Organizations are pushing back against Miami University in Ohio after a plant put two tenured faculty members’ jobs at risk.
In December, Miami University Provost Phyllis Callahan suspended tenured Professors John Cinnamon and Daniel Gladish. Months later, they were informed their positions could be terminated, causing an uproar from the academic community.
Cinnamon and Gladish’s employment was called into question after the Miami University Police Department and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) found an Iboga tree in the Hamilton Campus Conservatory. Native to Gabon, Africa, the alkaloid ibogaine occurs naturally in the shrub and, in large doses, can induce a psychedelic state. The Iboga tree had actually been on campus grounds for more than a decade, but came to the attention of authorities after a student claimed to have taken seeds to cultivate a plant off campus.
Cinnamon, the university claimed in the suspension letters, illegally imported Iboga seeds from Gabon in 2004 and gave them to Gladish for the purpose of growing the tree in the conservatory. This violated the Drug-Free Workplace policy and the Reporting and Addressing Illegal Activity and Misconduct policy, which were grounds for termination. Neither Cinnamon nor Gabon have been charged with any crimes.
Ibogaine is classified by the DEA as a Schedule I drug, meaning it currently has no accepted medical use and has a high potential for abuse. Ibogaine is illegal to possess, but it’s unclear if there are restrictions on the iboga plant as well.
“Many plants have active drugs and the drugs are controlled substances; however, the plants aren’t, so it gets complicated legally,” Cornell University Professor William Crepet told Newsweek. Crepet noted that opium poppies are legal, but opium isn’t.
While the university claimed possession of the plant was reason enough to terminate Cinnamon and Gladish, the American Anthropological Association called the decision “overly harsh and inappropriate.” Executive Director Ed Liebow told Newsweek the school should have withheld discipline, issued a reprimand or provided training to improve custodial practices.
“Instead of placing arbitrary restrictions on conservatory holdings, we should be making sure that conservatories are sensibly and knowledgeably curated,” Liebow said.
The American Anthropological Association sent a letter to Miami University President Gregory Crawford advocating for the university to reconsider its decision. The Miami University AAUP also vocalized support for the professors and an online petition had over 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Along with professional and personal repercussions for Cinnamon and Gladish, Liebow told Newsweek Miami University’s decision could have a “chilling effect” on other researchers pursuing ethnobotanical research.
“This is not just ivory tower research for research sake; the potential payoffs in terms of cultural heritage preservation and sustainable tropical forest practices are substantive,” Liebow said. “We all lose when misunderstandings lead to the imposition of arbitrary limits on scholarly inquiry that can help protect threatened cultural heritage and the environmental conditions that sustain its preservation.”
Since it’s not feasible for every researcher to travel to West Africa, Liebow said the most suitable approach was to establish conservatories where key specimens can be studied and preserved for future work.
Crepet said a crackdown on what can and can’t be studied would violate academic freedom. Still, the case will cause a “heightened awareness” of these issues and other schools will take a “hard look” to make sure nothing controversial is growing.
“They won’t want a repeat of this kind of thing … Everyone’s going to be extremely careful,” Crepet explained. “Then again, I think most administrations wouldn’t handle the situation the way that administration did.”
The iboga plant isn’t commonplace for campus conservatories, however, it is found at the University of California–Davis and the University of Colorado, according to the Miami University AAUP.
Miami University communications director Claire Wagner refuted the idea that the school didn’t value teaching and research, calling it the “heart” of its academic mission. Wagner said the school fully supports the endeavors of its faculty and staff but expects them to comply with university policies and local, state and federal law.
In accordance with the university’s process, Cinnamon and Gladish will have the opportunity to present their case at a hearing in the fall and official decisions on termination won’t be made until after the meeting. Conservatory manager Brian Grubb resigned under pressure after the plant’s discovery.