WVU Tries to Distance Itself From Its Faculty's Research

Coal industry has criticized school over MTR studies

Charleston Gazette
7 October 2011
By Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia University on Friday asked the news media not to use the phrase "WVU study" to refer to research by university faculty members, saying the findings of academic papers don't reflect the position of the school.

In an email to the Gazette-Mail, WVU spokesman John Bolt said the request to news media "was not developed in reaction to any particular research being conducted on campus."

Bolt said a new university "statement" about faculty research was intended as "an effort to explain the role of research at an institution such as WVU and clarify that the institution itself
  takes no position on the findings -- except in the sense of supporting a researcher's right to do research and reach supportable conclusions.

"The findings of any particular research project do not reflect -- nor should they -- any particular opinion or position of the university itself," Bolt said in the email.

The move comes as a series of peer-reviewed papers by a WVU faculty member about mountaintop removal's potential negative public health effects are receiving widespread media coverage and intense criticism from the coal industry.

Over the past four years, Michael Hendryx, an associate professor in the WVU Medical School's Department of Community Medicine, has co-authored at least 19 papers that examine associations between high rates of illnesses and living near coal-mining operations.

Most recently, Hendryx co-authored papers that found significantly higher rates of birth defects among residents near mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachia and high rates of cancer among residents near such operations along the Coal River Valley in Southern West Virginia. Another paper, published in July, found high rates of poverty in the region clustered around major surface mines.

The work has been covered by a variety of media outlets, from a nationally televised CNN documentary to the National Public Radio environmental program "Living on Earth."

Hendryx has been harshly criticized by the coal industry. One industry lobby group hired a consulting firm to try to discredit his work, and an industry law firm alleged that any increased birth defect rate in Appalachia could be related to inbreeding among the region's residents.

Also for WVU, Hendryx's boss, community medicine director Alan Ducatman, is leading a team of university faculty members who have published a series of papers about the impact of the toxic chemical C8, made by DuPont Co. in Parkersburg, on human health.

Ducatman is acting dean of WVU's planned School of Public Health, and university officials have issued statements praising his work providing "assistance to communities, government agencies, courts and others in the evaluation and assessment of health risks associated with environmental hazards and industrial operations."

WVU has promoted some of the Hendryx and Ducatman studies, issuing news releases that sometimes referred to a particular paper as a "WVU study."

In Friday's email message, Bolt asked news reporters to instead use phrases such as "a study conducted at WVU" or "a study by [a] WVU faculty member" when referring to any university research findings.

Bolt did not return a phone call and indicated in an email that he would be unable to provide answers to written questions by the Gazette-Mail's Friday evening deadline.

Martin Snyder, a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors, said there's nothing wrong with faculty or institutions trying to make clear that the conclusions of research papers are not necessarily the positions of the universities themselves. However, he said, WVU's strategy for doing so is a bit unusual.

"I don't remember seeing a university doing that before," Snyder said, "but I'm not sure there's a huge problem with it."

Snyder said WVU officials apparently "have some level of discomfort" with some research findings being published by university faculty members and want to emphasize the findings don't represent WVU's institutional views.

"It's clear they want to have that distinction observed," Snyder said. "Faculty members often do research that embarrasses the institution or embarrasses donors."

The new WVU statement says faculty members at the university "have an obligation and responsibility to conduct research.

"It is part of WVU's mission as a land-grant university to gather and analyze data and then contribute this analysis to inform the discussion and understanding around various issues affecting the lives of West Virginians and others around the world," the statement says.

"WVU's research strives to be data-driven, objective and independent," the statement says. "It is not influenced by any political agenda, business priority, funding source or even popular opinion. WVU faculty follow accepted academic practices, and those research findings are subject to intense review and challenge by academic peers -- including review of data sources, methods and analysis.

"This doesn't mean everyone agrees with the findings, but assures the process followed to reach those findings is valid and unbiased," the statement says. "Accordingly, WVU stands behind its researchers' quest for knowledge as they help society address the issues which confront it."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.