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Why no campus protest over Berkeley-BP connection?

Given the events in the Gulf of Mexico, one would think the cozy relationship between the university and the oil giant in the form of the Energy Biosciences Institute would have set off an uproar by now.

July 30, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

Dan Kammen, an expert in renewable energy at the school of public policy who isn't connected with the institute, says he hasn't detected any sign that its funding has starved other energy research. "It's a large grant, but it hasn't constrained work in other areas," he told me.

A task force on industry partnerships formed by UC Berkeley's academic senate after the founding of the energy institute said the university should be alert to the risk that such a collaboration might make it "an active participant in criminal conduct, human rights violations or environmental despoliation."

Some members of the Berkeley community are asking whether the gulf spill should trigger the university's termination rights under the contract.

"I'm not saying the spill is necessarily" an event warranting termination," Brian A. Barsky, a Berkeley computer science professor who has raised the issue with colleagues, told me. "However, it seems to me that this is worthy of discussion, not solely because of the disastrous consequences, but the revelations pertaining to negligence."

Law professor Christopher Kutz, the current chair of the academic senate, admits to being uneasy that BP's conduct in the gulf eventually may be shown to have crossed the legal line; the U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation.

"I'm waiting to see that happens with the investigation," he says. "The oil spill is tragic and clearly negligent, but that alone shouldn't be enough to cause us to revoke the partnership. But if we're getting into serious criminal negligence, deliberate indifference to environmental or health risks, then the university needs to think about who it's working with."

Who will drive that thought process at Berkeley? Nader the anthropology professor, for one, fears that the battle to maintain academic independence may already have been lost. "Berkeley is not a very progressive community anymore," she laments. "It is now a corporate university with corporate values. Where are you going to get any dissent?"

Others believe that dissent is bred in Berkeley's bone. "If there's a reason to be concerned about the university's connection to BP, there are many who will bring it up," says Robert Reich, the former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, now a Berkeley professor of public policy. "This faculty and these students have never shown particular reticence with regard to hot issues."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at http://www.latimes.com/hiltzik, check out http://www.facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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