Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SUNY Trustees Require Investigation of UB Shale Institute

Board concerned about formation and funding of Institute, errors in its first report, and misrepresentation that it was peer reviewed

~ By David Kowalski and Jim Holstun ~

The SUNY Board of Trustees met in New York City on Wednesday, September 12, 2012. 

We wondered whether the Trustees would discuss the controversial Shale Resources and Society Institute (a.k.a., UB Shale Institute) created under the aegis of the University at Buffalo. Recently, 83 UB faculty and professional staff sent a letter to the university administration seeking  transparency on the Shale Institute. They urged the administration to make public all the documents that bear upon the founding, funding, staffing, operation and governance of the institute. Additionally, the New Yorkers Against Fracking announced a protest to be held outside the Board of Trustees meeting to push SUNY to stop supporting the industry-friendly Institute.

Live Webcasts of several different committee meetings were available online. We watched the meeting of the Research and Economic Development Committee.

Dr. Tim Killeen, the new President of the SUNY Research Foundation and former Assistant Director of Geosciences at the National Science Foundation, gave a presentation to the committee entitled "Advancing the SUNY Innovation Ecosystem." He indicated that there is great potential in collaborating with industry in New York. Killeen said that stimulating collaborative partnerships with industry is very important. He added that it has to be two-way, and has to be done with full integrity and ethical commitments.

Following a discussion of the presentation, Marshall Lichtman, acting chair of the committee, moved on to other business. Although the UB Shale Institute was not listed on the agenda, the discussion turned out to be devoted entirely to the Shale Institute and the University at Buffalo.

Below are excerpts from the committee's discussion:

Trustee Ronald G. Ehrenberg said "the whole issue of fracking research at Buffalo has sort of led to concerns about what policies we have in place regarding accountability and conflict of interest and conflict of commitment in terms of research." He added "Economists got into a lot of problems because a lot of people testifying or writing papers on financial regulation turned out were paid consultants to companies, and they never released that." He recommended convening the vice presidents for research at the different campuses and discussing the issues.

Trustee Joseph W. Belluck, speaking to Dr. Killeen, said "what happened in Buffalo threatens to undermine everything in your presentation, every single last bit of it." Belluck said "And what happened, and it was laid out very clearly in an NPR story that you can get on Google, is that there was a conference at Buffalo, and following the conference, an employee of a natural gas company sat down with people at the University at Buffalo and suggested to them that they set up an institute to research fracking, suggested to them that they hire a colleague of his who is a consultant to the energy industry, someone with very little academic credentials, if any, and suggested to them if they put out an article that was favorable, that they would attract additional resources from the gas industry."

"They then put out a report. They misrepresented that it was peer reviewed. As you and I have discussed, it’s the core principle of academic research, peer review. They misrepresented that. It was not peer reviewed. They misrepresented that reviewers who had read it supported the conclusions. And the Chancellor went on a television, a radio program, and asked UB to respond, and to explain what went on, take responsibility for it. And they really haven’t."

Speaking forcefully, Belluck continued "But this thing at UB, in my view, it has to be shut down. And I would like to bring a motion to the Board today that we call on Buffalo to shut this institute down. Because I don’t think that this is an academic institute. The faculty at Buffalo are upset about it because it was not set up with the rigors that an academic institute was set up for. We now have protestors coming today. It’s all over Google News. And I think it threatens to undermine us as a first-class research institute."

Marshall Lichtman and Carl McCall, Chairman of the Board and the Executive Committee, indicated that the Board needed additional information.

Dr. Killeen said "Joseph Belluck and I had a good conversation about this about a week ago or so. After that, I’ve been in conversation with and emails with the President of UB, the Vice President for Research, and the new Provost there as well. And so I do have some sense of what’s going on at UB, and there is a response which will include a letter to all faculty, and there’s a group that’s working through this."

Joseph Belluck said "The Chancellor went on the radio program, was it eight weeks ago?" 

"Probably", said Chancellor Nancy Zimpher (on speaker phone).

Belluck continued "And asked for a response. And two months later there has been no response, except comments to the media by Dr. or Mr. Pitman, who I don’t know what his position is, but he is, I believe, the head of the Arts and Sciences there, saying that his intent was to create a “slush fund” of money to fund this research. So if they want to prepare a response now, they can, but there’s been two months of basically unresponsive behavior."

Chancellor Zimpher said "We didn’t have our President yet who would intervene in the appropriate way, which he is now doing."

Board & Exec. Committee Chair Carl McCall said "Obviously, the point is we need more information, and Trustee Belluck, I would not be able to support a resolution at this point to say it should be shut down. But what I would like to do is to ask for an immediate investigation, and a report to the Board with recommendations, pointing out some of the information that we’ve just heard from Dr. Kileen about an overall attempt to look at the integrity of our research to really make sure we have the best conflict of interest, the best practices on that."

Joseph Belluck responded "I would support that, Chairman, if it involves a full airing of the conversations that took place to set this up, who they were with, how this individual who’s a member of the gas industry and a lobbyist in Albany became the head of the Institute, if it’s a real full hearing. I’ve dealt with UB in many levels, and suffice to say, I don’t think we always get a full hearing. I’m happy to let this process work out, but you have to impress upon them that this has to be a full complete disclosure to us of how this came about. Because if it’s not, I don’t want to be a part of it."

McCall and Belluck agreed to work together on a resolution before the Board meeting that followed. 

At the SUNY Board of Trustees Public Session #2 meeting, the resolution drafted by McCall and Belluck was read aloud, along with an addition by Trustee Cary Staller: "Specifically report to us the source of funds and relationship of the Institute to the University at Buffalo."

In the absence of comments on the final resolution, McCall said "All right, this is very important, and the point here is that if you pass this resolution, that report will come to this board in an expeditious manner, and upon receipt of the report, the Board is prepared to take whatever action is necessary."

The Board voted unanimously in favor of passing the resolution. 

McCall said "The resolution is passed, and we look forward to the receipt of that report. We will immediately communicate this to the leadership of the University at Buffalo and set up a process for receiving the information that the report calls for."

A copy of the resolution adopted by the Board of Trustees is here.

Videos of the full meetings are available online. The link to the Research and Economic Development Committee meeting is here. The link to the SUNY Board of Trustees Public Session #2 meeting is here.

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