What cost academic freedom?

Academic freedom. Where is the line, or is there a line? The controversy surrounding a University of California economics professor who has aided a foreign government in a trade dispute with the U.S. grows increasingly bigger with the promise of a “full examination” of not only his actions, but that from another economics professor who has been hauled into the same rancorous firestorm.

Former USDA chief economist and later undersecretary in the department, Daniel Sumner, now director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, was hired by the Brazilian government to formulate a challenge of the federal cotton farm program in a dispute before the World Trade Organization (WTO). At the recent National Cotton Council's Beltwide Cotton Conference in San Antonio, NCC president Mark Lange also implicated Iowa State University's Bruce Babcock in the same dispute, claiming Babcock has helped Sumner in formulating Brazil's WTO case against the U.S. Lange also accused Babcock, and indirectly Sumner, of unethical use of data developed for the U.S. Congress by the University of Missouri.

Lange was incensed and promises a full attack on his two fellow economists.

Academic freedom seems to be a very broad brush that allows anyone with a doctorate on the payroll of the state of California or the federal government as an academician to do and say whatever they please under protection of scientific research.

However, there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

When you take a paycheck from an employer, that employer has the right to make employment conditions. My employer tells me that I may not write articles for any other publication while I take a check from Primedia. That is a reasonable condition of employment. When an engineer takes a paycheck from General Motors, he is forbidden to design automobiles for Ford.

When a professor takes a check or funds from the state or federal government, taxpayers have a right to similar expectations.

The academic freedom aside, what Sumner and Babcock have done shows amazingly bad judgment. They may have a right to their views and to disseminate their academic research, but to do it for a foreign government is ludicrous. No one says Sumner is not free to make his views and research known. It could very well change U.S. farm policy, but to allow a foreign government to use it in an attempt to change U.S. policy is wrong.

What they also have done is put their fellow university researchers in economic peril. To this point, California agriculture has been told the university will do nothing to stop Sumner from practicing his academic freedom.

The industry has replied that it has the freedom to withhold or withdraw research and scholarship funds, coming at a time when the university can ill-afford to lose funds. Blackmail? Retaliation? Freedom of choice?

We do not know Babcock, but are aware of Sumner and the work he and agricultural issues center economists have done. Growers say it has been valuable. However, it will be a long time, if ever, before Sumner or the center is asked to work for an agricultural group in California.

The only one that stands to win in this is Brazil and if it does, it will be a very high price for academic freedom.

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