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Sunday
Apr102011

A Family's Experience with Oregon State University

In 1980, scientists Art and Laurelee Robinson moved their growing family to southern Oregon and, with the help of their colleagues, including Nobel Laureate Bruce Merrifield and the discoverer of carbon 14, Martin Kamen, established the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine.

This Institute today carries out research in physical chemistry, biochemistry, and medicine in continuation of the work that Art (a graduate of Caltech) and Laurelee (a graduate of Seattle Pacific University) did together over a 17-year period during which Art served on the faculty of the University of California at San Diego; as President and Research director of the Linus Pauling Institute, which Robinson and Pauling cofounded in 1973; and as President of their new  Oregon Institute.

In 1988, however, Laurelee Robinson died at the age of 43. when their six children Zachary, Noah, Arynne, Joshua, Bethany, and Matthew were ages 12, 10, 8, 6, 6 years and 18 months old, respectively.

Nevertheless, in the subsequent years and with the help of many colleagues and friends, this conservative, home schooled, Christian family thrived and the Institute continued its work.

In addition to their scientific research, the Robinson family is today known for their work on American civil defense; their Robinson home school curriculum, which is used by about 60,000 home schooled students in the U.S; their publication of more than 100 children’s books; their publication of more than 400 recorded performances of the great gospel singer George Beverly Shea; and their publication of the newsletter Access to Energy – a publication that they inherited 19 years ago from scientist Petr Beckman, who founded it 39 years ago. Access to Energy was founded on free market principles, and has been one of the foremost advocates of free enterprise and of nuclear energy for 39 years.

During their university years, the Robinson children excelled in science, with five of them earning BS degrees in chemistry and one in mathematics and three of those degrees being earned in only two years. Subsequently, Zachary and Arynne earned doctorates in veterinary medicine at Iowa State University and Noah earned a PhD in chemistry from Caltech.

When, in 2006, Joshua and Bethany decided to earn PhD degrees, the family’s long interest in nuclear energy and the proximity of Oregon State University’s outstanding graduate program in nuclear engineering were a natural choice. This OSU department was especially interesting to the Robinsons because it was chaired by José Reyes, who, with his colleagues, was laying the foundation for a great resurgence in nuclear power development by means of small, modular, assembly-line produced nuclear power plants.

Reyes’s vision has the potential to make Oregon the center of this new industry, which will probably see the investment of more than $1 trillion in capital during the next decade. Handled properly, this opportunity could cause OSU and the entire state of Oregon to thrive economically more than ever before.

One would have expected OSU to seize this extraordinary opportunity and its nuclear engineering department to become a world center for 21st Century energy production. With Reyes at its head and the outstanding engineers who would have flocked to OSU from all over the world, there is little that these scientists and engineers could not have accomplished.

Unfortunately, another path was taken. When Reyes founded NuScale Power in Corvallis as the corporate entity for this work, OSU distanced itself from this enterprise, except for licensing agreements that will benefit OSU if it succeeds. Reyes himself, deemed by the university to have a “conflict of interest” since he was involved in an industrial activity, was put on leave of absence, and a transfer of control of the OSU nuclear engineering department (formally called the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics) to academics who are not even nuclear engineers was completed.

At present, Professor Kathryn Higley is department chairperson, her husband Instructor Steven Reese is radiation center director, and Professor David Hamby is chairman of the graduate committee – all health physics professionals whose primary interests are other than nuclear energy. Still, the department faculty contains some good nuclear engineers, and an ordinary academic education in this subject is available.

Meanwhile, the Robinson twins, Joshua and Bethany, were thriving. With GPAs of 3.49 and 3.89, high ability, and a strong work ethic, their work was greatly respected and their futures seemed bright. In 2009, they were joined by their younger brother Matthew, who also entered the PhD program in nuclear engineering. Matthew turned down an offer of $57,000 per year from the MIT graduate school in preference for OSU.

Bethany was especially unusual. A brilliant and hard working young woman, she would become one the very few woman PhDs in nuclear engineering in the United States.

The PhD degree is based upon classroom performance, examination performance, and research work – combined in an individual with a high work ethic. In all of these categories, the Robinson students excelled, so their future was bright.

Joshua began research work under Assistant Professor Michael Hartman, and together they developed and built a Prompt Gamma Neutron Activation Analysis Facility, a spectrometer that uses the OSU nuclear reactor as a source of neutrons for unique analytical work. Joshua’s building of this machine received an OSU award; and Joshua, still mentored by Hartman, began collaborations in its use with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA, and the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. Joshua now requires about one more year of work with this spectrometer to complete his PhD work.

Bethany, on the basis of her outstanding undergraduate record, received an excellent OSU fellowship. She, too, wanted do her PhD work under Hartman, who had directed her first experiences in research as she carried out calculations for the OSU reactor refueling project. Professor Todd Palmer, however, told Bethany that it would not look good for her and her brother to have the same advisor and also that he would give her a mathematical calculation problem that could be used for both her MS and PhD degrees, so she could finish her PhD more quickly. He also repeatedly told her that she was his best student.

Since Bethany likes and is very skilled in mathematical work and she wanted to complete her PhD as soon as possible, she accepted Palmer’s offer.

When Matthew later arrived, he began research work under Professor Jack Higginbotham, who, in addition to being a 24-year veteran of the OSU faculty, is President of the OSU Faculty Senate and director of the Oregon Space Grant Consortium, a large OSU NASA program. Matthew’s research under Professor Higginbotham involves conceptual and design work involving the use of nuclear propulsion for unmanned exploration vehicles in far outer space.

Unknown to Joshua, Bethany, Matthew, and Professor Higginbotham, however, their idyllic situation at OSU was soon to become instead an unprecedented academic nightmare.

The first slight sign of trouble brushed gently against Joshua one afternoon when he was walking through the entryway of the department radiation center. As he passed, a man who had been looking over the student photos on the front hall wall said to the secretary, “I understand that Art Robinson has kids in this department.” She replied, “Why yes, there is Joshua Robinson now.” Joshua smiled, but the man returned his smile instead with an unfriendly stare and then stalked out of the building.

More seriously, even though Bethany was doing excellent work for Palmer, he was directing her research work down many dead ends. He was also giving her many substantial things to do that, contrary to ordinary academic practice, he said could not be included in her graduate thesis. Moreover, he also used her to do many personal chores for him.

Palmer was, however, in the process of divorcing his wife who is a faculty member of another OSU department and then marrying medical physics Assistant Professor Camille Lodwick. Bethany attributed the difficulties to Palmer’s personal troubles and just worked harder. Later, Palmer and Lodwick purchased the Bombs Away Café and Bar across the street from OSU, which caused an additional distraction.

At one point, Palmer’s misdirection halted the work for 8 months, and Bethany became very concerned. Contrary to their agreement, Palmer, who is a long time associate of department chairwoman Kathryn Higley, was not allowing Bethany to write up her ongoing work as an MS thesis, which would permit Bethany to take her PhD qualifying exams. On several occasions, as the months and then years passed, Palmer promised to do this, but then each time broke his promise. Bethany’s solution was to just keep working and let her work speak for itself. Yet, time dragged on, while Palmer completely broke the promises he had originally made to Bethany.

In addition, the Robinsons are conservative Christian home schooled students. Some members of the OSU faculty value this background, but it is quite different from that favored by many other OSU faculty and administrators. So, while most people were apparently friendly to the Robinsons, some viewed them differently.

While these things were disappointing, the students’ prospects still seemed bright. The arrival of Joshua and his wife Fama’s third little boy and Matthew’s appearance at OSU and his subsequent GPA of 3.91 buoyed everyone’s spirits.

There was, however, a large looming shadow over these three students in the person of their father, Art Robinson. Art deliberately had essentially no contact with OSU during these years, in order to avoid any inference that he was involved in their educations, but his professional activities elsewhere were inadvertently creating a very serious problem for Joshua, Bethany, and Matthew.

Art Robinson is best known in science for his pioneering biochemical research work on the amide molecular clocks that are built into almost all protein molecules, work that has been brilliantly extended by his son Noah Robinson. In addition, Art is known for originating and carrying out much of the original work in the field of metabolic profiling, which is now a large part of the discipline known as “metabolomics.” This work involves the quantitative measurement of human health and disease by means of the quantitative analysis of biochemical patterns that are imprinted in the amounts of thousands of metabolic substances that can be measured in human breath, blood, urine, and tissues.

Art has, however, occasionally turned partially aside from his research work to do things with political implications.

First of these diversions was when Art, Laurelee, and Art’s teacher and then colleague Linus Pauling founded a research institute together that became known as the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Menlo Park, California. Art was the President and Research Director of that institute. The institute was founded to carry out basic research and applied medical research entirely independently from tax-based funding, which often prevents scientists from pursuing promising studies that are not approved by the government. Pauling and Robinson found that their work together on preventive medicine was hampered in this way, so they both resigned their university positions and built an institute entirely independent of government funding.

The Pauling Institute was very controversial, and it became even more controversial when Pauling and Robinson ended their 15 years of work together (during which they co-published many research papers ranging from nuclear physics to nutrition) in a disagreement over the effects of nutrition on the growth rate of cancer. Now located on the OSU campus, the Pauling Institute still has one administrator who played a counterproductive role in the Pauling-Robinson disagreement, so Art’s reputation in that OSU department has suffered accordingly.

Second, during the Cold War, Art and Laurelee worked with the Reagan Administration to build political and public support for civil defense. They built an 8,000 member national organization devoted to this goal, and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Senate in this undertaking, which had then as it has today important humanitarian and political implications. When Laurelee died, FEMA memorialized her in its annual report, which was an indication of the national value of this work.

This project, however, earned Art the ire of left-wing organizations such as the Physicians for Social Responsibility, which argued that civil defense protection for Americans should not be built because it would allegedly lead Americans, knowing that they had some physical protection, to be more prone to start a nuclear war. As a result of this, Art is not liked by those liberal academics who favored the anti-civil defense view.

Third, and far more controversial, is Art’s work, in collaboration with his sons Zachary and Noah and scientists at Harvard and Rockefeller University, in opposition on scientific grounds to the use of the hypothesis of human-caused global warming as a driver of public energy policy. In the course of this work, the Robinsons circulated a petition urging the U.S. Congress not to make public policy on the basis of this scientifically flawed hypothesis – a petition that has been signed by more than 32,000 Americans with university degrees in physical science, including more than 9,000 PhDs.

Prominent members of the OSU Atmospheric Sciences division, which has a program that depends upon the human-caused global warming hypothesis for financial support, are, therefore, not pleased with Art Robinson’s activities, which have played a significant role in this national debate.

Fourth, however, and dwarfing the first three controversial activities, Art and his family decided to oppose 12-term incumbent Democrat Peter DeFazio, who is very popular among OSU faculty and administrators, in the Oregon District 4 Congressional campaign in 2010. Art garnered 44% of the vote in this first try, including majority votes in the rural counties of District 4, and came closer to defeating DeFazio than has anyone else in previous elections. Art has announced that he will run for this congressional position again in 2012.

During the campaign, Phil Mote in the atmospheric sciences division used the OSU email system to lobby against Art; David Hamby and Kathryn Higley had DeFazio in for a VIP visit to the nuclear engineering department (even though DeFazio is a virulent opponent of nuclear energy); and OSU President Ray staged a publicized visit on the campus with DeFazio shortly before the election and refused to meet with Robinson. This is perhaps unsurprising, since DeFazio and the other Oregon Democrat congressmen sent a reported $27 million in earmark funding to OSU during the last legislative cycle, and Robinson opposes all earmark funding.

The university is not supposed to be used for the purpose of supporting political candidates, but Robinson ignored this obvious support for DeFazio by OSU. He simply stayed away from OSU and campaigned in the surrounding county. Most OSU employees and many students live in District 4, although OSU itself is not in the district.

Nevertheless, politics is politics, and, in his desperation to keep his congressional seat, DeFazio, in a million dollar media blitz, painted Art as a nutcase who plans to promote racism; put radioactive waste in Oregon drinking water; end social security payments; close the public schools; help Wall Street destroy Oregon jobs, end all taxation of energy company executives; receives campaign funds from money launderers and drug dealers; and lives in a “survivalist compound” on social security.

While these ridiculous false claims proved mostly a source of amusement to voters who were well informed, they didn’t improve Art Robinson’s already diminished image on the OSU campus.

Yet, Art’s reputation and the antics of his opponent should not have affected the academic situation of Joshua, Bethany, and Matthew, whose course work, examination, and research performance in their PhD programs was exemplary. Unfortunately, they apparently did.

It is very likely that, had Art not run against DeFazio and then announced that he would run against him again, the Robinson students would all eventually have received PhD degrees in nuclear engineering from OSU, without unusual difficulty.

Immediately after the November 2 election results were known and partially based on unprincipled administrative maneuvers that began during the campaign, actions were taken to prevent the Robinson students from receiving PhD degrees from OSU regardless of their academic, examination, and research performance.

The first moves involved a written and then oral PhD qualifying examination to be taken by Joshua Robinson. Professor David Hamby, a former Corvallis City Council member who made no secret of his strong political opposition to Art Robinson, took control of the written examination, even though OSU catalogue rules precluded him from doing so. Hamby then improperly rigged the examination process.

Nevertheless, Joshua scored a conditional pass on the written exam, requiring an oral exam to clear the condition. When an attempt to prevent the oral exam failed, Hamby and Kathryn Higley then attempted to rig the oral exam by changing the composition of the exam committee – removing nuclear engineer Jack Higginbotham and replacing him with health physics Assistant Professor Abi Farsoni, a former Hamby student who is in the unfortunate position that he depends upon Hamby for all aspects of his professional status.

This too failed. Joshua ultimately easily passed the oral exam.

The exam rigging did, however, cause an explosion in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. Professor Jack Higginbotham, with 24 years of experience at OSU and privy to not only these actions but other shenanigans directed toward the Robinson students had seen enough. First, he complained to Kathryn Higley, who responded by ordering him not to speak to Art Robinson.

Ignoring her orders, Professor Higginbotham told Joshua and then Art Robinson details of the maneuvers by a few faculty administrators within the department, which were intended to see that Joshua and then Bethany never received PhDs from OSU, with Matthew likely to follow. 

The result was an immediate attack by these same people on Professor Higginbotham whose career, regardless of the fact that he has been a distinguished member of the OSU faculty for 24 years, is President of the OSU Faculty Senate, and is director of a large NASA program at OSU, now hangs by a thread, with attorneys that Professor Higginbotham has personally hired trying to protect his salary and save as much as possible of his career. This attack was solely the result of Professor Higginbotham’s efforts to help the Robinson students.

Subject since then to unethical persecution, from a Star Chamber humiliation before the department faculty to an ongoing effort to fire him from the department, Professor Higginbotham has not wavered from his principled actions on behalf of the Robinson students and has, as a result, put his entire career at risk.

Meanwhile, Professor Higley and her husband, Instructor Reese, moved on to a new scheme intended to prevent Joshua from finishing his PhD work. Joshua’s mentor was Assistant Professor Michael Hartman, under whose direction Joshua had built the neutron spectrometer now attached to the OSU nuclear reactor. When, however, Hartman moved to the University of Michigan, he continued to mentor Joshua, while Instructor Reese, department chairperson Higley’s husband, was listed as Joshua’s nominal OSU advisor in order to satisfy university rules.

Reese now issued orders, without Joshua’s knowledge, barring Joshua from access to the reactor bay in which his equipment is located. Appearing one day for work, Joshua was informed by the reactor control operator that he had orders not to permit Joshua to enter the room where his spectrometer is located. Those orders remain in effect today, so Joshua’s experimental work necessary to completing his PhD thesis has been stopped.

Instructor Reese also terminated Joshua’s funding, even though Reese had agreed to fund Joshua through the end of his PhD work in return for experiments that Joshua carried out for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. OSU was paid by PNNL for this work, which Joshua completed.

Reese’s wife, Professor Higley, in support of these actions and in her capacity as department chairperson, sent Joshua two letters ordering him to form an entirely new graduate committee and to propose an entirely new graduate research program, thus abandoning his previous three years of effort.

Moreover, when Joshua and Noah met with Instructor Reese, he informed them that he was bringing in two graduate students to take over Joshua’s apparatus and research work. In effect, Higley handed all of Joshua’s work in progress and his apparatus to her husband, for his own professional use.

Meanwhile, a vicious campaign of defamation has been spread in the department falsely accusing Joshua of all sorts of things and even attempting to associate him with the perceived transgressions of his father as falsely painted by DeFazio, including the outrageous claim that Joshua is a racist.

Joshua, like Professor Higginbotham, is now represented by an attorney. While Joshua could easily win a lawsuit against OSU, that is not presently his goal. He came to OSU to earn a PhD, not to win a lawsuit. The attorney is attempting to convince OSU to stop these actions, which are obviously intended to prevent the award of Joshua’s PhD.

Meanwhile, even worse actions were taken against Bethany Robinson.

Immediately after the election, Bethany was informed by email by Professor Palmer that he was taking away the research project that she has worked on for more than three years. This would mean that Bethany would never receive a PhD from OSU, regardless of her almost five years of excellent work.

Palmer stated that he was taking this action because Bethany had worked on her dad’s political campaign instead of carrying out the calculation projects that he had given her to do. In fact, Bethany had not only worked on those projects, but had completed every one of them. For this reason, she had worked very little on the campaign. Confronted by this, Professor Palmer backed off, but not for long.

Subsequently, he sent Bethany a sequence of three letters all containing a demand and deadlines. He threatened that, if she did not comply with the deadlines, he would withdraw as her advisor, leaving her with no graduate degree whatever and five years of lost efforts. Palmer made it clear, in several communications, that he would try to prevent her from using any of her work with him in a graduate thesis if he withdrew.

In these letters, Palmer demanded that she choose (before the deadline) between two alternatives, an ME degree based only on her course work, with no credit whatever for her research, or an MS degree based on all of her research and composed in such a way that none of that work would count toward a PhD. If she wanted a PhD, she would need to essentially start over. He also advised her to drop the courses that she was then taking because those courses would only be of value to a PhD degree.

In these letters, Palmer also set a deadline for the submission of her MS thesis that was so short that it would be impossible for Bethany to comply, thereby forcing her to take an ME degree, which would automatically remove her from the graduate school.

Bethany, therefore, engaged the same attorney as Joshua, who replied to Palmer’s last, 24-hour emailed threat. As a consequence, Bethany is now in limbo, not taking her courses and still, in a highly demoralized state, inching forward with her research.

Bethany has been told by Palmer’s department faculty friends that, if she does not comply with his demands, she will be dismissed from OSU with no graduate degree whatever. She also has been told that Joshua is to be dismissed, so that there is certainly no hope for her in resistance.

It is not surprising that this talented, hard working student who formerly was on track to become a PhD in nuclear engineering is confused and emotionally exhausted. Her family is alarmed and very worried about her. Palmer’s goal has been to demoralize Bethany and, by means of threats, to force her to give up her dream of a PhD – a graduate degree that she has almost earned.

From the time of Professor Higginbotham’s warning in early December and extending to early March, Art Robinson abandoned his previous policy of noninvolvement in his children’s educations at OSU and worked to advise them and to act within OSU and out of public view in an effort to stop these unprincipled actions.

Two weeks before the end of the winter term, however, Art learned conclusively that these efforts had failed.

First, Art learned of Instructor Reese’s statement to Joshua and Noah that he was bringing in two other students to take over Joshua’s apparatus and research.

Second, Art learned that Dr. Hartman, who had been wonderfully supportive of Joshua throughout this ordeal, had, after visiting the department and presumably speaking with Hamby, Higley, and Reese, entirely changed his opinion and spoken to Joshua very pessimistically about his professional future.

Third, Art learned that Professor Higginbotham, on a visit to Washington, D.C. in connection with the NASA program he directs, had been asked by officials there about the continuation of the program in view of his likely dismissal. To inform a scientist’s funding agency about such a possibility is very damaging to his relations with the agency, so this indicated that Professor Higginbotham’s dismissal, too, was imminent.

There was only one defensive action that Art Robinson could still take. He could inform the public about these antics by public employees at OSU, in the hopes that they would intervene.

Art met with Dean Adams at OSU and asked one final time that Hamby, Higley, Reese, and Palmer be required to cease their prejudicial actions and allow Professor Higginbotham, Joshua, Bethany, and Matthew (who was now at risk because Professor Higginbotham is his thesis professor) to resume their ordinary professional activities at OSU under the usual OSU rules and without extraordinary impediments. The Dean agreed to ask his superiors. He presumably did this, but to no avail.

So, Art wrote a summary article about this affair, which was published on the Internet. He then sent links to the article to his email list. The result has been thousands of public inquiries to OSU, inquiries to OSU by many responsible organizations, and efforts by OSU alumni to induce OSU officials to act. So far, all of these efforts have been stonewalled by OSU President Ray and the people who work for him.

One alumni group has even offered fellowships to the three students to complete their PhDs and has also offered to pay all legal costs involved in a meeting between OSU attorneys, Professor Higginbotham’s attorneys, and Joshua and Bethany’s attorneys to negotiate an end to this problem. These alumni have also been stonewalled, with no response from President Ray, Professor Higley, or other OSU officials.

There has been no abatement of the unprincipled actions against Joshua, Bethany, and Professor Higginbotham at OSU. As things currently stand, regardless of the best efforts of many people, the Robinson students are unable to complete their PhD work and Professor Higginbotham’s career is on the verge of ruin – solely because he took action to try to save these students and risked his own career in the process.

Art Robinson
April 10, 2011

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