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Baker blinked

Cal Poly's president compromised the university's independence



An invitation for food politics writer Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to speak at Cal Poly resulted in controversy after Cal Poly President Baker received a letter from Harris Ranch Beef Company Chairman, David E. Wood, demanding that Pollan’s views be challenged in a public setting (“Controversy erupts over Michael Pollan’s Poly lecture,” Oct. 8 New Times). Predictably, the university knuckled to the wishes of beef big industry and Pollan will not be giving his speech solo on Thursday, Oct. 15 as originally scheduled but in a panel.


The campus in the past invited such speakers as porn star Ron Jeremy, and anti-Islam film director Greg Davis, whose solo speech promoted a “nationwide Islamo-fascism Awareness Week.” Pollan is neither a porn star nor a racist fundamentalist. His message is simple: he wants to change the way people consider food. He advocates buying local food, especially organic food. So why does the beef industry have such a big problem with him? He’s convincing people that grass-fed cattle are better than corn-fed cattle and maybe that skipping a juicy burger every day is healthy for our metabolism and for the earth. Though he addresses many issues, ultimately he interconnects food with politics (the Farm Bill, for example), the environment, and general public health.


This scares Pollan’s critics: His writings may cause people to change buying and eating patterns. In September, he faced similar opposition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by a group of dairy processors who said in a statement: “The University of Wisconsin is a world renowned center for teaching and research in agriculture ... however, the choice of this book, the unintended endorsement of Pollan and these views simply cannot go unanswered.”


The Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium (SARC), which invited Pollan to speak, is controlled by the College of Agriculture and Dean David Wehner. In an e-mail sent to agricultural students following the letter to Baker from Harris Ranch Beef Company—the letter that threatened to withdraw a proposed $500,000 donation for a new campus slaughterhouse if Pollan were to speak unopposed—Wehner wrote that the college does not support Pollan’s views nor does it “.... endorse any speaker’s opinion, rather we provide a marketplace for free expression and opportunities for civil dialogue.” Wehner described the panel format as an opportunity to discuss “sustainability in agriculture and the challenges and issues California agriculture professionals are currently facing in the industry,” but in reality the only reason Pollan’s address was rearranged as a panel discussion is Harris Ranch Beef Company breathed down Cal Poly’s neck. What does this say about the university, which recently won a B+ average for sustainability efforts by the College of Sustainability 2010 report card?


Dependence on such funding as that of Harris Ranch Beef Company deters training in sustainable practices, in favor of teaching antiquated industrial agriculture methods. Animal Science Department professor Rob Rutherford used the word sustainability and Harris Ranch Beef Company called for his firing.


It sets a precedent that to achieve what you want students to be learning and faculty to be thinking and teaching, all you need is a half million dollars to contribute. The hypocrisy of the administration is hard to swallow since the administration received an “A” for their “sustainability efforts” on the same sustainability report card. It’s even harder to accept that they are not advocating for sustainability but are caving to industry demands that oppose sustainable practices.  


Moreover, Baker refused to refused to sign the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment plan, even though Cal Poly signed the Talloires Declaration in 2004 that calls for administrators to foster environmental sustainability in higher education.  It’s clear the administration does not prioritize sustainability. One of the action items demands university heads to “Use every opportunity to ... [continue] publicly addressing the urgent need to move toward an environmentally sustainable future.” President Baker is failing the declaration, undermining sustainability by taking outside money with strings attached. There should be no price tag to quiet the sustainability movement.


Despite the new format, this debate still will provide an opportunity to create a new political climate on campus focused on sustainability issues while challenging a failing administration that resists positive change. This is the time for students, faculty, and the community to raise their voices against genetic modification of organisms (GMO), against RBST hormones, against feeding cows corn, against the fossil fuel industry, and for organic local foods. By supporting sustainability measures and such groups as SARC and the Empower Poly Coalition, Cal Poly can prosper as a more sustainable campus. This is the time to support SARC’s efforts to be the hub of sustainability on campus and rally for its withdrawal from the College of Agriculture, which has revealed its ethical conflicts. ∆


Cassandra J. Carlson is a 2009 Cal Poly journalism alumna and former student editor of the Mustang Daily newspaper. She resides in American Canyon in the Bay Area. Send comments via the editor at econnolly

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