneously attacking his credibility.

  • • Imposing restrictions on his use of grant funds, including denying him reimbursement for research-related expenses.
This was despite WSU’s Faculty Manual declaring a university policy of “academic freedom … free from institutional censorship or discipline”.

When University World News asked WSU by email to respond to these allegations published by PEER, Phil Weiler, vice-president for marketing and communications at WSU, said as part of the agreement Washington State University has reached with Professor Rob Wielgus to settle all legal claims, both parties have committed to limiting their discussion of the situation to the following statement:

“Washington State University and Dr Rob Wielgus have reached an agreement under which Dr Wielgus will resign at the end of the spring 2018 semester and release all claims and employment rights in exchange for two payments totaling US$300,000, with funds coming from the state.

“In reaching this agreement, neither party acknowledges any wrongdoing. Both parties view this as an opportunity to sever the employment relationship on mutually acceptable terms, while resolving disputed legal claims.”

Weiler told University World News: “In light of this agreement, neither I nor Dr Wielgus are able to discuss the situation leading to this settlement.”

Last year revelations by The Seattle Times, which obtained emails under a public disclosure request, revealed that WSU administrators feared that funding for a new medical school would be withheld unless controversy in the Legislature and among ranchers over Wielgus was quelled.

According to The Seattle Times, Dan Coyne, a lobbyist for WSU, wrote to his colleague Jim Jesernig two days after Weilgus’s paper was published, saying: “Highly ranked senators have said that the medical school and wolves are linked. If wolves continue to go poorly, there won’t be a new medical school.”

Jesernig wrote in an email copied to WSU Director of State Relations Chris Mullick: “That’s my assessment as well … We are making the med school not doable”, The Seattle Times reported.

In a press statement announcing the settlement of the complaint of harassment and infringement of academic freedom, published by PEER last Tuesday, Dr Wielgus said that his research centre at WSU will cease operating.

He said: “After over 20 years of in-depth on-the-ground field research into the most iconic large carnivores of North America, the world-renowned Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at WSU will be closing its doors.

“This comes after years of political pressure from ranching interests and political interference by high-ranking state politicians to halt research into carnivore interactions with livestock and the development of non-lethal strategies to combat depredation.”

Adam Carlesco, PEER Staff Counsel, added: “WSU administrators have repeatedly shown their willingness to obstruct scientific research that discomfits agricultural interests,” pointing to emails showing industry-induced interference with, and censorship of, WSU faculty research. “WSU has let lobbyists and legislators make academic decisions and dictate results of published research.”

WSU, when requested by University World News, declined to respond to these two comments by Wielgus and Carlesco, citing the terms of the joint statement.

PEER said that in the absence of Wielgus’s predation avoidance programme and research, Washington lacks a coherent, science-based wolf management policy.

While the state game agency has continued “lethal removal” of wolfpacks, it has cloaked its decision-making from public review to (in the words of one game official) “keep the temperature down” in the face of protests over game agents shooting wolves from helicopters at the behest of cattle ranchers on public lands, PEER said.

In an earlier statement, on 27 April, Carlesco said the contents of the complaint against WSU “cut to the core of WSU’s integrity as an academic institution”. He said a state representative from eastern Washington allied with ranching interests apparently bullied administrators into silencing Wielgus and the WSU administrators appeared to be “acting as political enforcers rather than university administrators”.