Monday, December 14, 2009

Prof. Rick Steiner Requests Apology from Gen. Mark Hamilton of UA

Back on November 26th, Maia Nolan posted an article at The Alaska Dispatch called Censored on Campus? In the article, Nolan recounted a number of incidents on Anchorage campuses in the recent to fairly distant past, that might fall under the topic of censorship. As I wrote at the time, I considered Nolan's article to be "the most estimable article in years on the reactions of two Alaska universities to the tests that come from provocative art productions."

Also, at the time, I criticized two of the article's major shortcomings: It falsely characterized what had happened at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2001, when student Diane Benson objected to defamatory and false material about family members being published in a faculty member's poem; and it falsely characterized the situation I found myself in on April 8, 2004, when I canceled rehearsals and the scheduled performance at UAA of my work, The Skies are Weeping.

I addressed the latter in an article called On Censored on Campus? I exchanged emails with both Nolan and with UAA Prof. Steve Haycox on that issue, and Nolan and I discussed the coverage of the dispute between UAA Prof. Linda McCarriston and student (now Professor) Diane Benson. Discussing the article's sortcomings with Prof. Diane Benson, the latter agreed to allow Progressive Alaska to reprint her article from The American Indian Quarterly, titled Standing Up Against the Giant.

Nolan wrote to me that her Dispatch article had sought to - with the exception of her interview with UAA Prof. and Arts Department Chair, Mariano Gonzales - concentrate on interviewing only people affiliated with the institutions for their perspective on how the schools approach the balance between freedom of expression and community concerns. Nolan's claim on this seemed fair in regard to the article's coverage of the arts.

But in the latter part of the article, writing about her interview with University of Alaska President, Gen. Mark Hamilton, Nolan brought up the university's case against UA Prof.
Rick Steiner., which certainly falls outside the realm of "how the schools approach the balance between freedom of expression and community concerns."

Once again, as in the case with my experience and Benson's, Nolan should have contacted Steiner before publishing.

Nolan has told me she hopes to someday write about Prof. Diane Benson's experience. Others have told me the same over the past three years. Go for it, Maia. And Nolan has received a copy of Prof. Steiner's response to Gen. Hamilton's statements in Nolan's article, which PA is going to print here, with Prof. Steiner's permission:

From: Rick Steiner
Date: December 13, 2009 2:12:26 PM AKST
To: Mark Hamilton
Subject: your comments in the Alaska Dispatch

President Hamilton --

Your comments about my situation in the 11/26 Alaska Dispatch blog (which I have just now seen) are simply untrue and need to be corrected. The author (cc'd on this email) did a good job discussing the arts issue, but as she allowed you to discuss me and my case, she clearly should have contacted me to at least reply, but for some odd reason, neglected to do so.

A few responses to your misguided comments are below, in case you wish to know the truth:

Hamilton said he wanted to accept Steiner's invitation to debate the issue ("Talk of Alaska" host Steve Heimel offered this week's show as a forum) but had to decline; not only is it a complex personnel issue involving unions and lawyers, he said, but it would have been boring.

In fact, the issue was that you cannot defend what you and your administrators have done to me here -- that you knowingly opted to restrict my free speech by approving the adverse administrative decisions taken solely due to my public statements. We had a very lively conversation on Talk of Alaska anyway, and you simply cowered from the issue. This is not a "complex personnel issue", but rather a fundamental issue regarding how a university protects academic freedom.

He said he and Steiner are on the same page when it comes to freedom of speech.

You and I are most certainly NOT "on the same page when it comes to free speech." I support it and exercise it unequivocally. You however support it and exercise it in a discretionary manner, that is, when it is politically convenient, and not when it is not. That sir, is most certainly not free speech. Either one has free speech and academic freedom all the time, or one does not have it at all. Indeed, you have confirmed that the University of Alaska does NOT support free speech. Period. Support for art or poems is one thing, but when it comes to criticizing the financial benefactors of the university (oil), or the university itself, that seems to have a selective response.

One of the problems, he said, is that Steiner violated the terms of the Sea Grant agreement.

"It says specifically, ‘you may not take a side on these issues,'" Hamilton said. "I say don't even take a grant that says that."

I most certainly did not 'violate the terms of the Sea Grant grant', but rather performed exceptionally on the grant (which I have done for 30 years). If you mean that I advocated and Sea Grant has a guideline that their funded faculty should not advocate, all Sea Grant funded faculty advocate all the time, and any thinking person would know that. The Alaska Sea Grant proposal/plan actually says its goals are to increase industry profits, enhance industry reputation, foster coastal development, etc. -- that is, to help one segment of the stake holders over others. Is this advocacy? Of course. And I have engaged in this advocacy for 30 years, with no threat whatsoever to my Sea Grant funding, until now.

When I have the audacity to criticize an offshore oil proposal and the university's bias on the issue, that is unacceptable advocacy?? Who judges this?? Further, what makes you think that my comments about the Bristol Bay oil / fish issue and the biased Sea Grant / Shell workshop on it were offered on my 1-month of Sea Grant time? They weren't. By your willful acceptance of the punitive consequence imposed upon me by your administrators for my comments, you have set the standard that a granting institution and the university administration can and will take adverse actions against any faculty for comments they make whether on the grant or not. And that is simply stunning.

That you would 'just not take a grant that says that', well the grant actually does not say that! There are guidelines that suggest one should not advocate, but no actual stipulations or standards addressing what is and what is not acceptable advocacy, and who judges such. If it did, I wouldn't take the grant either, and I did not take a grant that said that. It was your administration that eliminated me from the grant, not NOAA. NOAA was very clear on that point.

You are essentially saying here that the university condones and will accept grants that restrict free speech of faculty, and that is a central issue here. If you indeed support free speech and academic freedom, then that should be the stipulation the university imposes on any and all grants received.

With respect, you either don't have all the facts in my case, or are selectively recalling them and being terribly dishonest about all of this. I don't know which is worse, but both are simply unacceptable, and a disgrace to Alaska.

You sir owe me a public apology, a retraction, and a correction of the facts that you so blatantly misrepresented here. [emphasis added by PA]

Rick Steiner, Professor


Polarbear said...

I concur that Mark Hamilton owes Rick Steiner an apology, and owes the university community an apology for creating an administrative atmosphere hostile to academic freedom and free speech.

Rick Steiner has been serving Alaska far longer than Mark Hamilton has been in this state, and Steiner will be here, continuing his service, long after Hamilton is gone, next year.

Philip Munger said...

Well said, Polarbear.

Anonymous said...

Where is the support from his fellow professors, it seems they should be in the forefront supporting academic freedom- or have they all been co-opted by the man?

Susie said...

Phil, would it be possible for either you or Dr. Steiner to write a brief synopsis of what this conflict is all about? I have heard bits and pieces of it in the news, but wonder if this is a personal issue between the two, or if Hamilton is starting to enact new rules or guidelines and Steiner just happened to be the first one affected by the changes, etc. I'm an Alumnus of UAA, and my son is currently enrolled there, so I would really like to understand what's going on. Thanks.

truth said...

Hamilton owes the state an apology for his conduct in Rick Steiner's case. When it comes to speaking truth to power about oil companies, Alaska's university professors now know they must keep mum if they wish to keep their jobs. Many faculty have supported Steiner, but the only ones to do so publicly are tenured and/or emeritus - like Diddy Hitchins. Telling, isn't it? And, Alaska Dispatch should be ashamed of such shoddy "journalism." Unless Hamilton told them he wouldn't interview unless they didn't talk to Steiner. That's what happened with the APRN debate: Hamilton wouldn't do it if they talked about Steiner's case. Hmmm... just exactly what kind of talk is the General walking?