Washington State University professor and researcher Robert Wielgus filed a complaint against WSU on Thursday alleging the university has seriously damaged his academic career through the unwarranted use of suppression, condemnation and reprisal after he made remarks critical of a cattle rancher and the state’s subsequent removal of a wolf pack.
Wielgus, who directs WSU’s large carnivore conservation laboratory, wrote in his complaint to the WSU Faculty Status Committee that WSU President Kirk Schulz, Agriculture Dean Ron Mittlehammer and Associate Agriculture Dean Jim Moyer violated his academic rights by imposing funding restrictions, requiring all his papers and presentations be submitted to the dean before publication and demanding he not speak to the media or the public on the subject of wolf research.
According to the complaint, the issue arose from two incidents – a media interview in August and a public statement he made to the Wolf Advisory Group in March.
The first incident occurred when Wielgus criticized the actions of a cattle rancher, whose livestock losses led to the eradication of the Profanity Peak gray wolf pack. The incident was the second involving the Stevens County rancher, Len McIrvin, who previously suffered livestock losses from the Wedge wolf pack. That pack was also killed by the state.
“This livestock operator elected to put his livestock directly on top of their den site; we have pictures of cows swamping it,” Wielgus told Seattle Times reporter Lynda V. Mapes in 2016.
Wielgus’ comments were quickly decried as inaccurate and inappropriate by WSU in an Aug. 31 news release. WSU wrote in the news release that McIrvin did not intentionally place livestock at or near the den site of the Profanity Peak wolf pack, and he had been following procedures outlined by the Washington Wolf Advisory Group.
In March, Wielgus restated his original claim that McIrvin placed his cattle on top of the den in an emailed press release to the advisory group.
He referred to himself in the email as a “private citizen” and while the university has not made any public comment, Wielgus alleged in his complaint that Mittelhammer and other administrators have retaliated against him in other ways.
According to Wielgus, WSU’s press release was inaccurate and administrators have maliciously begun investigating him for illegal use of state resources and lobbying, as well as suggesting his public statements were illegal.
The issue became a topic of conversation Monday during a talk by Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, who changed the title of his presentation from “An AAUP Chapter Can Transform your Campus” to “What the Wolves Can Teach Us About Academic Freedom,” after researching WSU’s academic freedom issues.
“The university’s handling of the matter to date is unacceptable,” Nelson said, noting particularly the allegations that WSU is preventing Wielgus from sharing in research with the press and public.
Nelson said disseminating information on a professor’s course of research is not only a right, but a responsibility.
“You don’t have to operate within administrative consensus or departmental consensus,” he said. “Not every administrator understands that.”
The handling of the case has certainly produced a chilling effect, he said, preventing other educators from sharing their own knowledge and research if it should happen to be controversial.
Nelson said the university’s response gives the impression it is deferring to moneyed ranchers rather than backing up its own researchers.
The university should have shown support, he said, even if it did not endorse Wielgus’ conclusions.
Nelson suggested the case can be used as a “teaching moment” by the WSU chapter of AAUP.
“The dean of agriculture is already using it as a teaching moment,” he said. “Only the lessons are bad. Faculty can always justify keeping their heads down and no good can come from that.”
Wielgus could not be reached for comment.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.