Friday, May 22, 2009

Politics: What's Wrong with Arizona State?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On 13-May, United States President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. However, unlike at the other two universities where he gave speeches--including his controversial speech at Notre Dame--Obama did not receive an honorary degree at Arizona State. This strange decision is yet another in a line of odd executive decisions that have led some to ask what is wrong with institution.

In his speech (read the full transcript here) Obama actually embraced the logic of Arizona State's decision--that his most important work was yet to come. In his normal conciliatory manner, Obama used that as a theme of his speech to graduates, saying their most important work was also yet to come.

Whether true or not, the optics of the decision were terrible. Few civil rights activists have forgotten that Arizona voted in a 1990 proposition to not observe the Martin Luther King, Junior holiday, well after it had been proclaimed a Federal holiday starting in 1986. With that history, many feel that Arizona has a special responsibility to be supportive of civil rights (or face repercussions like the relocation of the Super Bowl that occurred in 1991), and having a public institution seem to slight the first African-American President of the United States was not the way to uphold that responsibility.

Administrative issues at Arizona State that have been thought to be political issues have been in the news before. I distinctly remember a controversy in 2006, reported in Chemical & Engineering News, in which Chemistry professor George R. Pettit had his research group fired by the university. The university claimed it was because Federal funding had been lost. Pettit and several of his colleagues complained that the university was trying to gain control of his research, which had done under the auspices of the Pettit-headed Cancer Research Institute since 1975. They claimed the university wanted the research, which included several promising drugs in clinical trials, under the university's new Biodesign Institute. Less charitable outsiders claimed that the move was downright political, even precipitated by the anti-science bias of the Bush administration, with the university making it impossible for the group to order the chemicals it needed for research and hence make meaningful grant applications. The consensus among scientists seems to be that whether the move politically motivated or not, Pettit was being academically violated and his work had been significant. The Journal of Natural Products was so impressed with Pettit's work that they dedicated an issue to his work in 2008. Peace was apparently reached since Pettit is still teaching courses at Arizona State.

It's hard not to see a pattern here. The administration at Arizona State is apparently either blind or doesn't care about how their decisions look outside or even inside the university. I'm not familiar enough with the institution to understand how that came to be, but as a general rule, when administrations act in such an unconstructive manner, it means they believe they are above accountability. The citizens of Arizona, through their legislature, likely need to do something about that, or Arizona State University's reputation will suffer more from future hard-to-explain decisions, and I won't be the last to ask, "What's wrong with Arizona State?"

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