A Tale of Two Controversies… or Really Only One?

Michael Mann. Photo credit: Popsci

by James A. Bacon

There is a fascinating sidebar to the Teresa Sullivan firing/rehiring at the University of Virginia that has gone unremarked upon in the Virginia press yet has inspired articles and blog posts among journalists and commentators following the Global Warming debate, including, recently, the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom.

The question is this: Was the Board of Visitor’s move to demand President Sullivan’s resignation linked in some way to the decision to hire or not to hire climatologist Michael Mann to UVa’s Department of Environmental Sciences?

Robert P. Geraci, a UVa history professor, explored the connection in an article published by the Guardian. Before getting to his article, let me first provide some background.

Teresa Sullivan

While employed by the University of Virginia, Mann authored the highly controversial “hockey stick” graph that purported to show a dramatic increase in average global temperatures in recent years, thus supporting the claims of many scientists that human-induced climate change was accelerating. During his tenure, Mann also engaged in correspondence with other Global Warming alarmists — and I use the word “alarmist” in the kindest sense, as in, he is alarmed by Global Warming (GW). Some of that correspondence subsequently was made public in the so-called Climate Gate scandal, which revealed how scientists in the Warmist camp conspired to suppress the views of skeptics. Mann later decamped to Pennsylvania State, where he continues to teach environmental science. A number of investigations have cleared Mann of wrong-doing, although GW skeptics ridicule them as biased and incomplete.

In April 2010, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli requested UVa to hand over Mann’s email records, as part of an inquiry to see if he had committed fraud in the conduct of state-funded research projects. Many observers hoped for, or feared, that a data dump would reveal a mother-lode of emails in the same scandalous vein as Climate Gate. UVa officials refused. Cuccinelli’s quest for the Mann emails subsequently was picked up by the American Tradition Institute by means of a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now, back to Geraci’s narrative… In 2011, UVa’s Vice Rector Mark Kington and his wife donated $1.5 million to endow a chair in “environmental change.” That gift was matched by a contribution from UVa alumnus and hedge fund investor Paul Tudor Jones. In the spring of 2012, the Department of Environmental Science attempted to rehire Mann as the first Kington professor. That choice by a four-person search committee was confirmed by a majority of the department’s faculty members. Here’s where it really gets juicy. Writes Geraci:

But Mann never received an offer. According to a source in environmental sciences, the dean of UVA’s college of arts and sciences, Meredith Woo, refused to approve it. Such an intervention is a rare event. The department chair later revealed that Woo had indicated even before the vote that she would oppose hiring Mann. Some department members went over the dean’s head and appealed to Provost John Simon, but Simon supported the dean’s decision. (In June, Simon appeared to co-operate with the board, before switching his support to the protesting faculty.)

In protest, Geraci writes, an unnamed climate change researcher resigned.

It was soon thereafter, in June, that the UVa Board of Visitors demanded Sullivan’s resignation. By that time, Sullivan had spent $600,000 contesting the email requests. The Mann matter was never mentioned in the board’s official pronouncements, nor in any of board member emails uncovered through the FOIA process. Instead, the board cited Sullivan’s unwillingness or inability to craft a strategic plan that addressed pressing challenges facing the university, most notably online learning. However, two of the most vocal proponents of change were… Mark Kington and Paul Tudor Jones.

Coincidence? Geraci thinks not. “The possibility of a relationship between the two scandals, no doubt, warrants close investigation. Those who assume that the June coup was only about online education or business models because those concerns appear in board members’ emails need to remember that no communication bearing on personnel matters (either Sullivan’s or Mann’s) is subject to FOIA disclosure.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I am no fan of Mann’s, as faithful readers of this blog know. While his work may or may not be scientifically valid — I lack the credentials to judge — I do feel safe in characterizing him from his writings and interviews as an ideologue and a  blowhard. I fully support ATI’s right to access his email, and I am resentful of the University’s expenditure of $600,000 to block the FOIA request. (For what it’s worth, about $100 a year, I have ceased donating to my alma mater for this very reason.) Furthermore, I was one of the few commentators to support the Board of Visitors assessment of the “existential threat” facing UVA, even if I did not approve of the shabby manner in which Sullivan was treated.

Be that as it may, I cannot help  but share Geraci’s suspicion that there was a tie-in between the Mann matter and Sullivan’s hiring. The coincidence of timing and the involvement of both Kington and Jones seems too extraordinary to attribute to mere chance. Of course, coincidence does not constitute proof. But my instincts as a journalist tell me that there is more to the story than has been revealed so far. And the story is far too important to go untold.

Update: In response to reader feedback I have deleted any mention of a widely made claim that UVa turned over the emails of GW skeptic Patrick Michaels in response to a Greenpeace FOIA request. The University of Virginia denies the claim. Unable to independently verify it, I therefore omit it.

25 Responses to A Tale of Two Controversies… or Really Only One?

  1. re: “alarmist” in this context is a pejorative that poisons objectivity.

    re: ‘fraud’ in research

    .. fine and dandy if your policy is to investigate any/all state-funded research but highly suspect when you pick research that you disagree with.

    that’s what we have to look forward to (among other things) if the Cooch becomes Gov.

  2. There is a huge subtext to all this on the anti-firing side, most of it is political, and I too would not be surprised if that political taint does not run both ways. Unfortunately, it’s part of human nature. And here what disturbed me the most initially was the appearance of possible outside influence on the board.

    (note to Larry – see my reply to your questions re Potomac Bridges in article now below the radar.)

  3. Jim,
    This seems very much of a stretch. What’s next? Benghazi?

    Also, didn’t Kington resign from the BOV? Was Sullivan pushing for Mann to be rehired?

    Also, I know you are an Anglophile but I wouldn’t get all dreamy about Brit journalism.

    Waaay too many unconnected dots.

    • I’m not drawing any conclusions. I’m just saying that the coincidences are remarkable. I don’t usually buy into lefty conspiracy theories, but I think the matter bears looking into.

      • By the way, I thought you liked lefty conspiracy theories. I’m disappointed in your skepticism!

      • What coincidences? Both at UVA? Similar time periods? You could find thousands of coincidental (in time) events at UVA. Someone is clutching at straws here.

        Re the $600,000, what about Cuccinelli wasting time and expense? How many of these grandstanding lawsuits has he won? Is the University supposed to give up its academic principles because some crazy nuts want to pounce on some informal, untoward and out-of-context comments that they can incorporate into their fundraising materials (that appeal to their crazy right wing, antiscience, conspiracy nuts)?

        • The Cucinelli fishing expedition was a sideshow. The real action was with the ATI FOIA request. UVa reportedly coughed up Patrick Michaels’ emails to Greenpeace without so much as a whimper. Upon what principal — other than the fact that the university doesn’t like crazy, right-wing, antiscience conspiracy nuts — did it refuse to yield Mann’s emails to ATI?

          • Jim,

            “UVa reportedly coughed up Patrick Michaels’ emails to Greenpeace without so much as a whimper.”

            This is directly contradicted by the University of Virginia:
            “Q. Did U.Va. give Michaels’ emails to Greenpeace?
            A. No. After a series of emails and narrowing of the group’s request to reduce its costs, and a letter confirming what the amount of those costs would be, U.Va. heard nothing more from Greenpeace.”
            http://www.virginia.edu/foia/climatechange/

            This seems to be a widely reported myth. Throwing in this, apparently false, implication that UVa have treated Michaels and Mann differently is diverting from the real issues. Unfortunately it’s one of those things that gets repeated so many places that people assume it’s true.

            I’ve also seen the followup argument that they would have coughed up Michaels’ emails if only Greenpeace had been willing to pay. This also is contradicted by UVa’s letter to Greenpeace which states:
            “we still will have to review individually a large volume of e-mail to determine whether: 1) the e-mail is responsive to your request; and 2) the e-mail is subject to an exemption under FOIA or otherwise; and 3) the University is prohibited from disclosing the e-mail by state or federal law. Please understand that the University will not release records that are protected from disclosure by law or for which a FOIA or other lawful exemption applies.”

            I’ve not seen any evidence that they have taken inconsistent approaches between the two cases.

          • Tim, Thank you for supplying this information. I have deleted the reference to the Michaels email in my original post. I apologize to readers for repeating this claim without conducting independent verification of it.

          • Here are relevant passages from the UVa statement referred to by Tim Osborn above:

            In December 2009 the University of Virginia began receiving requests under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for emails of Mann and retired professor Patrick Michaels. The requests came from individuals and organizations on both sides of the climate change debate, and the University responded to all of them consistently and in line with the requirements of the Act. In all cases in which records were requested, the University agreed to search for the documents but also sought to recover the costs of searching for and providing the records, pursuant to the law and consistent with University policy.

            The requests to U.Va. picked up considerably after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued Civil Investigative Demands (CIDs) to the University in April 2010 seeking much of the same information that previously had been sought through FOIA. U.Va. challenged and continues to challenge the CIDs in court on grounds that have nothing to do with access to documents to which the public is entitled pursuant to law.

            Published accounts of the University’s response to these FOIAs have perpetuated two persistent misstatements of fact: (1) that the University was hiding the emails of Mann, who has published research supporting the idea that climate change is partially caused by human activity, and (2) that the University “handed over” emails from Michaels, a retired member of U.Va.’s environmental sciences faculty who is now a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and who has been skeptical of human-influenced climate change.

            Here are the facts:

            When the first request was made for Mann’s emails in December 2009, the University performed a thorough search of central email archives and concluded that Mann’s emails were no longer stored in them. This was not a surprise as normal procedure is that a faculty member’s email is purged when he or she leaves the University. In the course of researching records potentially responsive to the CIDs, which were broader than previous records requests, the University discovered a previously unknown surplus computer stored in the environmental sciences department that retained electronic documents relating to Mann.

            The University recognizes that faculty emails composed, sent, and retained in the conduct of official University business are public records under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. (Of course, many public records under Virginia law are nonetheless subject to exemptions that ensure compliance with confidentiality, privacy or other state or federal laws and requirements.) U.Va.’s challenge to the CIDs in court is on grounds that are not related to access to documents under FOIA. …

            Q: Why did the University initially state that it had emails for Patrick Michaels but not for Michael Mann?

            A. The difference relates to the policies for faculty who retire from the University (e.g., Michaels) and those who leave to take other positions (e.g., Mann). Retired faculty such as Michaels may retain their email accounts upon their request, but the accounts of those who resign to take positions elsewhere, such as Mann, are supposed to be deleted after they successfully transition to their new institution. …

            Q: Did U.Va. give Michaels’ emails to Greenpeace?

            A. No. After a series of emails and narrowing of the group’s request to reduce its costs, and a letter confirming what the amount of those costs would be, U.Va. heard nothing more from Greenpeace.

          • I appreciate you correcting the record but sad to say, more and more, people are repeating information that is false rather than verifying it prior and this feeds on itself as more and more folks reference the sites that provide the un-verified false information.

            You can verify this yourself by keying in information that has been proven false – into GOOGLE and see all the sites that have repeated it as if it is fact.

          • Thanks for the follow up emails. I’d note that the $600,000 that you object to was in defense to the fishing trip, sideshow Cuccinelli grandstanding lawsuit, so isn’t your complaint with the Attorney General’s wasteful spending? And not with UVA. When we look at all of the information presented by UVA in your follow ups, it appears that UVA was pretty blameless, and that the whole thing was blown up by ATI as a publicity-fundraising ploy. I wonder how much the bosses of nonprofit ATI get paid?

          • re: fiscal conservatism vs social conservatism

            see that’s the thing now days about many who self-identify with the GOP.

            If there is a burning social issue – then the fiscal conservatism takes a back seat – is basically forgotten while the culture war stuff is litigated.

            Take a look at how the Cooch (and many others) operate these days.

            They say they want small, efficient government but then look at HOW they want to USE government in social issues.

            and the bigger, more disturbing thing now days is how history is recast and now even how current events are recast – and re-broadcast among those who want their biases confirmed….. rather than actually seek the truth.

    • Peter,

      You’re making a big mistake to dismiss this so easily.

      If you read my article carefully you’ll see that I never claim that there’s enough evidence to draw a conclusion (as James says too). But there’s MORE than enough suggestive (circumstantial) evidence to warrant pursuing this angle with more research and questioning. And then, quite likely, the dots will get connected. At least people know now that there ARE dots to connect — I was appalled that no one in the press had reported what happened to Mann at U.Va., and virtually no one even mentioned the existence of the Kington chair. That was a story in itself (and possibly a followup to the larger story about Cuccinelli’s witch-hunt), and would still be a worthy story even if someone were to prove that it had no bearing on Sullivan’s firing.

      So should I have waited until I had a smoking gun to publish this? Some publications I pitched to seemed to think so. But I’m not a professional journalist, I’m a historian, and don’t really want to devote my whole life to this (it already took up my whole semester). There are plenty of cases in which journalists publish pieces of evidence as they find them, and they may build on each other’s investigations. Why not in this case? Maybe on my own I could have made a definitive case, but maybe by then Cuccinelli will have been elected governor, maybe the Env Sci department would have hired a compromise candidate who would then occupy the Kington chair for the next 25 years. And maybe the Board would continue to do damage to U.Va. I’m still hoping that investigation on this might avert all of that.

      Yes, Kington resigned from the board. But not out of dissent. Dragas’s reaction to it in the press practically confirms that he did so because he was the central figure responsible for firing Sullivan. “It’s unfortunate that Mark Kington personally felt the need to resign over an action that was a Board decision.” In other words, I know that he felt it was mostly his fault, but we had agreed to share responsibility collectively.

      I can’t prove (yet) that Sullivan supported the Mann hire. Rumors say she did, although I don’t know how reliable they are. But it’s completely plausible that she might have supported it, and even enthusiastically. She did defend U.Va. against Cuccinelli’s lawsuits because she felt strongly about the academic freedom angle.

      This is not a stretch at all. Two strange personnel occurrences within 6-8 weeks of each other at the same institution, involving some of the same people. It’s a bigger stretch to think that the conflicts arose from independent conflicts and just happened to coincide as they did, than it is to look into whether they sprang from the same conflict. A version of Ockham’s razor, I suppose.

      I urge you, if you have any more points to dispute or question, to ask me for more information or clarification. The article isn’t very long, but it’s about a fairly complex chain of events — so along with all the preconceptions people may have about the topic, there’s lots of opportunity for people to misinterpret or to not see the connections. Also, I thought about all this for months, and wrote (and rewrote) the article itself over a period of over a month. If you knew me, you’d see that I am relentless in whatever I write with posing counter-arguments to myself and making sure that my arguments can sustain them. So far, every person who has contacted me with doubts about the PLAUSIBILITY of the connection between the two events (which is all I’m trying to convince the reader of) has revealed also that they misunderstood or misinterpreted something in the article.

      Bob Geraci

  4. lefty conspiracy theories?

    jesus H. keeerist!

    what next? Romney named Commerce Secretary?

    • Larry,

      Yes, I suppose you could say that what I wrote is a leftist conspiracy theory.

      Look at all the writing on Sullivan’s firing. Even if they don’t use the word, most people agree that it was a conspiracy (and that’s exactly why so many people at U.Va. found it objectionable)– it was undertaken secretively by a small group of people who will still not explain why they did it. (People like you who throw around “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative need to remind yourselves that conspiracies do exist from time to time– you shouldn’t talk about them as if they are unicorns or Santa Claus.)

      And when the people who engage in a conspiracy fail to explain themselves, and the press fails to find the explanation, then it is perfectly reasonable for other people to make theories about what happened — as long as they understand that they are theories, and not yet the truth. If you don’t first formulate some kind of theory (call it a scenario if you want) you might miss certain clues. And that’s exactly what just about everyone did before I published my piece.

      Finally, as to whether this is “left wing.” Well, who would have thought that academic freedom and support for faculties’ academic authority in university governance would be considered a leftist cause as opposed to a politically neutral one? You can’t blame it on “leftists.” And of course recognizing climate change and supporting the people who study it — if that’s a “left wing” cause, so be it, but it’s only because the right-wing has taken such an idiotic stance in questioning and denying it. (Yes, I know there are scientists who question and deny as well — but if you think that the scientific evidence is Republicans’ motivation for questioning and denying, as opposed to their political and economic motives, then perhaps I could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.)

      RG

      • @Geraci – I acknowledge that there ARE …. REAL Conspiracies and there may well be one here… on more than one level…

        but : ” (People like you who throw around “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative ”

        when I see the election polls claimed to be a “liberal conspiracy” then I know we’re dealing with overboard paranoia…

        and I use it for both sides…

  5. Got Koch Brothers angle? Otherwise, forget it!

  6. paleeeze … not yet another fly-by-night blog site spouting conspiracy nonsense! Do you never learn?

    why would anyone in their right mind put any stock in something written by ” Das Krapital”?

    How about a little bio on the author?

  7. Teresa Sullivan has some strong opinions. Beyond co-authoring two books with none other than Fauxchohontas herself (Elizabeth Warren), Sullivan locked horns with Bob McDonnell back in 2011 when Sullivan wanted to increase tuition so that she could give out more scholarships to poor students.

    I would imagine the leftist Sullivan has had a number of run ins with what I must assume is a rightist Board of Visitors.

    Re-hiring Michael Mann would have been just another example of something Sullivan may have thought to be a good idea that would have been very much opposed by some on the board.

    Her employment contract was only for five years. I don’t expect to see it renewed when it expires.

  8. so the culture war witch hunt continues……

    • I am not sure why this qualifies as either “culture war” or a “witch hunt”. Dr. Sullivan has attempted to use her position as President of the University of Virginia as an activist in the causes she espouses. As I understand it, she felt that she should have the authority to set the number of scholarships for economically disadvantaged students. Bob McDonnell felt this was a matter for elected officials and not an appointed university president since the number of scholarships impacts the tuition rates at a public university.

      Michael Mann is a very controversial figure – especially at UVa where he originally developed his “hockey stick” graph that set the United Nations all atwitter. There is substantial evidence that Dr. Mann and his colleagues are willing to operate in a very “un-academic” manner when it comes to what gets published and what does not. Whether he “doctored” the data is debatable, at best. However, where he represents the kind of open-minded thinking required at this time is less debatable. Re-hiring Dr. Mann would have needlessly fanned the flames of political passion. It would have been a net negative for UVa.

      The Board of Visitiors should have expected liberalism from Dr. Sullivan. One they started to get liberalism, they should not have been surprised. If they were surprised, I can only assume that they failed to “do their homework”.

      Hopefully, the fracas with the BoV will remind Dr. Sullivan that she was hired to run the university, not reform the Western World. Hopefully, it will also inform the BoV that a public university is not a toy for their personal amusement.

      Meanwhile, the person coming out of this in the best light is Gov. Bob McDonnell. His threat to fire the entire Board of Visitors if they didn’t solve the “crisis” made him look decisive. The board’s reinstatement seems to have calmed everybody’s emotions down to a reasonable level. His reappointment of Dragas ensures that the BoV maintained some credibility as an authoritative body.

      The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond pursued their usual strategy of “hide in plain sight”. Despit having education committees comprised of 37 of the 140 members there was no cohesive statement from our General Assembly.

      Now, tell me again – why can’t governors stand for one consecutive re-election while members of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond can run forever?

  9. re: witch hunt

    re: ” Dr. Sullivan has attempted to use her position as President of the University of Virginia as an activist in the causes she espouses.”

    really” “use” her position? sez who? that sounds like something any
    University President might pursue – in fact a principled position.

    so why is this deserving of a subsequent witch hunt to hound her out of office?

    this is what has happened to us.

    God Forbid – a University President might have a different view of Global Warming than the AG. that alone justifies some kind of
    an “investigation” to ascertain if the University and employees have engaged in “fraud” in their research.

    I won’t tell you what GMAFB means but this is CLEARLY a witch hunt and now we are finding out how it worked. How many future UVA Presidents will be able to operate without looking over their shoulder every time they express an opinion or NOT when someone wants them to?

    and the accreditors are “out of bounds” in questioning how “governance” is being accomplished?

    ha ha ha… this is comical.

    we have a blame society and now we have witch hunts to track down and extract retribution for the miscreants …..

    this is what Bill O”Reilly and FAUX news and allies have “contributed” to our society…. no doubt that that we will soon be treated to more horrible revelations about Sullivan – that she is a closet secular progressive masquerading as a University President.

    Oh the outrage and agony.

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