Fracking discussion continues

Faculty Senate, UB Council respond to community criticisms

On October 2, 2012

  • Nathan Buckley, left, and James Holstun, right, stand holding signs in protest of UB’s Shale Institute at Tuesday’s Faculty Senate meeting. Aline Kobayashi///The Spectrum

Protesters holding hot pink signs stood outside UB's Faculty Senate meeting on Tuesday at the Center for Tomorrow at 3 p.m.

Members of UB's Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UBCLEAR) handed out materials to the incoming faculty senators, calling for "academic integrity and transparency."

UBCLEAR has been requesting the university fully disclose the founding, funding and governance of UB's controversial Shale Institute since August, when UBCLEAR wrote a letter against the institute endorsed by 83 faculty members. The group's support has grown to include over 600 community members.

During the Senate meeting, English professor James Holstun intended to hand a petition signed by over 600 New York State citizens to President Satish Tripathi, who was present at the meeting. 

Faculty Senate Chair Ezra Zubrow said Holstun could not do so. If he wanted to give the petition to Zubrow he could, but no one else.

"Since this is not the office of the president or the provost, if you would like to give it directly to the president or the provost, I have to ask you to make an appointment and give it to them directly and not do it here," Zubrow told Holstun.

Zubrow then stated, "I'm not making it open for discussion."

Holstun handed the petition to Tripathi once outside the meeting, on public grounds. The president then took it.

The petition calls for the suspension of the institute until the public is provided full disclosure, an independent investigation and public discussion regarding the Shale Institute.

UB's Faculty Senate is the elected official representative body of voting faculty members. The Oct. 2 meeting was the first of this year.

On Monday, the UB Council met for its first meeting of the 2012-13 school year. Both UB Council and the Faculty Senate discussed issues facing the university community - namely the legitimacy of the Shale Research and Society Institute (SRSI) and its first report - and the new developments across campuses.

UB Council serves as the primary oversight and advisory body to the university, Tripathi and UB's senior officers. The nine members are appointed by the governor of the State of New York, and one student member is elected by graduate and undergraduate students.

In both meetings, Provost Charles Zukoski addressed faculty and community concerns about the founding, funding and governance of SRSI. He read a prepared statement to the Council and subsequently answered any questions members had.

On Sept. 12, the SUNY Board of Trustees passed a resolution to investigate SRSI. UB has since sent all requested information to SUNY and will provide any other resources if asked, Zukoski said at the UB Council Meeting. 

Holstun thinks the information sent to SUNY should be made public.

Zukoski stressed, in both the Faculty Senate meeting and at the UB Council meeting, SRSI received no industry funding, despite what he called "misinformation" from the media. He outlined UB's academic integrity policies and explained how SRSI has disclosed all appropriate information, including sources of funding - which came solely from the College of Arts and Sciences and its discretionary funds.

The April 2011 Marcellus Shale lecture series received $5,000 in industry funding from the Independent Gas and Oil Association (IOGA) of New York. The series was not a part of the institute; the institute was an idea generated from the series, founded a year later, and IOGA's money does not fund SRSI.

Holstun feels the lecture series is not truly separate from SRSI.

During the Senate meeting, Holstun said he thinks the university can take the steps to make sure "a problem like this" does not happen again.

"It does seem to me that some mistakes have been made, but from these mistakes can come an opportunity for really improving the university [and] improving our practices," Holstun said.

Zukoski emphasized that even though SRSI did not receive any industry funding, it would be normal if it did. He cited several UB institutes and centers that receive industry finding - the Humanities Institute receives funding from Microsoft, the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition gets funding from the United States Postal Service and the Center for Computational Research is funded in part by IBM, to name a few - and such groups are required to release financial reports stating all funding sources.

He said industry ties never invalidate scientific findings, and UB is in the midst of setting up a committee - headed by Vice President for Research and Economic Development Alex Cartwright and Faculty Senate Chair Ezra Zubrow - that will provide advice on university practices and policies related to research, scholarship and publication across disciplines.

Members from UBCLEAR have also been contacted to participate in discussions with this committee, which Zubrow described as a debate.

Zukoski also said SRSI has not been questioned by the scientific community and no scholars have found problems with the actual findings of the report - just the legitimacy of the institute and its funding is in question by the media, community and some faculty members.

The Council hasn't found any problems with SRSI or its founding, funding and governance. Robert Brady, a councilmember and director of National Fuel Gas Company, remarked that - from the perspective of a member of the oil and gas industry - UB has "it covered" and should forge ahead and answer any other unanswered questions from the community.

"Just because something is controversial, it doesn't mean you shy away," said Christopher O'Brien, a councilmember and UB law school lecturer, in response to claims that fracking is a controversial practice UB should not research.

In addition to addressing the current questions regarding SRSI, Zukoski also gave the Council an update on UB 2020 and other university briefings. Tripathi provided similar information to the senate members on Tuesday.

University enrollment, including both undergraduate and graduate students, is up to almost 30,000 for the 2012-13 school year; last year's enrollment was 28,680. This year's freshmen class has increased by about 400 students, without a change to the average SAT and ACT scores of admitted students. This means the student body is growing without sacrificing academic excellence, according to Zukoski.

Forty percent of the incoming freshmen class has signed on to UB's new Finish in 4 program - the university's promise to help students finish a degree within four years. Subsequently, UB has added 12,000 seats and 10,000 credit hours to core classes - mostly within the College of Arts and Sciences - in order to help students take all required classes on time. New adviser-tracking software has been implemented, allowing students' transcripts to be available across departments to best help students with advisement needs.

Graduate enrollment is slightly lower this year and is mostly affecting the law school and graduate school of education. This is mostly due to tighter controls and regulations on enrollment (meaning UB does not wish to give up academic standards for enrollment numbers) and national trends (fewer students are entering these fields), according to Zukoski.

UB has hired 85 new faculty members, but number of faculty is ultimately down. Eighty faculty members are lost each year to retirement or other reasons, according to Zukoski. With the tuition increases provided by NYSUNY 2020 - 8 percent each year for five years - the university will be able to hire 250 new faculty members. UB is currently determining how to best recruit new faculty and retain them.

The next UB Council meeting date has yet to be announced; the next Faculty Senate meeting is Nov. 6.



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