There are questions about UCLA’s suspension of the ecologist

Why was Priyanga Amarasekare kicked out of her science at UCLA? A scientist’s viewpoint on the university’s code of conduct

The precise allegations that led to her suspension are unknown. UCLA has declined to release them, and barred Amarasekare from discussing the matter publicly. There are no secret tensions between the university and the city. Originally from Sri Lanka and one of two women of colour who have tenure in UCLA’s ecology and evolution department, Amarasekare has previously accused the university of discrimination for repeatedly denying her promotions that were granted to colleagues. Former students and faculty members who are familiar with the situation think that Amarasekare’s suspension was retaliation for speaking out.

Nature spoke to several former students and faculty who were present at the hearings. Although no one knew the specific details of the charges against her, they all thought she was targeted for speaking out against what she saw as discrimination in the department. They said that she was upset about her experience at UCLA and used an e-mail list serve to discuss things of racism and discrimination following George Floyd’s death.

“That’s why she got into trouble. She ended up criticizing pretty much the entire department — with good reason,” says Marcel Vaz, an ecologist at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who was a graduate student in the department at the time. He and others came to support her. “We demanded some explanation,” Vaz says, “but we never got any feedback.”

Peter Kareiva, a former UCLA faculty member who spoke on Amarasekare’s behalf during the administrative proceedings, calls her a brilliant scientist as well as a terrific teacher and student mentor. At a faculty meeting, Amarasekare raised uncomfortable issues and challenged internal policies. He says she might have made mistakes in terms of “facilitating harmony” among fellow faculty members, but that her goal was always to improve the department.

According to documents obtained by Nature, the University of California, Los Angeles has a faculty code of conduct, which was broken by an ecologist named Priyanga Amarasekare. The committee recommended she be given a letter of censure and five years of probation. UCLA chancellor Gene Block instead issued much harsher penalties, including a one-year, unpaid suspension that effectively stranded her research projects and cut off communication with her students.

The documents received by Nature — including the letter of censure — contain no accusations of academic misconduct or illegal behaviour, and instead focus on personnel and procedural issues.

Most current students declined Nature’s requests for interviews and one student spoke out on the condition of anonymity because of fear that they would be retaliated against.

Privacy regulations prevent it from discussing personnel matters, which is why UCLA refused to discuss the contents of documents seen by Nature or the arguments of critics. Block declined to be interviewed or to answer questions regarding his handling of the case.

The university raised questions about the report that was smilng to remove names, allegations and testimonies, which was obtained by Nature. The unauthorized release of such a report is likely to present an incomplete and misleading characterization of proceedings. , the statement says. The university supports freedom of expression and does not condone any kind of reprisal.

In August 2020 she wrote to the group that she knew of a department that preached diversity and inclusion while doing things like exclusion and suppression.

The e-mail was greeted with broad support from students and postdocs — as well as some discomfort. Current and former students said that she was sincere in her intentions, but she was criticized by some for her criticism of the department for appointing three white faculty members to the racism task force.

Some observers think the case points to a bigger problem in academia. Even though professors have the right to complain about discrimination without fear of reprisal, universities can argue that whistle blowers are troublemakers who ignore the codes of conduct, according to the Wefel Center for Employment Law at St. Louis University.

UCLA said academic promotions are based on evaluation of teaching, scholarly research, and service, and that they don’t include any mention of the findings of the report.

Johnson and ecology department leaders ultimately advised the graduate students — two of whom are in their fifth year and preparing to graduate — to find new advisers and dissertation projects. Unable to publish their research or ask for letters of recommendation from Amarasekare, they feel abandoned, says the student who spoke to Nature. Johnson did not reply to the request for comment.

A compromise solution was tried by Kurt Anderson, an ecologist with the University of California,Riverside and one of the students’ external advisers. He says that it was always rejected in the strongest of terms.

The graduate students remain stuck five months after writing to the chancellor, according to the lab member who spoke to Nature. “Nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed.”

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