University at Albany
A professor who frequently testifies against Monsanto Co. in lawsuits alleging harm from toxic environmental pollutants called PCBs says that after a Monsanto lawyer filed a records request with his university, the university barred him from campus and offered him a resignation deal.
“That was the very first thing that they gave me,” said the professor, David Carpenter of the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, regarding the resignation offer.
Monsanto, owned by Germany-based Bayer, said in a statement that it was “simply seeking information related to Dr. Carpenter’s research activities and their funding so that any potential conflicts are transparent and properly disclosed to juries, as well as to medical and scientific journals in which he has published.”
The resulting actions by the University at Albany may have given Monsanto more ammunition to make its case before jurors.
Two days after the Albany Times Union’s Feb. 5 reveal of Carpenter’s situation, Monsanto lawyers filed an emergency motion in an ongoing court case, asking a judge to let it do further legal discovery, such as depositions, into why the university was investigating Carpenter.
“Defendants learned via this article, for the first time, that Dr. Carpenter is the subject of an ‘ongoing disciplinary investigation,’ that he has been placed on ‘alternate assignment’ from the university and that he has been ‘placed on restricted duties’ as the university investigates ‘his extensive work testifying as an expert witness in toxic pollution cases,’” the lawyers for Monsanto and other defendants wrote.
“The particulars of the university’s disciplinary investigation of Dr. Carpenter, that defendants have just been made aware of through the Albany Times Union article, is critically material to the jury’s determination of Dr. Carpenter’s credibility and bias,” they wrote.
The case, in St. Louis (Mo.) County Circuit Court, pits New York’s Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe against Monsanto, which manufactured PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.
“The tribe and five individual plaintiffs brought suit against defendants, seeking over $3.1 billion in damages for alleged personal injuries, environmental harm, natural resources damages and damages to the tribe’s culture and way of life due to the presence of PCBs on or near the tribe’s reservation,” says a court filing by Monsanto and other defendants.
Those defendants counter that the “tribe failed to establish that defendants’ manufacture, marketing and sale of PCBs is the legal cause of the alleged harm” and “failed to establish that any tribal member sustained a physical injury that increases the risk of any claimed future disease.”
Carpenter told Inside Higher Ed that a majority of his research on PCBs’ health impacts has been from studying the effects on that tribe. He said this work goes back to the mid-1980s.
“Monsanto is trying to have me disqualified because of this UAlbany investigation,” he said.
Backing From Statewide Union
Frederick E. Kowal, president of the United University Professions union, which represents SUNY faculty members, defended Carpenter in a statement Saturday.
“UUP strongly and unequivocally supports Dr. Carpenter, a highly acclaimed academic at the University at Albany and a highly respected expert on the dangers posed by Monsanto around the country and the world,” Kowal said. “His credentials are impeccable and we will not allow him to be silenced.”
“We are working closely with Dr. Carpenter to ensure that his academic freedom and contractual rights are preserved and protected,” Kowal said. “We have stood with Dr. Carpenter from the start and we will support him throughout this matter.”
Carpenter—a tenured public health physician and professor, director of the university’s Institute for Health and the Environment, and a former dean of its School of Public Health—told Inside Higher Ed that in early 2022, Monsanto filed a records request regarding his financial arrangements.
Monsanto provided Inside Higher Ed a records request dated Feb. 24 of last year, in which a lawyer requests, among other things, documents showing “Funding, payments, scholarships, compensation or donations made to any students, researchers or staff at the university in connection with any consulting services or expert testimony provided by Dr. Carpenter related to PCBs, including but not limited to payment of tuition and living expenses of such students or researchers.”
“The university just freaked out at that point,” Carpenter said. “Why? I don’t understand, but, you know, maybe two months after that FOIL [Freedom of Information Law request] I was called into the HR office, told I was being placed on an alternative assignment.”
Carpenter said he’s a good expert witness because he can say he doesn’t accept money himself for that work, but rather uses it to support students and staff.
“I think Monsanto wanted to find out whether it was really true,” he said.
“They have never accused me of anything,” he said of the university’s investigation. “In one early memo, there was a statement that made me understand that the allegation was that I was using university facilities for an outside consulting business.”
The university didn’t provide an interview Thursday or Friday.
“The university does not comment publicly on personnel matters,” university spokesman Jordan Carleo-Evangelist wrote in an email. “However, we can confirm that Dr. Carpenter remains employed at UAlbany, continues to serve as the principal investigator on his research grants and to advise Ph.D. students and was expected to teach this semester until the class was canceled because it did not meet the minimum enrollment threshold.”
“All University at Albany faculty are permitted to testify as expert witnesses consistent with applicable laws, regulations and policies,” he wrote. “The university has an obligation, however, to ensure that all research centers and other entities affiliated with it are operating consistent with state and federal laws and regulations, as well as SUNY and SUNY Research Foundation policies and procedures.”
When asked what specific regulations Carpenter allegedly violated, Carleo-Evangelist wrote that his reference to laws, regulations, policies and procedures “is not a comment [on] a specific situation but an acknowledgment of the university’s general, standing obligation to comply with the laws, regulations and policies that govern our operations—an obligation that exists regardless of the parties involved.”
But Carpenter provided documents to Inside Higher Ed suggesting what the university is concerned about. He said the university presented them to him in the last couple of weeks.
“During our counseling session,” one document reads, “we discussed that the university is aware that you are currently engaged in the outside activity of expert witness consulting in connection with external litigation unrelated to the University at Albany. Such consulting activities are outside the scope of your job duties as a faculty member within the School of Public Health and director for the Institute for Health and the Environment. The Office of Human Resources initiated an investigation focused on the business and financial transactions of the institute, and you were placed on an alternate assignment beginning May 27, 2022.”
It says he must, among other things, “immediately refrain from using your university position or university resources in connection with your outside engagement and activities for the personal gain of yourself or others” and “immediately refrain from utilizing university students or staff in furtherance of your outside activity/engagements on university or Research Foundation time.”
Another document that Carpenter says the university is asking him to sign asks that he acknowledge that “at any time should the University at Albany or Research Foundation determine, in its sole discretion, that the plan is not sufficient to guard actual or apparent conflicts of commitment or is otherwise not in the best interests of the university, the university may determine the conflict is not capable of management and may ask David Carpenter to either adjust the outside commitment or to not to pursue the conflicting activities while an employee of University or Research Foundation.”
“This clearly is an adverse impact on my academic freedom,” Carpenter said, “and is just totally unacceptable.”
He said he and the university are now at an impasse.
He said the proposed resignation offer was given to him at the end of May. It asks the 86-year-old professor to waive, among other things, his right to sue over age discrimination.
“I’m not going to retire under pressure,” he said.
Monsanto lawyers aren’t the only ones saying they weren’t aware of Carpenter’s situation until the Albany Times Union reporting. Sydney Faught, the university’s Faculty Senate chair, said she read about it in the paper, too.
Faught wrote in an email that, last week, “the other Senate officers and myself had asked executive leadership about the situation and they indicated that they could not comment on or discuss personnel matters but stated that David remains employed and has not been barred from serving as an expert witness, nor from teaching, nor from advising students. They also indicated that a class he was scheduled to teach during the Fall 2022 semester was canceled because the number of students enrolled was below the minimum threshold for offering the class.”
“I have had a few conversations with concerned colleagues,” she wrote. “From those, I know that a letter of support has been created and is being shared so that those who wish to express support for David can sign on. The link for the letter, as well as the link for a petition that has been created, are available via a website that has been created to support David.”