Clash at Colorado U. Between Academic Freedom and Funding

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a packed basement classroom at the University of Colorado, instructor Adrienne Anderson will be giving her students their final exam today.

It may well be the last exam Ms. Anderson gives here.

The class, Environmental Ethics: Race, Class and Politics, is a primer on how to expose corporate polluters. It has become one of the most popular courses on the Boulder campus. But it is also one of the most controversial and, earlier this month, the university decided to cancel funding for it next year.

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The decision has triggered student protests and highlights a nationwide struggle between the growing influence of corporations on campus and the long-cherished ideal of academic freedom.

As state and federal funds shrink, "public and private universities are accepting more money both for the good of the corporation and for the good of the university," says Roz Hibert of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges in Washington. "In an ideal world, corporate sponsors would have no impact on the academic freedom of the university."

But at CU, students and professors say, the companies are tampering. "It is a tough call," said junior Trevor Barlow before a meeting with the CU president and chancellor last week. "This has been a controversial class and a lot of companies don't like what is being taught."

What is being taught is activism. Anderson, who began the course three years ago, is the former regional director of the National Toxics Campaign, and has spent years fighting for small citizens groups that challenge corporate polluters. "I teach the students how to research local records and use the Freedom of Information Act," she says. "The students can investigate various sites and various companies.

Part of that research includes bringing representatives of some of Colorado's larger firms into the class, where they discuss with students the issues being researched. It was this process, according to Anderson, that prompted a letter-writing campaign by various companies to have her course canceled.

One letter sent to the university from Asarco, a Denver-based metal refinery, stated: "I tried to present the facts ... what I received ... was rudeness, belligerence, prejudice, and closed mindedness. Ms. Anderson was a key performer in this irrational, mob-like encounter."

Another letter was sent by MGA, a public relations firm that represents Coors Brewing Company (sponsor of the CU concert hall), Shell Oil Company, Asarco, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Army. "To give [Anderson] the privilege to teach a class is an outrage to many industries...," states the letter. "It is my intention to talk to the person who hired Anderson and discuss her continued employment."

ANDERSON dismisses the allegations the letters raise. "I'm very careful to get factual documentation for my charges of illegal activities," she says. "These are often backed by records from the polluters themselves."

Mr Barlow, who attended the Asarco meeting, says the letters misrepresent what happened. "We were not a mob. We were just prepared and asked tough questions that the representative didn't expect. We had done our homework."

The course has received the unwavering support of Evelyn Hu-DeHart, chairwoman of the Department of Ethnic Studies, under which the course is taught. "Academic freedom means the freedom to explore, to think, the freedom to discuss without fear of recrimination, of punishment," she says.

The course is one of the highest-rated on campus, with student evaluations placing it in the top 5 percent.

CU Environmental Center Director Will Toor says the corporate pressure was just too great to ignore. "You have to wonder to what extent funding was denied as a convenient excuse to shut down a controversial class," he says.

While university administrators have remained quiet during much of this controversy, Chancellor Rod Park admitted it was not a financial issue but "a faculty issue" as to whether the Environmental Ethics course is taught again.

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