Friday, April 10, 2009

Killing Cassandra

It's like a scene out of the ruins of postwar Europe. There's a denuded landscape and desperation is in the air.

Desperate people are doing desperate things, among them women trading their virtue for greenback American dollars. Or nylons and Hershey bars. You need what you need, and you'll sell anything -- or anyone -- to get it.

Even one's soul. Humanity can be ugly that way.

The principle holds, even when the denuded landscape is merely financial and we're talking federal grants instead of Spam or candy bars. We all have our reasons for prostituting ourselves, but objective reality tells us nevertheless that a whore is a whore is a whore.

MY ALMA MATER, Louisiana State University, is a whore. For indeterminate reason$, but following year$ of official hara$$ment, it finally ha$ fired the Ca$$andra of Katrina -- profe$$or Ivor van Heerden of the L$U Hurricane Center. Van Heerden was the man who headed up the state's investigation into why New Orleans' levees failed during the storm, killing hundreds upon hundreds of people.

And he was the man who tried to tell people what would -- and did -- happen to the city if and when a storm just like Katrina struck. He was ignored then; he's been fired now.


THE REASON probably was
pretty well outlined in a 2006 New York Times article:

To many in Louisiana this outspokenness has made Dr. van Heerden a hero. But at his university it has gotten him called on the carpet for threatening the institution's relationship with the federal government and the research money that comes with that. Last November two vice chancellors at Louisiana State — Michael Ruffner, in charge of communications for the university, and Harold Silverman, who leads the office of research — brought him in for a meeting. As Dr. van Heerden recalled in an interview in Baton Rouge, La., the two administrators — one of whom controlled his position, which is nontenured — said that "they would prefer that I not talk to the press because it could hurt L.S.U.'s chances of getting federal funding in the future."

The administrators told him to work through the university's media relations department instead.

Dr. van Heerden regarded the meeting as a threat to his career. "I actually spoke to my wife about it that night," he remembered, "and said: 'Look, we need to recognize that I could lose my job. Are we prepared for that? Because I'm not going to stop.'"
HERE'S ANOTHER SIDE of that same story from Thursday's New Orleans Times-Picayune:
A version of Ruffner's letter also appeared in The New York Times, which prompted [hurricane center chief Marc] Levitan to demand a meeting with Ruffner to get a retraction and an apology on van Heerden's behalf. Although he does not have an engineering degree, van Heerden was granted a doctorate in marine sciences by LSU in 1983, and the research he had overseen at his health center was aimed at determining the potential for hurricane storm surge to overtop the New Orleans levee system.

"I brought a copy of Ivor's resume, showed him his background and degrees and a copy of the summary of the Team Louisiana contract that Ivor was appointed to head, " Levitan said Thursday. He also pointed out that van Heerden had issued his critiques of the corps as the director of the forensic investigation, which included a team of scientists and civil engineers.

Ruffner refused to retract the letter or apologize, Levitan said.

"At this point, Ruffner also mentioned to me -- and this was still in the post-Katrina environment when, every single day, hurricanes were front-page news -- that van Heerden was causing problems with the Hurricane Center and if he were no longer part of the center, things would probably be better for the Hurricane Center on campus, " Levitan said, "at which point, I told him to go stuff it and walked out of his office."

Levitan, still an engineering professor in the university's department of civil and environmental engineering, said he expects to be criticized by LSU's leadership for revealing his meeting with the chancellors to the media.

"But it's time for me to come to his defense, " Levitan said. "For someone who has done so much for LSU and the state, this is uncalled for."
IF LSU was that terrified of the threat van Heerden posed to its access to federal grant money during the fat times of 2006, imagine the panic and paranoia running through Thomas Boyd Hall now the state is gutting the school's budget during the Depression of Aught Nine.

Obviously scared enough that the non-tenured van Heerden, who also was removed as deputy director of the Hurricane Center, will be gone when his contract is up next spring. Again, the Times-Picayune:

Also, engineering professor Marc Levitan has stepped down as the center's director. University officials say they will reshape the center's research direction in the wake of the moves.

Van Heerden will remain director of the LSU Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, financed by a $3.65 million Louisiana Board of Regents Health Excellence Fund, until his LSU contract ends next year.

LSU officials have refused to address the van Heerden decision, citing the school's policy of not commenting about personnel matters.

"Legally, we're not allowed to comment on any kind of personnel action, " said spokeswoman Kristine Calongne. "We're bound by confidentiality of our employees."

Van Heerden said the university would not give him a reason, either. David Constant, interim dean of LSU's College of Engineering, told him the decision "wasn't due to my performance. But he couldn't tell me why," van Heerden said.
WELL, IF IT WASN'T due to his performance, and if van Heerden hasn't been arrested for something, that narrows the range of what we're to think, now, doesn't it?

And I think the LSU administration is standing on the rubble-strewn street corner, wearing its best come-hither face and saying "Hey, Uncle Sam! You gotta some nylons, I gotta some. . . . (winks)"

The cost of this institutional prostitution will be high, primarily for the long-suffering residents of Louisiana. By all accounts, the LSU Hurricane Center -- and van Heerden -- had been doing yeoman's work, in addition to gaining favorable attention for the university. Furthermore, it is without doubt that the center's work and van Heerden's post-Katrina quest -- if allowed to proceed unhindered -- would have saved many lives.

Would have. Because, you see, that work and van Heerden's quest have just been hindered by the university. One that allegedly exists in the public interest.

And, really, since when have Louisiana's government and its public institutions been all about the public good?

SOME MIGHT SAY Ivor van Heerden's firing is just par for the course at a crooked little school in a crooked little state. I'd suspect they're probably right. I'd also suspect that a lot fewer Louisianians will care about this LSU personnel matter than care passionately and obsessively about who's in and who's out at the LSU Athletic Department.

If Les Miles gets fired because LSU can't win enough football games, the only losers are Miles and the boosters who have to ante up to buy out his massive contract. But if the university is going around firing environmental scientists and "reshaping" its hurricane center's "research direction" because it doesn't like the inconvenient truths LSU scientists unearth, that's going to get somebody -- or a lot of somebodies -- killed.


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