THE BLOG
04/05/2013 09:43 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

The High Cost of Suppressing Academic Freedom at Louisiana State University

Within days of Louisiana State University's settlement in a lawsuit filed by one of its professors, sordid details became public detailing the suppression of academic freedom and the excessive amount of money the flagship university spent in fighting the case.

Documents from a Public Records Request made by Levees.org reveal that LSU spent nearly a million dollars fighting a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed in 2010 by coastal researcher and New Orleans hero, Ivor van Heerden.

Dr. van Heerden claimed that he was fired for statements in his post-Katrina levee investigation funded by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, namely that the Army Corps of Engineers' faulty levees caused the flooding during Katrina in 2005; statements which were subsequently confirmed by other investigative studies.

The first revelation in the case came in mid-February when LSU and the Louisiana Office of Risk Management paid a settlement check to Ivor van Heerden - who was also former deputy director of the now shuttered LSU Hurricane Center - in the amount of $435,000.

Shortly afterward, as reported in Baton Rouge's lead newspaper, emails were obtained revealing an apparent alarming and very early plan to muzzle Dr. van Heerden because he rightly blamed the corps for most of the flooding during Katrina.

For example, two weeks after the catastrophic flooding, Sidney Coffee, Gov. Kathleen Blanco's executive assistant for coastal activities and chairwoman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority emailed Robert Twilley, director of the Wetland Biochemistry Institute at LSU's Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science, about of Dr. van Heerden's comments to the media:

"This is astounding and must be stopped!! This is grandstanding at its worst. This is not helpful."

Roy K. Dokka, director of LSU's Spatial Reference Center sent an email Oct. 24, 2005, to Michael Ruffner, vice chancellor of LSU saying that LSU,"will remain in third rate category unless the 'cowboys' are (reined) in."

It is interesting to note that Dr. van Heerden's early conclusions turned out to be based on an accurate research effort and were eventually corroborated by other subsequent major studies. As reported yesterday by the New Orleans Times Picayune,

"...Similar conclusions were reached by a second independent team of scientists and engineers underwritten by money from the National Science Foundation, which was led by University of California at Berkeley engineering professors Robert Bea and Ray Seed. The corps eventually came to similar conclusions, after the completion of a more comprehensive forensic evaluation by the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, appointed by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense and involving more than 150 scientists and engineers...."

Now, as revealed in documents obtained last week, we find that the law firm Kantrow Spaht Weaver and Blitzer received more than $457,000 over a course of 2 1/2 years from LSU to fight the good doctor's whistleblower lawsuit.

The settlement and the payments to Kantrow Spaht totalling more than $892,000 do not include payments that LSU paid its own staff spent in complying with court orders, subpoenas and depositions.

"Here we are in the midst of a "budget crisis" and threatened cuts to higher education yet we are going to spend a million dollars on ego," mused Jill Craft, attorney for Ivor van Heerden. "Someone needs to be held accountable."

We note that the issue is not the accuracy of Dr. van Heerden's statements. The issue is, why was the contract for this Golden Boy non-renewed, a man who saved lives due to his pre-Katrina predictions of major flooding in a direct hit from a hurricane?

Dr. van Heerden claimed LSU fired him because upper level people were worried that his conclusions would cost the school future lucrative grants from the Army Corps.

"LSU has chosen to hound a faculty member, to engage in secrecy and cover-up tactics, and to try to save face by engaging in a quixotic legal quest that it rightly lost," wrote Dr. Kevin Cope, President of the Faculty Senate at LSU. "[This] leaves one wondering how many more millions will pass through the courtrooms before reaching the classroom."

A study by the Association of American University Professors published 2011 which focused on Van Heerden's firing, and a second unrelated firing, determined that LSU had a 'prevailing position' on the cause of the New Orleans flood, namely that the flooding was an unavoidable act of nature. Van Heerden's conclusions, wrote the authors of the study, ran contrary to that position.

It is strange that LSU had a 'prevailing position' at all on what has been called by experts to be the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.

"I am very critical of this tactic used by LSU to take faculty cases like this to court and stretch them out for years, said Ravi Rau, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at LSU. "Most, who are not like Ivor, would have to give up, and this only allows such behavior to continue."

Initially, Levees.org's public records request was improperly fulfilled and included remuneration to Kantrow Spaht only from August 2011 to February 2013. Last week, Levees.org filed a new request for the missing information. David W. Boggs from the Office of General Counsel for the State of Louisiana quickly responded and apologized for the error. "The first payments were entered under a slightly different name", wrote Boggs in an email.

The tale of LSU vs Ivor van Heerden is now over, and it can only be hoped that other universities around the nation sat up and took note. Academic freedom is still alive and well in America.

Click here for Dr. Kevin Cope's full statement.

LSU vs Ivor van Heerden