WSU’s Book Controversy Shines Light on Big Ag’s Influence on Land Grant Schools

It isn’t easy being a land grant university these days, especially when your Ag School depends so heavily on industry money for support. Sadly, fear of losing funding from their biggest money stream is limiting the types of research many scientists are undertaking at agriculture schools across the country. Now there are accusations that the funding fear may have crept its way out of Washington State University’s Ag School and has taken hold in, of all places, WSU’s Common Reading Program.

Months after WSU’s Common Reading Committee selected “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan as this year’s thought provoking book, the university announced that it decided not to hand out the nearly 4,000 copies it had already purchased to its incoming freshman during WSU’s orientation sessions and cancel the reading program altogether. The first official reason offered earlier this month was, “given the circumstances currently facing our institution, changes must be made to the program.” Through an email sent to faculty yesterday, WSU’s president, Dr. Elson Floyd, and his provost, Dr. Warwick Bayly, stated that those “circumstances” are the university’s financial woes. The email goes on to say:

This is just one of scores of hard decisions that have been made in recent weeks to address the $54 million cut in our biennial state appropriation. As you well know, this austerity has forced us to reduce or eliminate a number of programs and positions. Reducing the scope of this program — including not bringing the author to campus and avoiding speaker’s fees and travel, facilities, and event costs — will save an estimated $40,000.

However, faculty members were quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education questioning the fiscal excuse:

Jeff Sellen, an instructor at the university who sat on a committee in charge of implementing the reading program, says members of that panel were told “we could not call it a ‘common reading.'”

“I think that was important because it would be less official and would maybe fly underneath the radar,” he says. “It was obvious that it was political.”

He says that there was never a substantial budget for events around the book—certainly not enough to bring in Mr. Pollan as a speaker—so he dismisses the idea that there was a financial rationale for the changes in the program.

For those of you who don’t know, Pollan’s book reveals the serious problems that our broken industrially based food system poses for the environment, our health and our own morality. It looks like the book may have hit a little too close to home for one of WSU’s Board of Regents. The Spokesman-Review quoted Regent Francois X. Forgette as saying his fellow Regent Harold Cochran “had read the book and raised concerns.” According to a release from Governor Chris Gregoire’s office, Cochran is a third generation wheat rancher and is a member of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and the Walla Walla County Wheat Growers.

Regardless of what led to the decision, the ensuing controversy has spotlighted serious concerns regarding the influence Big Ag has over large public institutions that are entrusted to further academic research in food and agricultural sciences. I witnessed this influence first hand while serving as the communications director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP). Read More >