Let me put this in context. I am a “Coug” – through and through.  I went to Washington State University, getting degrees in Political Science, Economics and English in 1982.  I served four years on the Pullman City Council (first student, and at 19, the youngest ever).  I received an “outstanding alumni award” in 1996 and served eight years on the University Board of Regents, one as its President.   I was even profiled in Washington State University Magazine – “Food Fight.”  Although I married a University of Washington Husky, it was only after paying her way through school.

So when I read Kevin Graman’s article in the Spokesman Review – “Regent balks at WSU book choice – Selected book eyed impact of agribusiness,” shock and sadness where my first emotions.  Now, I just feel embarrassed – but hopeful – Washington State University – say it isn’t so.  Let’s figure out how to get Michael Pollan back on campus.

So, here is what happened according to Mr. Graman:

A book chosen by a Washington State University committee as appropriate food for thought for all incoming freshmen will not be distributed at summer orientation after a member of the board of regents raised concerns about the work’s focus on problems associated with agribusiness.

4,000 books had already been purchased by WSU. However, now according to the WSU Website:

Instead of distributing the current selection, [Michael Pollan’s book] ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ at the Alive! summer orientation sessions as was previously done, program staff will contact faculty to ascertain whether they wish to use the book in their classes, and then will arrange for distribution.

According to Mr. Graman, “[t]he decision not to distribute the book at orientation was made by WSU President Elson Floyd and Provost Warwick Bayly…. We just simply decided to streamline the distribution process,” Floyd said Wednesday. We encourage faculty to use it as part of curriculum.”

However, another reason for pulling the book and the invitation is to be found at A Livable Future Blog:

President Floyd and Provost Bayly also cited the cost of bringing Mr. Pollan to Pullman and the WSU campus:  This is just one of scores of hard decisions that have been made in recent weeks to address the $54 million cut in our biennial state appropriation. As you well know, this austerity has forced us to reduce or eliminate a number of programs and positions. Reducing the scope of this program — including not bringing the author to campus and avoiding speaker’s fees and travel, facilities, and event costs — will save an estimated $40,000.

In a slightly different spin on the reasons for not having Mr. Pollan come to campus, Scott Carlson of the Chronicle of Higher Education, cited “Mary F. Wack, vice provost for undergraduate education, [as saying]that the university has taken a $57-million budget cut from the state, which is a reason for a reduction of scope of the common-reading program. She also said that the changes were requested by students, who asked to have the common-reading books integrated with courses.”

However, was there another reason? According to Mr. Graman of the Spokesman Review, the real answer might be political more than financial:

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. Cochran did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. But fellow regent Francois X. Forgette said Cochran had read the book and raised concerns, though the topic was never formally discussed at board meetings.

Scott Carlson of the Chronicle seems to support that politics trumped lack of finances:

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.

So, was it political or was it financial?

I have an idea!  To show that it was not political, I will pay to get Mr. Pollan to Pullman and find a place for him to speak – I’ll even introduce him.  My hope is that it was not political, because the following quote is what Washington State University – in being a “Coug” – is all about:

“It strikes me that the real value of the university is basically the way it serves the public, researches without fear and favor and being a place where issues can be aired, which are by nature controversial,” said Richard Law, the outgoing director of general education at WSU and a founding member of the common reading committee.

I have my checkbook ready.

  • Thank you Bill for raising attention to this unfortunate decision by WSU and for offering your checkbook to bring Michael Pollan to campus.
    As a 2004 WSU graduate with a B.S. in agricultural economics and a winner of the “Big Ten Senior” award for my campus involvement, my Coug credentials are similarly unimpeachable. Nominated for city council candidacy and for the WSU board of regents, I also served as president of the Student Alumni Connection, chair of the Compton Union Board, member of the Bookie board of directors, member of the Student Services & Activities Fee Committee, and student-faculty liaison in the Dept. of Agricultural & Resource Economics (among many other roles). I also started the annual “Game Shirt” which is now a campus tradition for the football season and helped start “Cougar Pride Days” – a week-long campus cleanup involving thousands of students, faculty, and staff.
    In other words, I’ve been substantially invested in WSU as an institution and its decision to withdraw Omnivore’s Dilemma from the summer reading list deeply saddens and worries me. This withdrawal sends the wrong signal to future students that our institution won’t foster intellectual curiosity and instead will bend to agribusiness’s wishes.
    I rather doubt the cost of the 4,000 books were the reason for withdrawing the book from the summer reading list. First, the books were already purchased. Second, the overall cost is not much. Third, I would not be surprised to discover that funding for the Common Reading program actually comes from the student Services & Activities Fee or other student-based funding.
    I am currently an lobbyist/advocate for an environmental non-profit in Oregon where I work to preserve working farms and provide safe, sustainable food, among a larger agenda to limit global warming, invest in renewable energy, protect rivers, and foster more product stewardship. Previously I served as the legal director for a statewide land use nonprofit based in Seattle.
    So it should be no surprise my positions are similar to Michael Pollan’s. However, Omnivore’s Dilemma is not revolutionary or outlandish, and Pollan’s arguments are not unreasoned or unreasonable. Mostly Pollan’s book is just supremely well-written – one the best pieces of non-fiction prose today that engages in critical thinking.
    If the agribusiness industry can’t handle the relatively tepid arguments in Omnivore’s Dilemma, then we really know just how mal-aligned our food industry has become.
    So as a poor non-profit worker, I can’t quite open my checkbook to get Pollan to campus. But I can lend my organizing capabilities. So I’ve created a Facebook Group to help organize opposition. Join up!

  • When we are afraid of opinions that make us uncomfortable that’s one thing (and I think something to pay attention to.) But when an Academic institution stifles or impedes discourse, that’s another.
    Boosters’ politics and board members’ personal financial concerns should never dictate nor proscribe curriculum and debate.
    Good for you on calling their bluff. If I were a betting woman, I’d say your money’s safe.

  • Jeff Sellen

    Thank you, Mr. Marler, for your generous offer. I am (was?) on the Implementation Committee for the Common Reading and was shocked and dismayed by this decision to cancel the program.
    Getting Michael Pollan to campus (or at least to Pullman) is an important step towards re-claiming WSU’s dignity. Given the tenor of the discussion at the last Implementation Committee meeting that I attended, I don’t believe that Pollan’s presence at WSU would be welcome. If that proves to be a roadblock, I have a suggestion. At times in the past, WSU professors have hosted a “Free University.” I think it may be time to resurrect the Free University. In the meantime, I have started a facebook site that is less protest than educational venue (though I do thank Brock Howell for organizing opposition. The site is called “WSU wants to have a serious discussion about food . . . . no, really:

  • Katie Kent

    Great work, Bill! I got an email about this issue and your blog was on here–didn’t even know it existed.
    Keep up the good work and love to the whole family.
    All best,

  • Well, if it was a political decision, it was just brilliant!
    Coming just as the movie Food Inc. starts making the rounds, that kind of intolerance will certainly solidify industrial agribusiness’s reputation as a giant bully, not to mention adding martyrdom to the already subtantial list of what’s so appealing about the slow food movement.

  • Tim Martin

    While having gone to school in California, I was married in Washington state (and am set to have a real cougar in my wedding this year). I believe it’s a very sad day when an institution of higher learning is afraid of a little thought for food, while claiming to promote food for thought. While I suppose the WSU brass would rather host “happy cows”, they’d have much better luck with Mr. Pollan as he actually exists, and doesn’t have to hide behind a state’s (California) exemption from truth in advertising laws. Invite, digest, then decide.

  • Bill:
    Thank you for drawing attention to this. Our organization–Food Alliance–is proud of it’s roots at WSU, and grateful for the work of many there to advance the cause of sustainable agriculture. That’s why this unfortunate decision is so disappointing. If we’re to realize a better vision for American agriculture, we must start by examining the challenges in the spirit of open, candid discourse.

  • Susan Schneider

    What a great initiative – very impressive! I will post an update to my blog on this issue (http://aglaw.blogspot.com) and also congratulate you on twitter. BTW, you sure have the technology down! Also very impressive –

  • Thank you, Bill.

  • Hi Bill,
    I just wanted to say you’re a rock star for making the financial offer to silence or surface the political agenda in academia. It’s upsetting to see such venal behavior and its chilling effect on learning the truth… but it’s after 1984 and now nearly impossible to find people that use grammar and concision to convey truth anymore, rather than euphemism and misdirection to conceal it.
    I’m neither a Coug nor any other relation to your firm or the University system in the northwest, but I wish you luck in your endeavor.
    Robert Hanna
    Founding Partner / Social Wealth Partners

  • Bill, I blogged about this, but it doesn’t seem to have tracked back to here, so here is the link: http://www.nilspeterson.com/2009/05/28/common-reading-open-learning-communities/
    Nice blog BTW.

  • Asaph Cousins

    Dear Bill Marler,
    Thank you for supporting Michael Pollan visit to WSU and having his book incorporated into the Common Reading Program.
    Asaph Cousins
    Assistant Professor
    School of Biological Sciences
    Washington State University