American Society For Nutrition

Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Posted on 11/18/2009 at 04:55:09 PM by Student Blogger
By: Caitlin L.

I am a student, hence my role here as a student blogger.  I love the academic environment and the fact that I am surrounded by people just as passionate about learning as I am.  I love the opportunities I am given, the people I am able to meet, and the ideas they contribute.  I work on campus in an environment where the goal is to embrace new research, yet last week I was reminded that there are some in this population who fear change and innovation. 

My campus' Sustainable Agricultural Resource Consortium sponsored an event in conjunction with its annual Sustainability Fair and invited UC Berkeley Journalism Professor and well-known author Michael Pollan to come and speak at a fundraiser.  Also scheduled was a free, open to the community talk during the day.  I admire Michael Pollan's writing style, his lyrical voice, and his ability to lay out food and agricultural issues in such a way that people from many different backgrounds want to listen.  I never thought of him as “controversial” because for the most part I agree with most of what he says, and many of the people I surround myself with have also embraced his thoughts.   Apparently he is much more controversial, especially within the College of Agriculture.   Some agriculture students even began a facebook page in protest of his visit to Cal Poly, calling Pollan a “radical, anti-agriculturalist”.

When the Harris Ranch Corporation caught wind that our campus was hosting this talk, they threatened to withdraw a pledge they had made to donate $500,000 to build a new meat processing facility for the College of Agriculture, if Pollan were to lecture “unchallenged”.  To appease the corporation, the event was changed from a lecture format to a panel discussion.  We were told that when Pollan heard about the controversy, he suggested the change in format in order to include a variety of voices.   Pollan participated on the panel with two other speakers: Myra Goodman the co-founder of Earthbound Organics, and Gary Smith, the Monfort Endowed Chair in meat science at Colorado State University.

Had I not known about the controversy surrounding the event, I would have walked away believing it to be a great educational experience.  But instead, I like many others, remain extremely concerned that a public university was influenced by money; that the sense of freedom in a diversity of beliefs was threatened and censored by a voice seemingly more powerful than that of the collective student body.  “Diversity (both biological and intellectual) breeds resistance to withstand shocks to the system”, Pollan said as he addressed the issue of sustainability.  In other words, the growth and development of any system or organization is extremely dependant on innovation and change, and on not automatically accepting the status quo.  That is science.  Pollan asserted that he is not anti-farmer, as many of his opponents like to paint him, but he is interested in changing our current agricultural system.   He is also the first to admit that he is not an expert in agriculture or nutrition, and does not have all the answers.  Finding those answers is our job as researchers in an academic setting.  

If a public university falls under the control of one point of view it threatens the exchange of new ideas, something exceedingly important when it comes to the state of our food and our health.   Many have called this move by the Cal Poly administration a “censorship of academic freedom”, though a school- wide email sent by the president of the university claims otherwise.  It seems important to share this in a community such as ASN that prides itself on research and innovation.  The Nutrition world is constantly changing as most of us are aware, and there will be times when our research will speak against a common belief and may become controversial.  We cannot be afraid to share our knowledge, even in the face of tradition and opposition.  “Resilience is achieved by diversity”, Pollan stated, and as nutrition scientists looking to improve the quality of lives of others we cannot forget that.

3 Comments
Posted Nov 20, 2009 8:21 AM by Karen Cardozo
As most of us know, Pollan's ideas are controversial among nutrition scientists. I for one think that making the discussion more diverse through including others on the panel was a good idea, regardless of the uproar that instigated it. How was the Q&A?

Posted Dec 01, 2009 4:52 PM by Caitlin

Hi Karen-

Yes- there are some things, specifically Pollan's views in "In Defense of Food" on nutrition science that I agree are controversial in terms of nutrition science and our input, and I did not agree with some of them as I read them. But I do agree with his views in "Omnivore's Dilemma", specifically on the need to restructure our food system, and on a need to create sustainability within the system that also benefits the health of the population as a whole, and this is what the Q & A dealt with. It was an interesting discussion, with an audience of diverse backgrounds, and I enjoyed it. I only wish it didn't feel that the university had been strong-armed into a decision. That unfortunately is what sat in the back of my mind throughout the discussion.


Caitlin- amazing article! you are so talented!