Locked Out

Saier — known for being a liberal unafraid to speak his mind or disagree with administrators — alleges that his lab was closed due to personal problems and age discrmination. The department cites safety violations. But admist the squabble, the real victims are the students whose labwork and education has been disrupted.

Just before break, Saier’s lab was subjected to the first of two unannounced lap inspections. The first, a routine inspection, yielded five violations. The second — conducted just two weeks later in much greater detail, and without notification or inquiry and without assistance from lab members, as is standard practice — yielded 27 violations.

The Environmental, Health and Safety office said the lab closure was due to safety violations and the fact that Saier — who’s known to take on more undergrad researchers than his peers — had accepted too many students to his lab.

But Saier says he believes the lab was closed due to the personal biases of biological sciences associate dean Richard Firtel rather than actual safety violations If Saier’s allegations are true, his lab shut-down would be a violation of university policy.

Saier also cites his age as a motive for his lab closure. According to Saier, several faculty members have seen enough discrimination against aging professors that they generalize the behavior. Four years beyond the retirement age, though, Saier said he’s not planning to give up his mantle anytime soon.

Though we can’t say for sure that the lab closure can be attributed to petty differences among faculty members, it’s all too clear that it wasn’t communicated properly. And while that kind of oversight can probably be expected in the realm of administrative politics, the exponential jump in violations from five to 27 —including violations Saier claims were repeated or added without follow-up during the second inspection — make it seem likely that they were used to force out a professor who is considered uncontrollable to some administrators.

Firtel has said that the biology department does not have confidence in Saier and UCSD Science Communications director Kim McDonald cited “safety and quality of education” as the underlying reasons for closure of Saier’s lab.

But if the biology department were seriously concerned with students’ quality of education, it wouldn’t have eliminated the research opportunities in Saier’s lab. Following the second inspection on Dec. 15, all approved research credit applications for Saier’s lab were cancelled without notice.

Whatever issues may exist among Saier and his colleagues, students shouldn’t be the ones to pay the price. One of UCSD’s main attractions for biology undergrads, after all, is the possibility of conducting research, which is a crucial element of the major.

As a result, students taking or planning to take the course were not able to start  research projects, which are essential for obtaining a master’s degree or applying to graduate school. Up to 30 didn’t receive the credit they expected this quarter, and will have to re-apply for another BISP 199 course, potentially setting them back by up to a year.

In addition to undergrads, graduate researchers who were already working on experiments had to cancel their projects, losing valuable data and disrupting time.

Now, the lab — with less manpower — has to get back in gear to return to full capacity. It’s a troubling matter that could have been prevented all along, given clearer communication. While some details remain too murky to make definitive judgments, the closure of Saier’s lab comes at the expense of both students and campus research. So much for all that safe, quality education.