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Editorial: LSU left with egg on its face over termination of professor

Last Modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 5:17 PM

The saga of an LSU professor who was terminated after criticizing a federal agency for its design of New Orleans levees may be finally coming to an end, but not before it has raised new questions about how the university handled the case.

Ivor van Heerden, the deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center, made headlines shortly after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005. He claimed that much of the disaster could be blamed on poor levee design and construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Van Heerden blamed breeches in the levees along the 17th Street and Industrial canals on ‘‘catastrophic cultural failures’’ caused by either bad engineering, design, construction or foundation. His assessment differed dramatically from the corps, which cited water topping of the levees for the levees’ failure and fatal flooding.

In 2006, van Heerden authored a book, ‘‘The Storm: What Went Wrong and why During Hurricane Katrina: the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist.’’

The LSU professor was removed from the deputy director’s position and, in 2009, the university decided not to renew his contract as a faculty member.

Van Heerden sued the university shortly thereafter. The two sides reached a tentative agreement earlier this month to settle out of court. Terms of the agreement were not released.

However, emails and other evidence that were entered into evidence prior to the settlement reveal that LSU and state officials attempted to muzzle van Heerden shortly after his criticism of the corps.

In one email, Randy Hanchey, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, told Sidney Coffee, executive assistant for coastal activities in Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration, that LSU President William Jenkins should be asked to ‘‘get his staff under control.’’

Coffee emailed Robert Twilley, director of LSU’s Wetland Biochemistry Institute, that van Heerden was ‘‘grandstanding’’ and that it must be stopped.

Additional emails also indicate LSU officials were contemplating terminating van Heerden less than five months after his critique.

Roy K. Dokka, director of LSU’s Spatial Reference center and Center for GeoInformatics, complained in an email that van Heerden’s views were sullying LSU’s reputation and that van Heerden had to be reined in.

Michael Ruffner, vice chancellor of LSU’s Office of Communications and University Relations, later responded to a New York Times story about LSU criticism of van Heerden, denying that the university had tried to silence the professor. However, three months after Katrina, Ruffner told van Heerden to direct all news media requests for interviews to the university’s communications staff.

As these emails have surfaced, LSU may need to order a peck of towels to wipe the egg of the university’s face.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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