WSU to Return “Ominivore’s Dilemma” to Its Common Reading Program

Washington State University alum and former WSU regent, Bill Marler, has offered to foot the bill to bring author Michael Pollan to the school’s campus. WSU said it will take Marler’s offer to pay the speaking fee for the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and will reinstate the school’s Common Reading Program. According to WSU, the Common Reading Program had been suspended due to financial concerns and not because of pressure from the agriculture industry. In recent days, the land grant University has faced a barrage of criticism over the suspension of the program.

We believe Washington State University has worked hard to reach its status as a leading national research institution (its College of Agriculture is ranked second in the nation in plant science by the Chronicle of Higher Education). There is, however, the continued concern that large agriculture interests have undue influence over WSU and other land grant universities which conduct important research in areas surrounding food production and its effects on the environment and public health.

Congress could alleviate these concerns by committing federal dollars to help WSU and other land grant universities and remove the potential conflict of interest by receiving financial support from Big Ag. Imagine where we would be if the biomedical research community did not have support from the National Institutes of Health and had to rely on the pharmaceutical industry for exclusive support?

We’re looking forward to Michael Pollan’s visit to WSU and the discussion of his book. He told the New York Times that he is pleased the program was restored. He said it’s especially important that it’s taking place at a land grant university, “because we are in the midst of this national conversation about the future of food and agriculture, and land grant universities have a critical role to play.”

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 >