A powerful donor versus academic freedom

University of OklahomaThe CEO of a major energy company asked the University of Oklahoma to fire some faculty, because he didn’t like the way their research was heading.

“Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed,” wrote Larry Grillot, the dean of the university’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, in a July 16, 2014, e-mail to colleagues at the university.

There’s more:

And, the dean wrote, Hamm indicated that he would be “visiting with Governor [Mary] Fallin on the topic of moving the OGS out of the University of Oklahoma.”


Hamm also expressed an interest in joining a search committee charged with finding a new director for the geological survey, according to Grillot’s e-mail.

How is it that this oil company executive can intervene in the workings of a public university?

“Hamm, the billionaire founder and chief executive officer of Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources… has been a generous donor to the University of Oklahoma, including a 2011 gift of $20 million for a diabetes research center named after the oilman. University President David Boren, a former U.S. senator, sits on the board of directors of Hamm’s Continental Resources.”

But the tycoon didn’t get his way.  Kudos to dean Grillot:

Hamm’s meeting with Grillot resulted in no apparent changes at the university. Reached by telephone, Grillot confirmed his discussion with Hamm.

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He declines to name any individuals that the oil company CEO wanted to have fired but says nobody was dismissed from the Oklahoma Geological Survey and that he never discussed Hamm’s displeasure with OGS staffers.

“I didn’t want it to impact their day-to-day work,” he says. “Foremost for us is academic freedom.” Grillot adds that Hamm was not added to the search committee for the new OGS director.

Let’s tease apart some strands of this story:

Item: as public higher education receives less and less support from states, campuses become more dependent on private donors.  Now we see that means more vulnerable to donors’ political desires.

Item: this is why we have academic freedom.

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 Which is why we established tenure to protect faculty from political charges.  Well, some faculty.  Actually, a minority of faculty these days.  A shrinking minority.  So we should expect to see such political charges falling on the majority of faculty in the future: nontenured instructors.

Item: note that the science here is largely settled.

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 Fracking can cause earthquakes.  But, as with evolution and climate change, the science itself isn’t really the point.

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 The point is power.  Bravo to Oklahoma for resisting Hamm.

Read the whole article.  Elgin and Philips do a fine job of diving deeply into this story.  You’ll find other OU administrators not quite on the same page as Grillo, that the science has some fascinating details, and more.

Are there other cases like this occurring in 2015?

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5 Responses to A powerful donor versus academic freedom

  1. tellio says:

    Well done, especially the question at the end. Any system that would become a baldfaced ‘pay-to-play’ one is not destined to last very long. I also think that universities have not done what Grillot did seemingly very well–to engage politically. University power for whatever reason no longer has much to do with the levers of power in the legislatures. They will tell you about their lobbying efforts, but something there is in our state capitols (in Kentucky where I live anyway) that doesn’t value the university enough to power it. The percentage contribution of the state to my university is under 20% of the total budget. I don’t even know why they get naming rights any more.

  2. tellio says:

    Should have read above “under 20% of the university budget”. They actually cut us by 1% in a year where legislatures across the country were at least funding to the status quo.

  3. zevkirsh says:

    bryan your work is excellent. the real questions are what practical steps we can take to opening knowledge, rather than wishing politicians would pass fantasy laws that never happen because they are puppets.

    i am a believer in direct action.

    i am actually an attorney who has worked on patents and am entirely unsatisfied with the entire patent system, particularly the financial incentives that structure the legal industry to intentional increase the complexity and cost of the bearacratic process, as well well as incentivizing them to build walls at every stage, rather than not build them, let alone break them.

    i would love to speak with you about the patent process if you had time. i wonder if you every speak with lawrence lessig.

    anyways best of luck

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