odToo hot for freshmen?

EVEN MORE UPDATES: Now that the NYT has weighed in, I guess it’s fair to say this story broke through to the mainstream. I’ll spare you all the assurances from WSU that this Bill Marler-funded resolution proves that the driving issue really was financial. In my view, Marler graciously provided a fig-leaf to a university administration that was very much caught by surprise that anyone would have ever noticed what they’d done. There remain too many bits of evidence that the book was originally canceled due to political pressure. Indeed, Spokane’s newspaper even claims to have identified the culprit:

That political pressure apparently was brought to bear by a member of the board of regents, Harold Cochran, who disapproved of the author’s characterization of agribusiness. Cochran owns and operates a 5,500-acre farm near Walla Walla, is a founding stockholder in the Bank of the West in Walla Walla and is a member of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

There likely wasn’t a Big Ag conspiracy (althought what does this say about Walla Walla?). It was all caused by few people who thought they could fly under the radar and keep an irritating book out of circulation on campus. But reality, or rather the Internet, intervened. I leave you with none other than Pollan himself to put this whole scandale littéraire into perspective. Said he to the NYT:

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Holding a common reading program “at a land grant university is especially important because we are in the midst of this national conversation about the future of food and agriculture, and land grant universities have a critical role to play,” he said. “That’s why this really mattered to me.

UPDATE 5/27 9PM EST: It’s official WSU announces that it “will reinstate the original plan for distribution of its Common Reading book, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ as a result of a private contribution to support the program.” Nothing like a little help from your friends.

UPDATE 5/27 8PM EST: The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that WSU has taken up food safety lawyer and alumnus Bill Marler on his offer to pay the costs of bringing Michael Pollan to the WSU campus to speak about Omnivore’s Dilemma. Marler, on his own blog, also claims that all 4,000 books will be distributed as planned.


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So much for academic freedom — at least where books about our industrial food system are concerned. It’s hard to believe this really happened, but according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the president at Washington State University canceled a “common-reading” for all incoming freshman of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma due to political pressure budgetary constraints. Really:

An explanation on the university’s Web site is vague and implies the withdrawal of the book was due to budget constraints. But some people on the campus say that the university, which has a prominent agriculture college, bowed to pressure from agribusiness interests.

They also question the budget argument, noting that the university has already purchased more than 4,000 copies of the book. …

Many people connected with the common-reading program were evasive; either they did not return calls or insisted that they could not talk about the issue.

And while there were reports that Pollan was proving too expensive to bring as a speaker (thus implying his greed was a factor in the cancellation), others observed that there was never any money budgeted for events — the cost of the books were the only expense. In other words, all the money that was to be spent HAD BEEN spent (on the books).

And if you still have any doubts that it was political, I offer this passage:

In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, Patricia Freitag Ericsson, an assistant professor of rhetoric and professional writing who also sits on the implementation committee, said that in a meeting on May 4, an administrator told panel members that the common-reading program would be canceled, in large part because of political pressure arising from this year’s book choice. Members of the committee were upset. She says the committee was also told that potential books for next year’s common-reading program would be sent to the provost, who would make the selection.

Letting the provost dictate such details is an excellent idea. Best to let a grown-up, preferably one with a firm sense of which “political pressures” to bend to, decide what books are safe to read. University faculty do have an awful tendency toward a dangerous intellectual curiousity coupled with a suspicious openness to new ideas. We certainly wouldn’t want young minds to be overthrown by “revelations” about the world they inhabit. Oh, and did I mention that Washington State is a land grant institution? Personally, I’m going to take this as a harbinger of good rather than of doom. Book banning and censorship are a declaration of intellectual bankrutcy after all. If that’s what Big Ag thinks it needs to do to win, then they must be even more desperate than I thought.

UPDATE: Parke Wilde at US Food Policy gets the skinny from some WSU colleagues. And the Ethicurean points out that UC-Berkeley has assigned the Omnivore’s Dilemma for ITS incoming freshman.