About a month ago, over 1,000 people first started signing a petition lobbying for the return of Nutritional Sciences 200: Vegetarian Nutrition, a former course taught by Prof. T. Colin Campbell, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field. The petition claims that Cornell’s abrupt removal of the course and refusal to disclose an explanation was “clearly a violation of academic freedom.”
The course was pulled back in 2005, and Campbell has spent the last few years attempting to settle the matter internally with the University.
“The course was terminated with no consultation with me … and without allowing me to seek the opinion of the curriculum committee who originally approved it on behalf of the faculty,” Campbell explained. “I did everything possible to resolve this from the inside.”
Still, he received no information. However, he does have some ideas as to the reasons behind the abrupt decision.
“The person who did this was a major consultant to the dairy industry … and the direction of my research for the past four decades has many unfavorable implications for a number of industries.”
The “person” Campbell is referring to is Cutberto Garza, the director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences when the course was canceled but has since moved to Boston College as academic vice president. According to Alan Mathios, dean of the College of Human Ecology, course catalogue decisions ultimately lay in the hands of department directors — in this case, Garza. Garza has been a consultant for a number of companies, including the Dannon Institute, one of the world’s most prominent dairy lobbying groups.
Although Garza could not be reached for comments, the current Division of Nutritional Sciences Director Patrick Stover said, “The decision to no longer offer the course was made for educational reasons and has absolutely nothing to do with the division’s alleged ties to the dairy industry.”
Campbell contends, however, that he knew from the onset that his course’s advocacy for a plant-based diet would receive opposition.
“In 1994 [the year of the course’s creation] I received pressure from people who were concerned about this course,” Campbell said.
Prof. Dale Bauman, animal science, for instance, sent a letter explaining his unease and suggested that Campbell only proposed the course for animal rights reasons. According to Campbell, Bauman copied this letter to multiple parties.
“One way to try and discredit someone doing legitimate but unpopular research is to say that what they are doing is part of the animal rights movement,” Campbell said. “It’s a very sensitive issue. That was not at all my reason for beginning the course. I was making a case based on scientific research that my colleagues and I had published extensively.”
This research is outlined in Dr. Campbell’s four-time national best selling book, The China Study, which presents a case for nutrition as a serious science well beyond the China project itself. The project was the first cooperative study between the United States and China and was at that time considered to be one of the largest and most comprehensive medical studies in history. The two-and-a-half decades of research examines the relationship between food and illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Back in the mid-1990s when Campbell’s research was just gaining significant publicity, a private organization offered to fund a course on his research if Campbell would teach it. Campbell’s former students were thus privy to his groundbreaking discoveries. They studied his manuscript, engaged in lively discussion and met with numerous renowned guest lecturers to receive alternative perspectives. According to Campbell, the elective course began with about 40 students and climbed to 90. The roster was always full.
After years of conflict over the popular course’s cancellation, Campbell was ready to “look the other way,” but two of his colleagues remained unwilling to give up. Both of these colleagues are Cornell graduates, one of whom took Vegetarian Nutrition. Thus the petition was born, and received by many willing proponents.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of best selling book Eat to Live and father of a current Cornellian, said of Campbell, “His experience is completely unequaled, and to think that somebody of his expertise is forbidden to teach a course at Cornell is just astounding.”
The creators of the petition are hoping to gain at least 4,000 signatures. Once this occurs, Campbell is not quite sure what will happen. He is, however, resolved to making people aware of this issue.
“This decision was made by a single administrator. That is the most egregious breach of academic freedom I’ve ever seen in all my years of academia,” Campbell said. “I’m very interested in getting that out to other faculty because if this could happen to my course, it can happen to others — and those principals are not ones that Cornell was founded on.”