Professor Rick Steiner, a prominent UAF marine scientist, says the University is trying to “gag” him by cutting his Grant funding and moving his office against his will for speaking out against offshore oil development in Bristol Bay.
The Sea Grant program, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), used to pay one month of Steiner’s yearly salary.
Then, in March of 2008 Steiner declined to participate in a conference hosted by NOAA and the Shell Oil Corporation that he felt was slanted towards the Shell’s desire to develop off shore oil drilling in Bristol Bay.
Instead Steiner joined a press conference with Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Friends of Bristol Bay, lending his expert opinion to calls to prevent oil development in Bristol Bay.
Later that month Steiner learned of a meeting between Shell Oil and UA officials, so he asked University officials that he would be able to participate. The University officials denied Steiner’s request and refused to tell him the time and date of the meeting.
A trail of e-mails Steiner obtained through open records requests FOIAs show that Jim Murray, the Deputy Director of the National Sea Grant Program, among others applied pressure on University administrators to cut Steiner’s Sea Grant funding because he was “acting as an advocate,” according to e-mails from Murray.
The Sea Grant program requires recipients to avoid “advocacy.” Saying in its handbook “we do not take positions on issues of public debate.”
In April of 2009 the University, which administers Sea Grant funding, informed Steiner that his Sea Grant funding was being terminated but that the University would make up the difference in his salary.
On Oct. 15, 2009 a grievance filed on Steiner’s behalf by United Academics the faculty union was given a final rejection by a University counsel representing President Mark Hamilton, said “academic freedom was not infringed so long as Prof. Steiner remained able to speak.”
On Oct. 23, United Academics decided not to take Steiner’s case to Arbitration, as a result Steiner has no other options in seeking a redress of grievances from the University.
“This decision [by the University] undermines the University’s credibility as a place where ideas can be developed and discussed without fear of reprisal,” Steiner said. “The University of Alaska really runs on oil money.”
The UA System has received tens of millions of dollars in funding from oil companies, the New ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building, which held its grand opening on the UAA campus Friday Oct 23, is a prime example of where the money goes.
Some vindication came for Steiner when NOAA appeared poised to reverse its Bush era policy on oil development in Bristol Bay in its report, titled, “Outer continental shelf oil and gas leasing program for 2010-2015,” citing, “potential consequences for fish stocks, marine mammals, human users, and other components of the ecosystem,” as a reason for the change.