Louisiana State University is firing a leading hurricane scientist who was scheduled to testify as an expert witness in a case against the Army Corps of Engineers for their pre-Katrina work in New Orleans. Ivor van Heerden, who had been deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center, says the school’s former president, previously a Bush appointee, had earlier threatened to fire him if he testified.
Tenure exists, we are told, to protect the expression of views that are unpopular with the powerful. This is another case where the person who needed the protection of tenure didn’t have it. LSU was able to fire van Heerden because he is an untenured Associate Research Professor.
Van Heerden was the leader of "Team Louisiana," the official independent state-funded investigation of the Katrina flooding. That panel found that the levee failures reflected poor design, bad science and shoddy engineering on the part of the Corps. The Bush Administration had held the levee failures were an "act of God."
When van Heerden was first asked to testify in spring 2007, he said in an interview Sunday with Harry Shearer on KCRW’s "Le Show," LSU’s then-president, Sean O’Keefe, told plaintiffs’ attorneys that if van Heerden testified against the Corps he would be fired. O’Keefe had been appointed to high offices by both Presidents Bush – George W. Bush named him head of NASA in 2001, and George H. W. Bush had named him acting Secretary of the Air Force in 1992.
According to van Heerden, the LSU president said that "nobody from LSU was going to embarrass the Bush administration or upset the major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts."
The school has refused to comment on the firing, citing employee confidentiality as the reason. They did give van Heerden a terminal year – his employment will end in May 2010.
The Director of the LSU Hurricane Center, engineering professor Marc Levitan, resigned from that post in protest over the firing of van Heerden. "For someone who has done so much for LSU and the state, this is uncalled for," he told Marc Schleifstein, the Pulitzer-Prize winning environmental reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.