UCLA professor of 35 years suing to keep his job after challenging environmentalist status quo

Meagan Clark Contributor
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A University of California, Los Angeles research professor is suing the university to keep his job of more than 35 years after questionable management of his grant money and his termination, allegedly for exposing illegal and unethical practices among his colleagues and for criticizing their research.

Dr. James E. Enstrom’s peer-reviewed research challenged California’s status quo by contending that exposure to fine particulate matter, like diesel particles, does not kill. The majority of his colleagues believe the particles cause lung cancer and death, a popular belief that Enstrom said ignores evidence to the contrary.

Disagreements between Enstrom and the Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) department began years ago and is only now culminating in a lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Los Angeles federal court against UCLA officials and its board of regents.

Enstrom charged in 2008 that his colleagues exaggerated the adverse effects of particulate matter in order to justify expensive diesel fuel regulations to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Enstrom testified in the same year to the state Senate that the lead contributor to the CARB report, Hien T. Tran, paid $1,000 for his Ph.D. from a fake university, and members of a CARB panel had exceeded their mandated three-year term limits by decades.

Shortly after Enstrom revealed the misconduct, UCLA began sending him notices of termination and has refused to compensate him for more than a year’s worth of work.

“The facts of this case are astounding,” said David French, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice and one of Enstrom’s lawyers. “UCLA terminated a professor after 35 years of service simply because he exposed the truth about an activist scientific agenda that was not only based in fraud, but violated California law.”

Tran was eventually suspended for 60 days, and one professor who had served on the CARB panel for 26 consecutive years was removed and later put back on the panel. John Froines, who has publicly supported diesel fuel regulations, was on a committee that voted to dismiss Enstrom.

Over the past two years, UCLA cited four different reasons for denying Enstrom’s reappointment. Each time Enstrom defended himself to the university a new reason would be given: First, a lack of funding, then producing work that does not align with UCLA’s mission, then producing work that does not meet minimum research requirements and, finally, misclassifying himself as a research professor.

“Powerful evidence of discrimination is changing justifications for termination,” French said. “They kept looking for a reason and settled on research productivity.”

But Enstrom has published more research in the past five years than his average productivity the 29 years prior, when his department reappointed him annually, and his productivity matches or exceeds that of his colleagues.

Richard Jackson, UCLA’s EHS chairman, gave the “lack of funding” reason to Enstrom three months after the university charged his salary fund against his research fund, without Enstrom’s knowledge. UCLA never gave Enstrom the official accounting of his 2007-2009 funding records.

The UCLA’s Academic Freedom Committee, made up of professors and students, unanimously expressed concern in 2011 that the School of Public Health’s decision to lay off Enstrom “may represent a violation of academic freedom.”

Jackson was not aware of the lawsuit on Thursday. University lawyers had not yet read the complaints, but spokesman Steve Ritea said Enstrom was treated fairly in the university’s appeals process, and UCLA will strongly dispute his allegations.

“UCLA zealously protects the intellectual independence of members of our academic community and has long maintained that Enstrom’s political and scientific views and outside activities were not considered during his reappointment process,” Ritea said.

According to French, UCLA refused to allow Enstrom to present his full research to the appeals court. The core of this case, he believes, is the irony that UCLA has kept professors caught in unethical and illegal practices and decided to dismiss the professor who exposed them.

“If academic freedom means anything, it should permit a professor to challenge bad science and expose scientific misconduct,” French said. “Yet UCLA appears more committed to a political agenda than to free and open inquiry.”

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Meagan Clark