UC Berkeley News


Chapela at California Hall - still looking for answers (Deborah Stalford photo)

Tenured sí, tethered no
Ignacio Chapela, a 'mutt' with a mission, is still barking (and he bites, too)

| 01 September 2005

It could be that trouble is in Ignacio Chapela's genes. A native of Mexico City, he notes wryly that the only people there who share his Basque surname are his own relatives. "I have this personal mythology that my father's name comes from up here - somebody murdered somebody, or had an illegitimate child or something, and just had to run south," he says. His tone makes clear this is not to be taken at face value, but is meant to suggest some interior truth - a hypothetical bloodline for a born outsider.

Arguing for environmental causes, on the other hand, is the fact that trouble has been the biologist's steady companion since his earliest years at Berkeley. It was 1998 when Chapela, a still-fledgling assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources, swan-dived into the rapids of the Novartis agreement, a five-year, $25-million deal as divisive as any financial arrangement in campus history. The "strategic alliance" between the Swiss biotech firm and the college's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology was hailed by some as a vital new source of funds for faculty recruitment and retention, improved lab facilities, and expanded graduate programs. Opponents - including Chapela, then chair of the college's executive committee - warned that it compromised academic freedom by handing Novartis patent rights and influence over research projects. They also complained that advocates, many in positions of power on campus, moved ahead without adequately addressing such concerns, and without keeping faculty and grad students fully apprised.

Chapela on...

Getting tenure: "I think the lawsuit is what made it - not because of any fear of litigation, which they do all the time, it's good business for their lawyers, so they welcome that - but because of fear of actual information coming out. The discovery process would have been just too damaging to that group of people who would like to see this elite, homogeneous academic institution become more and more closed..The lawsuit was happening in the context of thousands of people around the world shouting their heads off..I feel that mine is the first tenure-by-acclamation decision - that all these thousands of people just said he has to be tenured, and it became so overwhelming that it happened."

The Novartis controversy: "I think it's great for interested corporations and private citizens, whoever, lobby groups, anybody who wants to bring money to the university, you know, the more the merrier. The only thing is that the university itself is corrupted. That's something I've always had trouble with with my activist friends. They always become worried when I say it's not Novartis' fault. I don't blame Novartis - they were playing by the rules, they were being as open as they needed to be, as open as they were forced to be. The whole blame is on the side of the university. So I would be all for industry and private contributions, provided the integrity of the university was preserved. Which it was not."

Biotech at Berkeley: "Just look around and tell me where building is happening, where money is going, which programs are being created at the expense of which programs, and you get a picture of a campus that is devoted to this. I don't really have the historical background to know how it was when this campus was devoted to mining, for example, or to the development of the nuclear bomb. But I have the impression it must have been something like that."

Silence: "That was one of the very shocking experiences when dealing with the Novartis thing, that nobody wanted to come out publicly and support an opposition. Almost everybody that I talked to - apart from the guys who were actually engineering it - was appalled, mad, disgusted..All the way from assistant professor to retirement they have people shut up. They always have some kind of string on you, and people just assume they're going to pull on it."

That dust-up was followed, in 2001, by an explosive paper in Nature, in which he and grad student David Quist reported that strands of genetically modified genes had contaminated local varieties of maize in Oaxaca, Mexico - findings that sparked an international backlash so furious that the prestigious British journal effectively disowned the article. While few took issue with the notion of contamination itself - a finding later confirmed by other researchers - an army of critics took aim at Chapela and Quist's contention that they had detected such engineered DNA in varying parts of the plant's genome, a potentially ominous sign for the diversity of a crop that is integral to Mexico's national culture. Chapela's defenders countered with charges that the critics were part of a public-relations campaign orchestrated by the biotech industry, effectively making the paper a cause célčbre among anti-GMO activists and conferring upon Chapela himself a celebrity rare among academicians, junior or otherwise.

These two strains of conflict combined to give birth - albeit in ways that may never be fully understood - to the tenure case heard 'round the world. Despite overwhelming votes of support from his colleagues in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and an ad hoc tenure panel, the campuswide Budget Committee, a standing, nine-member panel of the Academic Senate, recommended - first in the spring of 2003, and again that fall - that Chapela's bid for permanent status be denied. Then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl officially ruled against Chapela in November of that year. The announcement sparked a fierce backlash of its own, and finally, amid the commotion of last semester's commencement exercises, another stunning reversal. In May 2005, in the wake of protests, legal actions, and still more review by a specially reconstituted budget committee, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau awarded Chapela the prize that is, for junior faculty everywhere, the holy grail of academia.

Yet Chapela, while initially pleased and surprised by the verdict, also fretted publicly that his victory might cost him his independence, coopting him by making him part of the academic insiders' club. Now, though, heading back to the classroom for the first time as a tenured associate professor, he seems to have left such fears behind him. "I'm not going to shut up," he declares, seated on the north steps of California Hall, in whose executive offices his academic record has been signed, sealed, and - to the delight of some, the outrage of others - given a second life. Regretfully, though without apologies, he predicts he will continue, tenure notwithstanding, to be "a pain in the ass."

That, in some respects, is as anatomically precise as Chapela can be. This is because of what he terms "the unofficial channels of power at Berkeley," the largely invisible paths of governance in which a select few individuals, "unaccountable to anybody but themselves," make decisions on "where money goes or doesn't go, what faculty appointments are made and not, which building goes to whom." The result, he maintains, is a kind of monoculture, an ethos of conformity in which faculty are cowed into silence, and into which only the usual suspects - those who have been groomed since childhood for a life in academia - are truly welcome.

"We have this perfectly trimmed garden - we don't allow any weeds to grow, any mutts to come in, because we arrogantly think we know what's best. And I think that's a deadly type of arrogance," he explains. "I'm a weed, I'm a mutt, I'm a leak into the system. And they nearly got rid of me. But I slipped through the cracks and I'm in, you know? But it doesn't mean that many people can get away with this. In fact, the fact that I slipped through the cracks will make the system even more resilient to the intrusion of people like me. They'll be ready for the next one."

At Berkeley, he adds, the "Tevas and shorts" image cultivated by many of his colleagues belies the growing regimentation of university life. Chapela is particularly critical of "autocratic" campus administrators, whom he faults for a lack of transparency during his protracted, four-year tenure process.

"That's where I should just slap it back in their faces and say I don't take your stupid tenure, because you are reaching this decision through as bad a process as you used for the decision to deny me tenure," he says. In April 2005, more than four years after his first scheduled tenure appraisal, Chapela filed suit against the UC Regents, alleging discrimination, retaliation, and fraud, the latter charge stemming from what the suit calls "the existence of secret, de facto requirements for promotion to tenure." In addition to pressure from his supporters, he credits the reversal to campus officials' fear of disclosures about those alleged "informal channels" of governance that might have emerged from discovery proceedings. He now thinks the suit could help shed some light after the fact, and says it is "still on the table."

"I would like a report - tell me, why are you giving me tenure?" he says. "Why did you reverse yourself? Why did you drag me through hell for four years? Just giving me tenure is not enough, to just say, 'Oh, well, sorry,' you know? 'I will kick you and kick you and kick you for four years and then I say, Oh, I will stop kicking you now, be thankful for it.' What's that? I don't think it can just be dropped like that."

And silence, for Chapela, is the ever-present danger. "The problem right now," he says, "is that people who support me don't want to ask any more questions, [they say] let's just leave it at that. But that's just covering up for these guys."

Assert, debate, repeat

Ignacio Chapela (at microphone) became the focus of an intense activist effort on his behalf - and not a little media attention - during the conflict over his denial of tenure at Berkeley. (Jonathan King photo)
Over the course of more than three hours of wide-ranging, on-the-record conversation, the trait of Chapela's that keeps surfacing, like those wayward bits of DNA in Mexican farmers' corn, is a penchant for pointed questions - even when it's his own ox that ends up getting gored. Last month, for example, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study in which U.S. and Mexican scientists concluded that "transgenic maize seeds were absent or extremely rare" in the mountains of Oaxaca, where Chapela and Quist's Nature paper reported finding them. Chapela contests the study's methods as well as its conclusions - calling the suggestion that contamination vanished in just a few years "a biological absurdity" - but welcomes the renewed focus on the integrity of Mexico's native corn crop.

Why, though, given the degree to which his scientific reputation hinged on the perceived validity of his earlier research, did he leave such follow-up studies to others, rather than attempt to replicate the results himself?

"We actually did. We replicated, we produced as much evidence as we could," he replies, explaining that shortages of money and resources, as well as the demands of his tenure battle, severely limited what he and Quist could do. "In the end," he goes on, "it became a really ad hominem argument, where [critics] just said these guys are bad, their lab practices are bad. So there's nothing I can do against that. Against that, the only thing that can be done in legitimate science, I think, is to have somebody else come in and do the work and show that it was right or it was wrong. So in that sense it's good that this PNAS paper is coming out, because it's the first attempt, four years down the line, to address the question at all. They come to the opposite conclusion, and that's perfectly fine, that's the stuff that science is made of."

Summarizing a rebuttal he plans to submit to PNAS, Chapela says he believes that the new study, far from showing the absence of transgenes in hundreds of seed samples, "simply defined the problem away," setting the threshold for positive findings artificially high through the use of a standard favored by industry for reasons all its own. Whether the evidence of contamination meets such a standard, he maintains, is "not a biological question. It's a commercial question, it's a political question, it's a question of trade and so on..Part of my rebuttal is the fact that they actually saw signs of [transgenes], and they put it in the paper and then they say there's nothing there. So it's kind of crazy."

As for how he became the poster child for opposition to the Novartis deal, Chapela attributes his role to a combination of background and temperament. Although some of his supporters, citing his prominence as a biotech critic, have suggested he was "set up" as the chair of his college's executive committee - a post that put him directly in the path of the gathering storm - Chapela points out that his feelings about biotech were not well-known at the time, nor did he go out of his way to advertise them during job interviews. One part of his résumé he did emphasize was a three-year research stint with Sandoz, which later morphed into - wait for it - biotech giant Novartis.

"[He] thought he was going to have a really good person for a rubber-stamping position," Chapela says of CNR's then-dean, "because he" - that is, Chapela, circa 1998 - "is young, he has a lot to lose, and his natural instinct is going to be to support something like this. So I think he was surprised."

That, he notes, is a common phenomenon. "I find in my history that this happens over and over and over, that people just make assumptions about who I am and why I should react one way or the other, and they become really surprised when I don't," says Chapela, adding that "I get into trouble with all sides," including the political left.

"That comes with being a mutt," he reflects. "I think what keeps getting me into trouble all the time is my background," particularly his Mexican roots and his years of non-academic employment. "I got here by an incredible set of coincidences - happened to be in the right place at the right time, with the right credentials, for whatever reason. And we just don't have enough people who have that opportunity..There's an awful lot of culling, from the freshmen we admit to the faculty we hire, that makes this place not as diverse as it should be - not from the point of view of melanin content of the skin, but from the point of view of trajectories behind you."

"Who do you represent?" he asks, addressing those whose academic careers he says are charted in grade school, when they're trained to do what his daughter calls "bubble work, which is learning how to answer those multiple-choice tests." Instead of "thoroughbred academicians," Chapela says, "I want to see people who represent the inner-city kids, or the farm workers, or the farming community, or the industrial community too, you know?" Opening the university to "thoroughbred intellectuals," he adds - as distinct from academicians - from these other realms is the way to achieve "real diversity."

Having finally won his tenure, he now believes he owes a debt to his fellow "mutts," those he contends are shut out of the system: "I need to articulate the voices of all those people who have no access to this place. I need to be here representing them, holding this position for them. And I know that's going to be painful for the institution."

'The best job in the world'

The pain, it seems, will be felt on both sides. "I can predict that I will be a pain in the ass," Chapela confirms, "but not because I want to be a pain in the ass. I don't want to project that image, that I enjoy doing that, that I enjoy the job of troublemaker. I don't. I'd love to just sit in the library and work, or sit in the lab and be with my students."

The claim is not difficult to accept. Asked how he became interested in biology - he dubbed himself a microbial ecologist only when "biologist," his first choice, was deemed too broad for a Berkeley faculty position - he grows positively rhapsodic. "It was like falling in love, I think, in college, with the world of the invisible, the world of the little. Just to realize there is so much going on in a droplet of water and a little bit of sun within the leaf of one plant, it's just such a - such a high," he explains. He "teeter-tottered between biology and geology" in his early teens, "but I liked the living too much, you know?" When he got to college, "the very first time that I saw fungi, I said, wow, this is it, this is where I want to go."

Becoming a thorn in the university's side, he insists, was never in his career plans. "But it appears that there aren't many people who are willing or able to call things by their name," he says. "So I will do it."

His view of Berkeley, post-tenure? "I think what we're seeing in the university is more and more the effect that we are seeing in the world, where you'll get more and more monopoly of points of view, of priorities, of agendas, where one agenda tends to overwhelm every other. When that happens, you have silence. Instead of having more debate, instead of having more scandal - which is what we should have - you have silence."

For Chapela, at least, silence is not an option. "One of the things [campus officials] cannot believe is that I could forgo this job, this job that I really like [and] that I think is the best job in the world. But I'm willing to forgo it for the sake of some other principles that they don't even know about. Because they believe that I couldn't possibly not want tenure - they think that just giving me tenure is going to shut me up. Oh my god, what if I jeopardize my chances of climbing the ladder after tenure? That's what everybody's worried about. Well, if I was willing to give up the job, am I willing to give up the promotions? Yes, of course."

To which he quickly, if needlessly, tacks on an addendum: "With a fight, of course."