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

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.