Michael Pollan should have been the only man on stage when he came to speak at Cal Poly regarding farming sustainability last Thursday. After all, that was the original agreement when the Sustainable Agriculture Research Consortium decided to bring him to campus.

Instead, the bestselling author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was forced to share the stage with a hastily assembled panel, which was formed to balance out the “significant backlash” that would come with giving him center stage, according to Cal Poly dean of agriculture David Wehner in an LA Times article.

While the hot topics surrounding Pollan’s appearance should have been sustainable farming practices, the real issues turned out to lie beneath the environmental hype. Instead of focusing on what Pollan had to say, the buzzwords changed to money, speech, ideas and the censorship thereof.

Instead of being left to  consider how the Cal Poly community, both individually and collectively, can lead a more sustainable way of life, Cal Poly is left with the reality that the higher-ups will turn to cover-ups when it might cost them a pretty penny.

It’s true that some people find Pollan’s ideas to be too radical. But as a university, Cal Poly shouldn’t shy away from presenting controversial ideas to start discussion. Throwing together a panel with people who don’t come close to having Pollan’s sort of recognition made the university look silly. More importantly, it called into question the university’s commitment to new ideas and its faith in students and faculty to make their own decisions when it comes to heated topics.

Harris Ranch C.E.O. and Cal Poly alumnus David Wood, who threatened to take back some of his hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts to Cal Poly over the event, has criticized Pollan for being “against conventional agriculture.” It was partially this criticism that prompted the powers that be to place Pollan on a panel.

But as a respected agricultural school, Cal Poly shouldn’t equate a well-known and highly-respected voice for agricultural reform with two people who represent the old system, one that already has a huge voice on this campus. With something as important as food, progressive ideas should be taken seriously when they’re presented instead of getting lost in half-hearted attempts to give equal press time to old ideologies.

The fact that Wood was upset enough over Pollan’s planned one-hour presentation to “reconsider” a several hundred thousand dollar donation should make one wonder what exactly made him feel so threatened. His extreme reaction prompts a deeper look into who gives Cal Poly money and what influence they have over speech on campus. Members of the Cal Poly community should be wondering what other times ideas were suppressed to make a big donor happy. How many other times has President Baker received threatening letters and changed the agenda at the last minute in order to save face or funding? As students who picked this university to spend four years of our lives learning, we should be wondering how often ideas are quieted to keep donors happy.

Obviously, outside funding and community support are good things and money allocated toward specific programs is beneficial for university enhancement. But it should be expected that donors will sometimes disagree with what happens on campus. Furthermore, money that comes at the expense of transparency should never be welcomed.

When this happens, the people with the money are the winners, while everyone else is left in the dark as to what’s really going on. Just because Baker’s letter correspondence with a big donor hasn’t leaked before, doesn’t mean similar conversations haven’t occurred over other ‘controversial’ speakers or events. All Cal Poly community members, from freshmen to the (not-so-famous) alumni should be suspicious about what’s being concealed.

Cal Poly is often criticized for not being an ideologically-progressive school and for hiding behind terms like ‘diversity’ while doing little to progress ideas across the campus. Not only does this event add to that harmful image, but it begs the question of how much further along Cal Poly would be in terms of goals like diversity and sustainability if more ideas were given the opportunity to flourish.

Baker released a statement last week to offset some of the controversy, in which he defended his decision of forming the panel, saying “I believe the panel discussion served our students well and cannot even remotely be considered a disservice to academic freedom, a core value that I have dedicated my entire professional life to protecting and defending.”

While academic freedom is an admirable thing to aspire to, the leaked letters beg to differ.

Instead of bowing to the power of money, Baker should have stood up to the big agribusiness bullies and refused to let their strongholds on agriculture transfer into a stronghold on ideas on campus while hiding behind terms like “free speech” and “diversity.” Censored speech isn’t free, even if it comes with a half-million dollar gift.

Michael Pollan put it best this weekend in an LA Times article.

“The issue is about whether the school is really free to explore diverse ideas about farming,’’ he said. “Is the principle of balance going to apply across the board? The next time Monsanto (a multinational agricultural corporation) comes to speak at Cal Poly about why we need (genetically modified organisms) to feed the world, will there be a similar effort? Will I be invited back for that show?”

I doubt it.

Emilie Egger is a history and English senior and Mustang Daily editor-in-chief.

Join the Conversation


  1. It’s ironic the Mustang Daily would play the “free speech” card when assessing the ramifications surrounding Michael Pollan’s speech. What puts an interesting spin on the entire affair is the fact that Pollan was paid $5,000 to make a speech which in reality was nothing more than a PR plug for his book.

    If Pollan was presenting his ideas at no cost, than the beef industry should have had no issue. Further, the industry could have rightfully demanded equal time. However, being that he was being paid with State funds does indeed add a different ingredient into the mix.

    Whether people agree with Pollan’s position and thinking may be moot. But what people might want to take a closer look at is the fact that Pollan, a civil servant working on the faculty at UC Berkeley was charging Cal Poly for making a presentation during the middle of the week when he’s already being paid by the taxpayers of California.

    In the private sector, this is known as double dipping and to many private sector taxpayers is another excellent example of how civil servants and the public sector in general have little regard for those that are actually paying the bills.

    1. He was being paid to educate our campus on an alternative solution to a very big problem, the same way that we pay professors to educate our students. Another reason he came was to RASIE money for our college for SARC, and was successful in raising $40,000, 8x what we paid him. With university professors already not getting paid a great amount and statewide furloughs being implemented this year, are you really complaining that he is is trying to make money to support a good cause on the side? One of the very first things he said is that to properly address problems, we need to evaluate more than one solution. A monoculture of ideas is bound to fail when the situation changes or is headed toward collapse, like our current agribusiness system.

  2. Robert, you bring up a good point, however it is important to not only look at the money that was used to bring Michael Pollan, Dr Gary Smith, or Myra Goodman, but to look at how the event shifted from being an individual speech to a panel. A few weeks after the Pollan’s speech was being advertised on campus, Pollan was offered to be part of a lecture followed by a panel, he denied, he said either one or the other one. Was this triggered by the complaints from alumni and donors?

    Also, Mr Wood’s letter to President Baker regarding how it is that he would like to see a “balanced” content being taught on the university by cutting off Pollan’s time is totally absurd. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that sustainable/holistic/organic agriculture is a minority at the agriculture college, making conventional agriculture the majority of the content that is being currently taught. If Mr Wood would really like to make the content “fair and balanced” then we would need to bring more experts from the sustainable/holistic/organic field.

    Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to see the panel and hear all the different perspectives, however, I do not think it was good enough, it was a nice conversation where ideals were common, such as feeding the world. But the controversy lies in the HOW-TO achieve that. GMOs? Market Control? Freedom? Education? Oil? Solar? Permaculture?

  3. This further proves how our current government, agribusiness, and school system is run by money and not by what makes sense or what is better for the environment. This is exactly what Pollan is trying to show to people/fight against. I think this article is very well written and I hope it causes people to stop and think about exactly how politics and are education are being run ($$money$$)

  4. How, exactly, is hearing different points of view on a controversial subject “limiting free speech”? It encourages more thought on the subject rather than a propaganda speech. Panels should take place with all controversial speakers.

    Also, I find it ironic that they held the fundraiser for Pollan at a winery, probably the most unnecessary form of Agriculture since we do not require alcohol to survive at all….

    1. Awesome solution, William. Now define what a “controversial” speaker is? Is it one that disagrees with your opinions? If so, then ALL of the speakers that come to campus to provide a different perspective should be part of PANELS because we all have different opinions, don’t you think? I really dislike this idea.

  5. For one thing the school wanted the event with Mr. Pollan to be a panel discussion when they first sent him the invitation. I wonder why Pollan wouldn’t want a panel discussion. It couldnt be the fact that in that situation his views would be challenged by people who actually work in the agriculture industry… I personnaly dont understand why people flaunt after Pollan’s ideas yet his background is in Journalism and he has no real experience working in the agricultural industry. I see nothin wrong if people want to follow his ideologies yet it should not be presented in a college setting without having a balanced view of all sides; not simply those that the popular media spew. People have lost touch with their agricultural roots and this distancing is causing a rift which pits more and more people against a system that they don’t understand. It is important for us to adapt our farming techniques to progress forward; however many of the accusations against farmers and ranchers pushes our progress backward. Technologies which have revolutionized the agricultural industry are now being scrutinized by a public who have forgotten the difficulty of procurring ones own food. You never hear the american rancher or farmer being praised for the blood sweat and tears they put into providing you with food. Instead they are constantly beaten down, yet the people who criticize aren’t the ones out there day in and day out working to provide food in the form or fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat. I ask that the students of Cal Poly take the time to look at both sides of an important issue before they jump onto the band wagon of sustainability. Until you understand both sides then you can not constructively attempt to improve it.

    1. Josh,

      I really don’t know what you mean by jumping “onto the band wagon of sustainability”. However, I agree with you, not enough people celebrate farming and ranching, which is essential to survival, and this is part of a bigger issue that surrounds us and that is the disconnection with nature, with our food, with what sustains us.

      I have three questions and a suggestion: How many decades have humans being farming and ranching the conventional way? What triggered conventional farming and ranching? By farming and ranching conventionally, how many years could we afford to keep on doing it with the limited resources (especially water and petroleum) that exist on the Earth? If you have not already done it, please research about permaculture and how soil can be restored through holistic agriculture and ranching.

      We are losing our soils due to poor land management, this includes overpumping of the groundwater, exceeding the amount of nutrients that we can extract from the soil, destroying trees and riparian zones that help keep the water nearby the water streams so that they do not run dry, and much more that I am sure you are aware of. We need to do something soon, and like Dr Gary Smith and Michael Pollan said, ranchers and farmers hold one of the most important keys to survival. They are the ones who hold the land and know how to grow food. However, who holds the knowledge of how to replenish soil?

      1. Sorry Jorge.

        What I meant to say is that it seems that a lot of people tend to jump straight to the buzzword of sustainability without fully understanding it or how to implement it. I find this more to be an issue with the public who isn\’t personally involved in agriculture and tend to throw this word arround as a fix all solution.

  6. If you really think about it, it is a fix-all solution. It is just a really complex. Sustainable development, sustainable design applies holistic approach to design, looking at the materials available, cultural background, needs, consequences, byproducts, and more. However, the word “sustainability” is slowly losing its meaning due to corporate greenwashing and having companies speak about purely environmental sustainability and economic sustainability without address the well-being of the people, equity, social sustainability. When applied to agriculture, it involves the farmer’s well-being, the farm’s neighbors’ well-being, the fish-down-the-stream’s well-being, the consumer’s well-being. What needs to be talked about now is “regeneration”.

    1. I completely agree with your ideas on sustainability.It is the altering of the meaning by corporate greenwashing that I tend to adress when I talk about sustainability. I guess I need to try and be more clear when I talk about it. Its comforting to see that there are others who can think about this issue in a clear way that doesnt seek the agenda of the enviromentalists while sacrificing the livlihood of farmer/ranchers or vice versa. And what exactly do you mean by “regeneration”?

      1. I say regeneration because we need to replenish our soils, therefore we need to create more and more healthy soils so that we can provide for our peoples. Sustainability is something that goes on indefinitely, does not vary much, not ups, not highs. We have taken a lot from this earth, fresh water, fresh topsoil, old-growth forests, oil, animals, bugs, plants, etc. And it is time to give back.

        By regeneration I mean designing systems that create more than what they take in. Breaking it down, it would be to design systems in which its elements have several functions, not just one specific one. This system ideally would have at least two elements that have one function in similar. This way, in case that one element fails, you have a back up.

        It is all about looking at things from a little different perspective. Take an orange tree for example. What does it need to grow? Sunlight, water, good soil, pollinators. What does it provide? Shelter for birds/bugs, flowers for pollinators (bees), shade for animals/humans, fuel (wood/oranges), oxygen, traps water vapor through its leaves (so a mode of water harvesting), keeps soil together through its roots (preventing soil erosion), traps CO2, if grafted it can provide several types of citruses, and many other uses.

        This 5-min youtube video shows regeneration at its best: Greening the Desert http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sohI6vnWZmk

  7. First, I agree that it would have been nice to see Pollan speak without a “hastily assembled panel”. However, I feel that President Baker made an appropriate decision given a difficult situation to make a suitable compromise. I think that students and faculty are given even more of a chance to formulate their own opinions when presented with controversial topics if we are exposed to a panel of viewpoints and ideas. It should be noted that the donation from David Wood is still being considered, so the panel may not have solved the problem entirely. Regardless of his decision, it’s a red herring fallacy to bring up the hypothetical notion that President Baker is quieting other donors by changing the agenda of other programs on campus. This is irrelevant to the argument and is speculation at most.

    1. Jenn,

      In general, the panel needed to happen. Yes. Specifically for Cal Poly? I do not think so. Students at Cal Poly are already getting their share of knowledge from the conventional agriculture side. Correct? What is the percentage of sustainable agricultural classes compared to those of conventional agriculture? Specifically, no clue, but we all know it is small.

      If this is the case, then we need more people like Michael Pollan and Dr Rutherford to provide the balance that Mr. Wood and President Baker speak about so that we can offer a nicely balanced curriculum so that students can make up their own minds based on the exchange of knowledge shared through learning about failures and successful from all sides of the issues.

      How is limiting the minority’s time to express its knowledge good for the students to formulate their own decisions if they do not know what that knowledge is? In case that everyone knew as much about sustainable agriculture as they knew about conventional agriculture, then yes, we need PANELS, but we don’t! We are already exposed to one side. It is time to expose the other one!

  8. While the article has good points and was written for a good reason there are a few problems with it.
    First is that this article contains circle reasoning. You constantly claim it was wrong, and then just circle back and forth without giving much substance to any of it.
    now you also generalize the situation very quickly.. yes there was the issue of agricultural sponsors pulling out completely, yet you do not take time to link the sponsor’s money to how it would affect Cal Poly. Cal Poly is an ag school, for that money to be taken away from one of its main colleges would be devastating. President Baker was stuck between a rock and a hard place and I think that he made the best choice considering the circumstances.

    thank you.

  9. Emilie,

    Your arguement uses logical fallacies. It is a hasty generalization to say that just because Baker allegedly changed the plan for the speaker this one time that he has done so as with regularity in the past. It is also a red herring to bring that up, as speculation over past wrongdoing has no bearing on the current argument.

  10. After attending the Pollan event, one thing seems amiss in the post-event finger pointing. This conflict is not about who minds or doesn’t mind what format. This is about minutes at the podium. A panel discussion is not an indepth presentation of a nationally-recognized advocate’s position or research. Pollan wasn’t censored. He just wasn’t allowed to offer a full meal of his work.
    Instead of a coherent presentation on issues confronting sustainability in agriculture, we got a talk show.

    We are Cal Poly parents. We pay for three Cal Poly students’ tuition and books. This academic year, we are being asked to pay more tuition even as class time is reduced due to professor furloughs. We “parent donors” continue to support Cal Poly as part of a shared responsibility to bridge tough times. Many students, including ours, must stay longer than four years at Cal Poly because they can’t get coursework….costing not only extra years of tuition, but more room and board.

    So you can imagine that parents such as ourselves are not pleased when a large single donor is allowed to “burn books” in a year when educational opportunities are at a premium. President Baker can box excuses in all sorts of wrapping paper, tell us who was where and when, but what happened was preventable by offering additional forums.

    Michael Pollan was hired for a sizable speaking fee to present a full body of his ideas. The students and community were short-changed. And yes, parents were paying attention.


    Paula Lowe
    Cal Poly parent

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